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2012 December 10 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Auditors Urge End of Advance Word for NC Community Colleges

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s top auditor said that the country’s third-largest community college system should stop tipping off campus administrators weeks before a record check is coming.

A report by state auditor Beth Wood’s office found records at Durham Technical Community College were altered or forged, and missing forms created, ahead of a double-check into how many students were enrolled in 2010.

The head count determines how much funding for teaching that community colleges get. The Durham school got $17.4 million in instructional funds in the most recent budget year that ended this June.

State auditors blamed two former Durham Tech employees for fudging the records, but also said the 58-campus community college system’s central office should quit giving campuses two-week notices of which courses will get headcounts.

The community system’s own auditors have long complained of “colleges altering course file documentation prior to submitting the files to auditors for review,” Wood’s office said.

In 2009, the community colleges governing board added a warning “prohibiting any changes to documentation” to the letter pinpointing where auditors will look to confirm student enrollment, Wood’s office said. But campuses continue to get advance notice that auditors are coming, and are urged to iron out shortcomings in the files to be examined.

“The current policy still allows colleges to perform a ‘pre-audit’ of selected files to obtain missing forms and organize the files prior to submitting files to auditors,” Wood’s office said. “The practice is intended to allow college personnel the opportunity to organize files and gather missing documents before they are submitted to auditors for review.”

But the practice — along with allowing colleges to add to course enrollment files after community college auditors have reviewed them — has confused college employees and inhibited the system administrators “from evaluating a ‘true’ representation of course files.”

Community college system president R. Scott Ralls said in a letter responding to the findings that campuses are given advance notice of which enrollment records will be checked because of a lack of “an integrated system of electronic records.” A colleges spokeswoman could not clarify what Ralls meant.

The former registrar at Durham Tech said she altered or created around 30 documents out of the 150 course files selected for review, Wood’s office said. The woman said she felt pressure from her boss, a campus vice president, to produce a good report after the school was forced to repay $22,437 the previous year because of improper documentation.

Both Durham Tech employees have since left the school.

Whistleblowers alerted both Wood’s office and Durham Tech’s trustees, who received anonymous letters in September 2011. That led the school to call in auditors, who found only “minor discrepancies” in some records, Durham Tech President William Ingram said in a letter responding to the auditors’ findings

Campus spokeswoman Carver Weaver said she would not describe why the two college employees left — they weren’t named in the state report — or why the state auditor’s office found altered course files when the community college system’s auditors did not. The school said in a statement the community college system’s review did not include interviews with former employees, perhaps explaining why the auditor’s finding didn’t surface sooner.

“The college’s senior leadership was unaware of such actions,”Ingram stated in his response letter.

Ralls said a committee will consider its practice of giving advance notice.

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