How Easy Is It to Change A Transcript? You Decide!
by Silence Dogood

“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” Czeslaw Milosz (Polish Poet)

The discovery by faculty of transcript adulterations, where a student’s record of registration is removed from their academic transcript, was brought to the attention of the administration at a meeting on May 2, 2012 [Provost Malhotra, Registrar Sue Bayerl, Associate Provost John Palmer, Special Assistant to the Provost Phil Godding, FA President Mark Jaede, FA President-Elect Susan Hubbs, and Academic Affairs Committee Chair Jack McKenna were present].

The transcript adulterations were initially discovered because the chemistry department had recently instituted a policy where a student taking a class for the third time needs to have permission from the instructor to advance register for the course. During registration in the spring of 2012, two chemistry faculty were reviewing the enrollment for an upcoming fall organic chemistry course. They recognized a student who was enrolled that each of the faculty thought each had failed and they wondered how the student could have registered without prior faculty approval. A review of the student’s transcript showed that the student’s enrollment in organic chemistry in the Fall of 2011 was erased (none of the other classes the student had been taking that semester were removed). The faculty member has a copy of the grade roster submitted to the Office of Records and Registration showing that the student had received a grade of F in the course so this is a mater of fact not just the recollection of a professor.

What is important to note is that this adulteration was done without the knowledge of the professor. The use of the term adulteration may seem harsh. But removing the registration of a student from a class they attended and for which they received a final grade at it’s completion without including the faculty member in the decision process is unethical and compromises the integrity of the grading process.

Data was presented at the May 2nd meeting by John Palmer, which showed almost an exponential growth in the incidence of such “drops,” later called “poofs” by Provost Malhotra at a Meet and Confer meeting, increasing from 14 in FY07 to an anticipated 490* in FY12. Please note that the plot shows only 368 for FY12 but this number reflects data for only 9 months (calculation of the anticipated total was made by the author). Including the estimate of the number of drops in the missing three months increases the number of drops (assuming a constant rate of drops) to a total of 490. If the number of drops increases at the end of the semester when grades are reported as one might expect, the number would be higher than 490. Even without an exact number for FY12, the trend is quite evident and startling!

At that same meeting Professor McKenna directly asked Provost Malhotra to put his signature on all future drops. Provost Malhotra refused and instead suggested that additional data be collected and a meeting would be scheduled to discuss the results. That meeting never happened and no additional data was ever shared.

What was not known to the faculty at the time was that the data that John Palmer was referring to was actually generated by the business office because any time a grade is dropped, it triggers a refund to the student. It was also later determined that a number of withdrawals (‘W’) also led to a tuition refund. A plot of the total number of drops and withdrawals that led to a tuition refund is shown in the plot below.

Comparison of the data contained in these two tables clearly shows that not all drops led to a tuition reimbursement. As a result, the number of drops in the first table may actually under report the number of drops because only drops which led to a tuition reimbursement are counted. Clearly the process utilized by the administration was not consistently applied since not everyone receiving a drop got their money back.

However, what is even more disconcerting, at least to the faculty, is that the administration seemed to be concerned about grades being removed from transcripts because it was costing them money, not because it was a matter of academic integrity! The total cost for each year is shown in the chart below.

The total cost for tuition refunds from FY07 through FY12 was $1,797,554. If the administration had properly processed tuition reimbursements for all of the drops, the total tuition refund would be even larger. Considering that this substantial increase in tuition refunds was occurring during three years of significant Fall enrollment declines (F’11 -5.94%, F’12 -4.49%, and F’13 -5.6%), there are obvious consequences for the university’s budget.

Clearly, there are reasons it is quite legitimate for a course to be removed from a transcript. However, it is almost impossible to believe that the changes observed since FY09 are anything other than the result of a change in behavior on the part of the administration regarding drops and withdrawals rather than a consistent application of a process. Had the administration not had a significant financial consequence in allowing tuition reimbursements, it is unlikely that they would have had any interest in the impact on drops and withdrawals on the academic integrity of St. Cloud State University. Had the administration been concerned about the issue of academic integrity, they would have shared the information with the Faculty Association rather than have the Faculty Association discover it for themselves.

This spring, Justin Burt, a representative of the Department of Education, accompanied by FBI Special Agent Shane A. Ball, were on campus to investigate whether or not the refund of tuition to students violated federal financial aid guidelines. When Special Agent Ball was asked whether or not the FBI was concerned that some of the international students receiving ‘poofs’ or withdrawals might have been in violation of their student visas, he responded “that would be a matter of interest to Homeland Security–we are only focused on whether or not federal financial aid guidelines were violated.”

Data provided by John Palmer in his report of May 10, 2013 indicated there were 1,197 cases where academic petitions were submitted between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012 (FY12). Of the 1,197 cases a subset of 237 cases (19.7%) were selected for further review. Analysis of this subset indicates that the outcome for the largest number of cases (57.4%) were requests for late withdrawals that were granted. A late withdrawal is where a student does not withdraw from the course by the date where 80% of the class has been completed. In this case, a “W” is entered on a student’s transcript. The second largest outcome was for a drop (35.9%) where the record of the student’s registration in the course(s) is erased from their transcript. The third outcome was that 6.3% of the requests were denied and no change was made. The percentages don’t total exactly 100% because the data for one record is missing.

The data indicates that the most likely outcome in 93.6% of the cases was that the student’s request was granted. Analysis of the reasons given for the requested change show that the majority of the requests (53%) were for medical, family, or financial reasons. The data also shows that 39.7% of the requests were for a change to all courses for a given term. This means that in 60.3% of the cases, only a subset of courses were changed. Without further information, it is not possible to analyze whether or not some of these cases were ‘scams’ of the system or not. Clearly, a student who has broken their arm might reasonably ask to be dropped from a bowling or drawing class. It might not make as much sense to drop the same student from an online history class. However, without further information, not much can be determined from the data.

Most faculty clearly recognize the financial impact of the tuition reimbursements for dropped courses. However, most faculty will also be probably more concerned about the possible impact of the adulterations of student’s academic transcripts on the academic integrity of SCSU. All along, the administration has maintained that there is no problem with student drops. It was recently mentioned that only when Channel 9 was interested in doing a story did it became a ‘problem.’ Too bad the administration didn’t take the advice of university faculty on the seriousness of this issue because once the reputation of a university is tarnished, it takes a LONG time, if ever, to restore the original luster. And the administration has yet to take the necessary first steps on the way back. Let’s all hope that they don’t wait too long.

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