Audit forces attendance changes

By JAMIE VERWYS

Pima Community College has adopted new attendance tracking procedures after the U.S. Department of Education found the school in violation of federal rules.

In an email to Pima employees on Jan. 21, Chancellor Lee Lambert said that all deficiencies addressed in the review have been corrected, and the college will continue to offer financial aid.

Upon the instruction of the Dept. of Education, Pima returned $6,243.00 in incorrectly distributed aid.  No requests for additional action or payment have been made.

“Hopefully, this indicates that we have successfully remedied the problems cited in the audit,” Lambert wrote.

The audit, received by Lambert last September, was conducted June 23-27. It examined Pima processes regarding student eligibility, administration of individual student financial aid and academic files, attendance records, student ledgers and other procedures.

The report cited deficiencies in eight areas. One finding said PCC failed to ensure that students receiving financial aid were meeting attendance requirements.
With no satisfactory method of attendance tracking in place, absent students could receive taxpayer aid for which they were no longer eligible. The Department of Education required Pima to implement a better system to track attendance.

Failure to comply could have forced the school to pay back inaccurate federal aid money dispensed. In the worst case scenario, the college could have lost its ability to provide financial aid at all.

The federal agency audited PCC after years of warnings from state auditors that the college wasn’t following federal rules for financial aid.

The college replied Oct. 24 with a 58-page response outlining plans to resolve problems with attendance tracking, miscalculated tuition and aid, incorrect Title IV financial aid payments, conflicts in dependency status and exit counseling issues.

“The college is committed to complete compliance with all state and federal laws and regulations,” Provost Erica Holmes said in an Oct. 28 email to Pima employees. “Some of the actions described in our response have already been implemented. All will be complete by early 2015.”

The Board of Governors held a special meeting on Oct. 17 to approve proposed changes, and the college created an attendance task force.

Faculty has been instructed to log attendance for each individual student on a weekly basis and is required to outline new attendance requirements in their spring syllabi. (See sidebar for details.)

The task force worked to define activities that meet participation requirements for self-paced and online classes.

Instructor Kimlisa Duchicela, who teaches business and liberal arts at Downtown and Community campuses, stressed the importance of the financial aid audit during a Faculty Senate meeting held Nov. 7. She called the issue more important than the college’s probation status.

“If you’re asleep right now, wake up,” she said. “Seriously. If we lose Title IV funding, we’re done, OK?”

Duchicela is a member of the attendance task force, as is Odile Wolf, who teaches business and computer science at East and Community campuses.

Wolf told fellow Faculty Senate members that the task force is exploring attendance tracking systems used by other colleges.

“We are not the only people who are confused,” she said. “Every time we actually go and benchmark some universities, none are doing the same thing. But other universities are not under the gun like us.”

Approximately 65 percent of new Pima students and 35 percent of all students rely on financial aid. According to Lambert, more than $80 million was distributed to students the past two years, the period covered by the audit.

The college must apply for recertification in Title IV funding by March 31, but this is unrelated to the findings of the review. All higher learning institutions participate in six year cycles and Pima’s will conclude in June.

While PCC will not lose the ability to disperse financial aid to the many students who depend on it, changes implemented to attendance policies will remain intact. The change will affect instructors and students, but Lambert expressed hopefulness in the school’s future prosperity.

“I firmly believe that by being open and honest with each other and the community we serve, we will help build PCC into one of our nation’s premier community colleges.”

FYI

Pima Community College developed new attendance categories in response to an audit from the U.S. Department of Education. The new procedures are listed below in simplified language:

Initial participation:
Students who do not actively participate (see definition below) by the drop deadline will be dropped from the class. This may result in adverse financial consequences such as a change in financial aid or veterans’ benefits. The Spring 2015 drop date is Feb. 2.

Active participation (academic activity) by students:
Throughout the term, students must participate in ways that ensure successful completion of the course. Examples include attending each scheduled class session and submitting assignments. Students must complete at least one academic task per week or seven-day period, including during the first seven days of the course. Syllabi list numerous examples of activities that serve as documented active participation for both traditional classes and for online or hybrid courses.

 

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