Concerns Raised Over NC’s Dual Enrollment Program and Possible Community College Misconduct

Each year, roughly 1.4 million high school students take college courses. This is made possible by dual enrollment programs, which give those students opportunities to earn credits and work toward a college degree or technical vocation. Over 70 percent of courses are offered by community colleges.

Such programs were praised recently by the Department of Education for expanding higher education “access” and helping students in terms of “credit accumulation.” However, others have suggested that college administrators exploit dual enrollment programs to increase tuition revenue, and some argue that the courses often are dumbed-down.

A report conducted by City University of New York noted dual enrollment programs’ “limited oversight of academic rigor” and “low or uncertain academic quality.” It found only a small amount of data supporting proponents’ claims. And in a 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “The Dark Side of Dual Enrollment,” Sam Houston State mathematics professor Ken Smith questioned whether dual enrollment classes properly prepare students.

Smith said that one student, who had failed his class once and was on the verge of failing again, had transferred to Sam Houston with 65 credit hours earned in high school. Smith discovered that the student had failed a college math class in high school, but was able to improve her grade after her mother complained. Smith said the student’s courses “were not college level.”

In addition to the issue of low academic standards, there is reason to believe that a mercenary motive drives many of these dual enrollment programs. According to a 2016 study by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, 59 percent of surveyed institutions said they use dual enrollment programs to meet their enrollment goals. It seems that many community college administrators, perhaps worried about recent enrollment declines, have come to view such programs mainly as revenue generators.

Recently, concerns over dual enrollment have been raised at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, North Carolina. The school’s problems, however, may go beyond dual enrollment; they appear to extend to issues involving improper college governance, lack of oversight, and lack of transparency.

First, let’s look at the dual enrollment program. All 58 of North Carolina’s community colleges participate in a program called Career and College Promise. In the 2013-2014 academic year, state funding for it totaled nearly $57 million dollars.

The program’s “Career and Technical Education” pathway stipulates that to be eligible, a prospective student must have a 3.0 high school GPA or have permission from his or her principal. Additionally, students have to take an assessment test (called PLAN) to demonstrate college readiness in English, math, and reading. These scores “should be considered” by administrators when determining students’ eligibility.

Now-former Cleveland Community College (CCC) instructor Ginger Bullock, in a recent Martin Center interview, argued that few mechanisms are in place to ensure accountability and enforce those academic standards. She said that many ill-prepared high school students are allowed to take college courses, and that leaders at her institution ignore the problem because of an obsessive focus on increasing enrollment. Bullock claims that instructors, feeling pressure from both college and high school administrators, let students filter through substandard classes.

Last summer, Bullock was informed that she would be teaching a marketing course at a local high school (in fact, all of the college’s dual enrollment courses are taught at local high schools). According to Bullock and others, CCC requires that full-time faculty, not adjuncts, teach the dual enrollment classes. This means that Bullock would have had to travel to the high school every day and not be as available to her students at the college.

At any rate, Bullock says that after hearing other instructors’ concerns about the program, she asked around and learned that, in one course, 9 out of 14 high school students had GPAs below 3.0, and one student had a 1.7 GPA. Bullock says that she felt ethically responsible to report this information to the college administration.

She claims that several administrators, including CCC’s executive vice president Dr. Shannon Kennedy, did not think there was sufficient evidence to question the program’s integrity. Bullock says she told administrators that she could not participate in something that she believes harms students, but that she would teach dual enrollment classes if the program were reformed.

Shortly after, Bullock was terminated. The stated cause was “refusal to accept one’s work assignment.” She appealed her termination twice, and was denied both times. She currently is waiting for CCC trustees to hear her case.

Bullock is not the only one with concerns about the dual enrollment program. Dr. BJ Zamora, former English department chair and CCC instructor (she recently retired), said in a Martin Center interview that she felt pressured to give students higher grades than they had earned. According to Zamora, the administration told the faculty that a community college is like a “business” and that the students are “customers.”

As mentioned earlier, CCC’s issues may not be limited to those involving the dual enrollment program. For example, a former IT employee, Mike Falls, wrote a letter to CCC trustees last December listing allegations of fraud, employee intimidation, data security risks, and even illicit behavior by the administration (Falls showed that president Steve Thornburg’s system password was a sexually inappropriate reference to the executive vice president, Dr. Shannon Kennedy).

Although Thornburg was recently fined over the password issue (the fine amount is not publicly available), it seems that trustees were mostly dismissive of Falls. They never interviewed him during their review of his allegations. In a Martin Center interview, board member Allen Langley justified that dismissiveness by accusing Falls of “criminal activity” and of “illegally” discovering the password by “hacking” into the system. Langley, however, offered no evidence to support such claims (Falls said he uncovered the password during a routine software update).

Ultimately, the board concluded that Falls’s other allegations were “resolved” or not true, but it appears that it only heard one side of the story—the administration’s.

Another case of possible misconduct involves a $13.2 million Department of Labor grant, awarded to CCC in 2013 to help it develop a new information technology curriculum. In a Martin Center interview, the grant’s former project manager, Mitch Sepaugh, alleged that Dr. Kennedy was not using the grant funds for the Labor Department’s intended purpose. Sepaugh says that after expressing his worries to the administration, he was removed as project manager and denied a renewal of his contract at CCC. All of his grievance appeals have been denied. Trustees told the Martin Center that they did not know why Sepaugh’s contract was not renewed.

Although it is possible that some of these allegations may be unfounded, it is troubling that trustees seem to regard them merely as the complaints of a few “disgruntled employees.” Such accusations should be taken seriously, and the individuals making them should be protected as potential whistleblowers and given a fair hearing. After all, recent scandals at other schools in North Carolina’s community college system, such as Martin Community College in Williamston, have illustrated the danger in turning a blind eye to administrative malfeasance.

In the case of the state’s dual enrollment program, such wrongdoing could impact more than school employees such as Ginger Bullock. High school students may be lulled into a false sense of academic accomplishment, only to learn later that they really aren’t prepared for more rigorous college coursework or career training. Those underprepared students are most likely to drop out and struggle with college loan debt.

If trustees aren’t willing to fully investigate potential whistleblower claims, which seems to be the case now, the onus is on North Carolina’s State Board of Community Colleges and other higher-level policymakers to do so. If that doesn’t happen, innocent college instructors may be mistreated, students may end up shortchanged, and taxpayer funds may be wasted on questionable or poorly managed programs.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    The quality concern is appropriate, but you need to consider dual enrollment classes taught by high school teachers that are not SACS compliant. Even the so-called DE literature review from 2010 side-stepped this issue.

    Not too long ago, review teams weren’t verifying the credentials of dual enrollment instructors simply because they weren’t showing up in the Faculty Rosters that they looked at — meaning, sampled. How can the review team monitor something that is not there? They are depending on the schools’ integrity to supply review documents. Schools have hard enough time keeping track of their adjunct instructors, let alone who is teaching what course in a nearby high school.

    Also, Faculty Rosters, in my experience, are sampled during *off-site* reviews of only about 10% of the total. The resources to review the entire faculty at just one school would overwhelm the two-or-three days of time available — to review the rosters of a dozen schools.

    This is an impossible task for another reason: faculty review processes are not yet standardized. Different reviewers come to different assessments — and there is no independent oversight. Findings of noncompliance are not handled in the same way. The only response to a finding is push-back from the school when the accreditor finds a teach unqualified. This becomes a give-and-take, where the school “de-certifies” some of its retiring instructors as unqualified (although they taught for 20 years, and made it though earlier reviews), but stands behind others.

    Another practice is to drop the instructor the year of the review, and then bring them back again as soon as the school has been reaffirmed.

    Favored high school teachers get to take their pick of what they want to teach: political science, economics, psychology, you name it. If they are vetted by the school district, the community college will generally go along with it. But the paper trail stops at the Principal’s office.

    Before federal pilot programs consider extending Title IV Pell Grants to DE, they need to explicitly deal with faculty certification problem.

    HLC has taken the lead on this, specifying mandatory requirements for dual enrollment faculty, already pushed back from 2016. This is a major step in the right direction, not soon to be followed by any other accreditor.
    https://www.hlcommission.org/Accreditation-Processes/dual-credit-programs-and-courses.html

    • Terri Parrott

      It seems to me that these “whistleblowers” are in fact wanting to do less work than more. Not wanting to drive to a highschool because one would not be there as much for their college students is a weak excuse, if you are passionate about teaching then you will work hard with “all” students and especially the dual enrollments to ensure those students get the college experience and understand they (high school students) have to study more and apply themselves more than in high school. High school students need educators in dual enrollment programs to really prepare for college. It’s a great program and it’s up to professors to have a passion for it to make it work As for the administration and their roll in leadership they should definitely be investigated if in fact they do not support the dual enrollment program in every way but finding passwords that are offensive is another issue entirely and should have nothing to do with dual enrollment success.

  • Rogerd

    Yup. No surprise.
    Milton Friedman quoted it best,
    “Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own. Nobody uses somebody else’s resources as carefully as he uses his own. So if you want efficiency and effectiveness, if you want knowledge to be properly utilized, you have to do it through the means of private property.”

  • Barefoot

    As a 4-year school professor whose kids have taken dual enrollment classes I have mixed feelings.

    Used properly, dual enrollment classes expand HS students’ educational opportunities, allowing them to study things they might not be able to otherwise. Don’t forget the many technical and pre-professional programs at CCs.

    This is especially true for homeschoolers, a growing (~5% of NC kids) but often overlooked portion of the school age population. The increasing number of HS allowing homeschoolers to take a la carte classes may reduce that value of dual enrollment, though.

    On the other hand, in my family’s experience across a range of disciplines, the CC classes are unambigously less rigorous than what we teach at uni. I don’t think pre-transfer dual enrollment classes are a good option for academically oriented students (which is why I’ve encouraged my children to take technical certifications instead), which is often how they are advertised.

    Nevertheless, universities have lost (for a variety of reasons, some legit some not) the credibility needed to convince listeners that the educational “quality” at 4-year schools is “better.” This means that particularly for students with no great passion for _academic_ learning but who are required by credential inflation to have a diploma, speeding them through the process with dual enrollment classes seems like a logical choice.

    All that said, dual enrollment classes raise bigger issues with enrollment management and even visions of higher ed that go well beyond the troubles at a particular CC or a blog comment.

    • FloridaKris

      Finally someone to speak the truth-credential inflation is so real in our society. If kids have any hope of a job better than flipping burgers they need a college degree or certification program. My husband is in a trade and it’s been great, but is now going into another trade-the new trade he is going into is now a 2 year degree. Does it need to be that way, no it doesn’t, but the trade is trying to be legitimate in a society where only degree holders are valued.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Thank you for your comment on credential inflation. Barely anyone is talking about it.

  • Terri Parrott

    It seems to me that these “whistleblowers” are in fact wanting to do less work than more. Not wanting to drive to a highschool because one would not be there as much for their college students is a weak excuse, if you are passionate about teaching then you will work hard with “all” students and especially the dual enrollments to ensure those students get the college experience and understand they (high school students) have to study more and apply themselves more than in high school. High school students need educators in dual enrollment programs to really prepare for college. It’s a great program and it’s up to professors to have a passion for it to make it work As for the administration and their roll in leadership they should definitely be investigated to in fact support the dual enrollment program in every way but finding passwords that are offensive is another issue entirely and should have nothing to do with dual enrollment success.

    • FloridaKris

      Ummm No, students need to be up to par before taking college classes. It’s not the job of the dual enrollment instructors to bring them up to par. Complete crap. And no way is it them being lazy by not wanting to spend 5 days at a high school with ill prepared students and then have to also handle there classes at the college. HOw about you fix the high schools so they are actually preparing students properly-that just isn’t the job of a dual enrollment professor. Dual enrollment is meant for those who are actually ready

    • storypeddler

      NO. Not even close. I am so sick of hearing non-teachers talk about how “passionate” teachers do whatever they are asked to do simply because they are teachers. No other profession has that kind of garbage reasoning dumped on them. Doctors are supposed to be passionate about their job; do you seriously think you would get anywhere if you insisted all doctors go anywhere and everywhere they were told to meet with their patients, and they should give them whatever they wanted, regardless of how it impacted their own lives? Of course not. Doctors have more clout and can call the shots for themselves. In states with teacher unions, so do teachers. In the vast majority of cases, high school students have neither the emotional nor intellectual maturity to fully participate in the college experience, not to mention the lack of life experiences. There’s a reason we do things in a certain order at certain educational and developmental stages. Why don’t we just have elementary school students doubling up and earning middle-school and high school credit while they are finishing up third, fourth, and fifth grade?
      It’s the same fallacious argument. College professors didn’t choose to become college professors because they wanted to wade into the quagmire that is high school politics and foolishness. Education is NOT a business, and students are NOT customers. There are those in our society who insist on trying to make every institution a for-profit capitalist venture, and such thinking is not only ignorant but unethical at its root. I can tell you for a fact that Cleveland Community College, referenced in this article, is not even close to being the only place where this very thing is going on in the NC community college system.

  • AnonLady

    I feel like this COULD be a good program if it were administered correctly. It sounds like there are a lot of shortcuts being taken, exceptions being made, my way or the highway kinds of things going on. None of those things will benefit the students taking the classes or the professors being asked to teach the classes. A well run program, with students who are at an appropriate level to be taking part, is an excellent idea. A patched together program that allows the students to cycle through no matter if they qualify or not does nothing for anyone.

  • Salem

    I encourage the author and others to review the CCP Operating Procedures. Community colleges follow these guidelines to implement the CCP program.

    Qualified students are enrolling in structured pathways, earning meaningful credit towards a certificate, diplomas, or degree.

    Faculty who teach these courses meet SACS requirements just as all faculty have to do.

    This article does not accurately reflect the delivery of the program or student performance. Monitoring occurs statewide as it does for all other programs. The idea that it does not is false. Check your facts.

    http://www.nccommunitycolleges.edu/sites/default/files/basic-pages/academic-programs/attachments/section14_19sept16_ccp_operating_procedures_v2.pdf

  • Salem

    Those who question the CCP program should review the CCP Operating Procedures. Community colleges follow these guidelines to implement the CCP program.

    Qualified students are enrolling in structured pathways, earning meaningful credit towards a certificate, diploma, or degree.

    Faculty who teach these courses meet SACS requirements – just as all faculty have to do.

    This article does not accurately reflect the delivery of the program or student performance. Monitoring occurs statewide as it does for all other programs. The idea that it does not is false.

    http://www.nccommunitycolleges.edu/sites/default/files/basic-pages/academic-programs/attachments/section14_19sept16_ccp_operating_procedures_v2.pdf

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      You need to provide independent support that community colleges follow “the the CCP Operating Procedures … to implement the CCP program,” not just a copy of the policy.

      The accountability gap in higher education is created by saying one thing (“we are following CCP Operating Procedures”) and then doing something else. Anyone the least bit familiar with organizational life understands this as an ongoing problem — because those that write the policies and procedures are not the ones carrying it out. The chain of command is long, resources scarce, and institutional momentum (sometimes called structural inertia) and past history all play important roles in final results.

      For example, this policy section is relatively new — recently revised, in fact, and makes no mention of how compliance is monitored and non-compliance is handled. Without accountability measures to back it up, there is no assurance that these Guidelines are followed; nor do we know how closely they are followed, on a school-by-school basis.

      This is so new, I doubt that is has been fully implemented.
      Operating Procedures approved by State Board of Community Colleges on 10/12/11;
      SBCC revised 03/16/12; SBCC revised 07/19/13; SBCC revised 11/15/13; SBCC revised 03/21/14; SBCC revised 07/18/14; SBCC revised 10/30/15; SBCC revised 02/19/16; SBCC revised 04/15/16; SBCC revised 09/16/16.

      • Salem

        Perhaps you are not familiar with the compliance requirements of the program. CCP is reviewed at each campus by the auditors. No program is exempted from compliance review.

        The operating procedures are not new. They have been in existence for 5 years and are updated as needed to provide current information (I.e. Updated SAT scores, etc). Each campus has staff who oversee the program in addition to those at the state level who oversee CCP. There is a joint team made up of representatives from the community college, the university system and the department of public instruction which work together to answer questions about the procedures as needed for those who implement the program locally. Additionally, these same people answer questions for parents and community members.

        Those who write the polices are actually the ones implementing them. If you have questions about how that is occurring, I suggest you contact the NC community college system or department of public instruction program contacts.

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          There are no independent auditors. Please provide evidence. Thank you.

          • Salem

            I am not sure I understand what abuses you are referring to. Can you please clarify?

            A compliance review is conducted bi-annually at each college within the North Carolina Community College System pursuant to N.C. General Statutes §115D-5(m). Additionally, colleges also complete internal reviews to ensure they are maintaining the required documentation for student eligibility and program delivery.

          • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

            A more theoretical observation can be made regarding accountability in education — it is always undergoing change, always in the process of being revised; it always faces multiple challenges, it never stays the same.

            Part of the reason for this fluidity and inconstancy is that accountability in education is the outcome of various interacting constituencies. That is what this website is all about. When political power shifts, it may generate opportunities for different approaches to educational accountability; or, one faction may lose legitimacy, allowing another to take its place.

            In this regard, I think Goodhart’s Law is applicable at higher level of generalization: When a certain outcome serves as an indicator of educational quality, then it will eventually cease to function as a reliable indicator because people start to game the metric, and they seek to produce the same result but without the same level of achievement.
            Students, teachers, administrators, and even politicians obey Goodhart’s Law.

  • Rob Jenkins

    I’m in Georgia, so I can’t really speak to what’s going on in North Carolina. But I have been involved with dual enrollment programs for 30 years, as a professor, a college administrator, and a parent. Done right, DE is an incredible program, offering students the opportunity to escape the often-soul-sucking confines of public high schools, get ahead of the game, college-credit-wise (remember, it takes most students more than four years to graduate from college), and do so at very low cost. There’s no reason for DE courses to lack rigor; they should be exactly the same as regular college courses. Ideally, they ARE regular college courses, taught on the college campus. But for a host of reasons, mostly political (I mean that in the sense of local politics, not partisanship), that isn’t always the case. It will be a great loss if all DE programs are painted with the same brush and lose their credibility because some programs fail to follow best practices.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    I wanted to include some links that show what happened in Florida almost ten years ago. Perhaps NC can benefit from Florida’s experience with DE.

    Florida Statutes, 1007.271 Dual enrollment programs, is quite extensive. Sec 5(a) describes rather minimal oversight provisions pertaining to faculty. The earlier version of 1007.271 began as a FL DOE regulation, “Statement of Standards,” which included significant monitoring and reporting requirements that were stripped from the final statute. Here is that history:
    https://www.flrules.org/gateway/ruleNo.asp?id=6A-14.064 .

    High standards and expectations requiring “tight coupling” gave way to “loose coupling” (or even “decoupling”) during the process of implementation. In complex organizations, loose coupling almost always follows initial proposals for “tight coupling”. This occurs for a variety of reasons, having to do with organizational control, the endogenous political economy, public pressures and perceptions.

    Here is a record of the history that I just described, and can be compared with the resultant Florida Statute 1007.271.
    https://www.flrules.org/gateway/readFile.asp?sid=2&tid=8043839&type=1&File=6A-14.064.htm .

    It was especially disheartening to me to see teacher qualifications gutted from the statute, and it provided me with an important object lesson of what happens when political costs are weighed against public and institutional costs. To the best of my knowledge, SACS has not come out in front of this problem in the same way that HLC/NCA has. HLC has already pushed back their ‘live’ date from 2016 to 2017.
    https://www.hlcommission.org/Accreditation-Processes/dual-credit-programs-and-courses.html .

    Here is Florida’s official version, with its typical spin.
    http://www.fldoe.org/schools/higher-ed/fl-college-system/academic-student-affairs/dual-enrollment.stml .

    • Salem

      Thank you for providing the information from Florida.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    Salem, Thank you for the reference.

    “The State Board of Community Colleges shall require all community colleges to meet the faculty credential requirements of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for all community college programs.”

    COMMENT: Since 2005, SACS now allows the colleges to “justify” their own credentialing system, in order to permit more “flexibility.” Consequently, there is no standards for faculty. In fact, look at the wording on the Faculty Roster instructions: Summer faculty are exempted entirely from having qualifications.

    (m) The State Board of Community Colleges shall maintain an accountability function that conducts periodic reviews of each community college operating under the provisions of this Chapter. The purpose of the compliance review shall be to ensure that (i) data used to allocate State funds among community colleges is reported accurately to the System Office and (ii) community colleges are charging and waiving tuition and registration fees consistent with law. The State Board of Community Colleges shall require the use of a statistically valid sample size
    in performing compliance reviews of community colleges. All compliance review findings that are determined to be material shall be forwarded to the college president, local college board of trustees, the State Board of Community Colleges, and the State Auditor. The State Board of Community Colleges shall adopt rules governing the frequency, scope, and standard of materiality for compliance reviews.

    COMMENT: This is extremely sketchy. Where are the regulations? No mention of DE, just that compliance reports go to the State Auditor. No mention of faculty qualification reviews, no mention of how frequently these take place. This is self-reporting, there is no independent oversight. Are the compliance reviews posted? If not, no transparency either. Are the workpapers for the compliance reviews confidential?

    • Salem

      I am not sure I understand your comment about regulations. Faculty are held to the same qualification standards in the summer just as the other semesters. That is a SACS requirement. Distance education sections of courses are aligned with the face to face content of courses and faculty are held to the same standards. This is true for community colleges and university courses. I share this because I taught in both systems for over 20 years. Faculty are responsible for ensuring the content they teach is rigorous….Those that choose to water down content do so of their own accord and should be held accountable for that decision.

      Some oversight is local, some at the state level, and at the SACS level. Reviews of faculty take place each semester for each course taught. Annual performance reviews are also conducted. Faculty assessments are shared with faculty and their supervisors. College reviews are shared with presidents and the Board of trustees. They are also posted online for the public. I am not sure what else could be done to make this process more transparent.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        It is reasonable to assume that NC universities and colleges are more closely monitored than CC’s. DE programs are a part of the CC system, and probably not monitored as closely as the CCs overall.

        For over fifteen years, UNC offered two hundred classes that never met, yet passed faculty assessments, internal compliance reviews and SACS reaffirmations. Since, in this instance, this fraud occurred at the flagship for an extended period of time before being detected, is it not reasonable to expect that less closely monitored and less prestigious programs would also exhibit the same characteristics?

        Obviously, if SACS and the flagship reviewers were unable to identify massive fraud for over 15 years, neither you or I can rely on it to ensure CC DE compliance. The facts show that the system does not work.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_North_Carolina_academic-athletic_scandal

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    There is a recent bipartisan effort to “amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to allow the Secretary of Education to award Early College Federal Pell Grants.” (S.840 — 115th Congress)

    Unfortunately, there is no proposed text.

    https://www.portman.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2017/4/portman-warner-introduce-bill-to-increase-college-access-for-low-income-students

    Given the wild variation in “early college” quality, I wanted to see what how the legislation defined it. High schools are not regionally or nationally accredited for Title IV, so this will be very interesting. Articulation agreement requirements will also have to be standardized, of course. That could take years to accomplish.