The depth of trouble at Elizabeth City State University has been revealed in a new internal audit that shows the university improperly awarded financial aid and admitted students who didn’t qualify last year.
The audit began in October at the request of Tom Ross, the former UNC system president, after allegations surfaced that an administrator was directing staff to make financial aid awards to ineligible students and “do whatever it took to ‘get the numbers’ ” at the struggling campus, according to the report. In the past five years, enrollment at ECSU has plummeted by more than half, to 1,585 students last year, resulting in heavy budget cuts.
The audit, completed in February, does not document proof that the administrator, referred to as “Employee A,” purposely skirted rules to boost enrollment. But it does show serious problems with the way students were admitted and funded at ECSU.
Among the audit’s 21 findings:
▪ Ninety-three applicants admitted in the fall of 2015 did not meet minimum academic requirements, a “significant violation of UNC policy.” As a result, 35 students, or 15 percent of the freshman class, did not meet admissions standards. They received $488,329 in financial aid.
▪ Admissions staff members did not verify high school transcripts and graduation for all new students in 2014 and 2015 and did not obtain official SAT and ACT scores from the testing companies. The university did not conduct criminal background checks on three students whose applications raised red flags.
▪ Student files were not stored securely and were spread across four locations on campus.
▪ Ineligible students received financial aid improperly, and ECSU failed to comply with some federal regulations. Of 12 student financial aid applications selected in the audit for proper verification, 11 had errors.
“This report identifies significant deficiencies that pose risks to the University and to ECSU,” wrote Lynne Sanders, vice president for compliance and audit services at UNC’s General Administration. “These deficiencies result from a lack of management and oversight of these operational areas.”
Two months after the audit started, then-Chancellor Stacey Franklin Jones abruptly resigned in December after little more than a year on the job. East Carolina University was called in to assist ECSU with its operations, and other sister campuses in the UNC system were also assigned to lend a hand.
A new ECSU chancellor, Thomas Conway, started in January.
In his first formal remarks to the UNC Board of Governors last week, Conway did not discuss the audit but said he was taking on the challenge “with a full heart of commitment.”
“We are in the people business,” Conway said. “People business can be inherently messy, but we are experts in working through the messiness of people business. That’s what we do.”
The audit blamed frequent turnover of managers, a lack of training or quality control, and poor documentation of policies and processes. Staff members said that no policy manual existed, as far as they knew. They said they hadn’t had performance evaluations since 2012, and auditors found no reviews more recent than 2010.
“The lack of a formal training program and written training materials puts the university at significant risk in making inaccurate admission decisions or communicating inaccurate information to students and families,” the audit said.
Despite the university’s dire sliding enrollment, staff members said there was no recruitment plan or communication plan for new students. “One employee stated that one of the reasons for the low enrollment may be because ‘students never hear back from us,’ ” the audit said.
The results last fall were dismal, even though ECSU admitted students below the cutoff for grade point averages and test scores. Of 1,186 students admitted, only 232 enrolled.
In January, ECSU hired a veteran interim assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management, who will develop a plan with targets and strategic goals for fixing the problems. Each finding in the audit is to be corrected by the end of the year, according to the ECSU response, though many should be done by June.
“The findings reported are of great concern, and I take them very seriously,” wrote Junius Gonzales, the UNC system’s senior vice president, who served as interim president before the arrival of new President Margaret Spellings. “I am pleased, however, with responses from management at ECSU and their commitment to implementing timely corrective action.”
The audit could give ammunition to lawmakers who, in years past, have talked about closing ECSU or merging it with another campus. Those discussions subsided, and legislators last year rallied to support ECSU, appropriating $3 million in stabilization funds.
Swirling in the background are plans that would have a big impact on the future of Elizabeth City State. One, the N.C. Guaranteed Admission Program, would divert the UNC system’s weakest prospective students to community colleges. A report last week said NCGAP, already written into state law, could jeopardize the future of North Carolina’s historically black universities.
Another idea being considered in the state Senate would drastically lower tuition at several historically black campuses and change their names – an idea that has already created pushback by those who say it’s an attempt to alter the underlying character and heritage of the schools. But such a strategy could also attract more students to the schools.
Conway, with 32 years of experience at N.C. State and eight years at Fayetteville State, said last week that ECSU is a critical part of the economic future and fabric of northeastern North Carolina. Historically black campuses unfortunately face uncomfortable questions about whether some of their students should go to college, he said.
“The understanding that I have garnered over 40 years of working in the University of North Carolina system is the following: There may be some who do not belong in college, but none of us are good enough to figure out who they are before we see them perform,” Conway said. “That is a very important concept. It is a critical context. It is the context in which institutions like mine operate.”
Not meeting requirements
Of 93 students who didn’t meet minimum admissions requirements at ECSU:
▪ 41 had high school grade point averages below a 2.5, the minimum for UNC system students. The lowest was a 1.8.
▪ 23 had SAT scores below the minimum required combined math and reading score of 800. The lowest was a 530.
▪ 29 did not meet minimum required ACT scores of 17. The lowest was 14.
Source: UNC Review of Financial Aid Administration and Office of Admissions at Elizabeth City State University, February 2016