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Students skipping classes cost Northwest College $200,000

College board considers mandatory attendance to resolve problem

Writing off nearly $203,000 in students’ bad debts didn’t sit well with the Northwest College Board of Trustees earlier this month, especially when trustees learned much of that debt could be avoided by taking attendance.

Each year, the board writes off debts considered uncollectable, as recommended by NWC Finance Director Sheldon Flom. But the amount of those write-offs has grown over the last couple of years. In a memo to the board for its June 10 meeting, Flom requested that $202,951 in bad student debts be written off. That is $75,012 more than was written off last year, he said in the memo.

Those bad debts have been sent to collections, Flom said.

Trustees were provided a confidential list of the students whose accounts were being turned over to collectons, as well as the amount being written off.

“These are big numbers,” said Trustee Rick LaPlante, noting some of the accounts were as large as $7,000. “What are the processes to not have this happen again?”

Jo Ann Heimer, NWC business office manager, said most of the bad debts resulted when students applied for and received financial aid — federal grants and/or student loans — then stopped attending classes partway through the semester, or in at least one case, failed to attend at all.

But, because attendance is not required, college administrators often don’t learn about that until the semester is over. Then the college got a bill from the federal government for the money the students were paid for tuition and living expenses.

“We have to pay back to the feds whatever portion they didn’t earn ... then the student owes us,” Heimer said.

Sometimes, students make payment arrangements and pay for a month or two, then drop off the radar, she added.

Part of the reason write-offs have increased the last couple of years is that the financial aid office is following up better to determine when students with federal aid didn’t complete their courses and report that to the federal government, she said.

In past years, failure to make that determination in some instances resulted in a finding on the college’s annual audit.

Board President Mark Westerhold and LaPlante asked why attendance is not being taken to alert college administrators when students aren’t attending classes.

“You’ve got to have the data before you can know,” LaPlante said. Having attendance data would help with efforts to increase student retention as well, he said.

Current policy does not require faculty to take attendance, and faculty members often are resistant to doing so, said Gerald Giraud, vice president for academic affairs at the college.

“Their rationale is, ‘These are adults; if they don’t want to attend class, they don’t have to. It’s not my responsibility to keep track of them,’ ” he said.

“At my previous institution, we made the argument to faculty that it damages the institution if you don’t report attendance, because it costs the institution money,” Giraud said. “And it can also jeopardize your Title IV (Pell grant) eligibility if you can’t account for attendance of students.

“So I think there’s some pretty strong arguments for it. I’m sure there are a number of faculty who would give you strong arguments against for different reasons.”

Giraud said that college had a policy that, if a student missed three classes in a row, or a certain number of classes during a semester, they were dropped from the course.

“It used to be that way here,” said Trustee Nada Larsen. “I can assure you that it was.”

Jeannie Hunt, president of the NWC Faculty Organization, said in an email she can’t speak for the faculty without asking for their opinions. But, in general, she said it is atypical for a college to ask faculty to take attendance.

“This (taking attendance) does little to help us draw the distinction between what students and parents have come to expect in high school and what college students should expect and understand,” she said. “Additionally, these students are adults who pay for their education. Their attendance is their choice, and the consequences are a reality they will have to understand and deal with.

“Faculty reported attendance isn’t going to change student behavior or the need for the college to return financial aid to the government for students who do not adhere to federal or college policies.”

Hunt said some safeguards are in place.

“The registrar asks the faculty to report on ‘no-show’ students a few weeks into the semester, which should catch most students who are not attending,” she said. “We also have an alert system that can be activated at any point in the semester to identify students who are not attending.”

Trustee Carolyn Danko said, “Probably one of the bigger arguments for taking attendance might be that, in any job, they literally take attendance.

“If you don’t show up for a week at a time ... goodbye,” she said. “I think we need to instill that kind of work ethic in our students — let them know that, at this point in time, this is your job.”

Westerhold said the board could propose that the college’s faculty employment policy be changed to require faculty to take attendance.

NWC President Paul Prestwich said any changes to the Faculty Employment Policy made now wouldn’t go into effect until April or May because of the process required to make those changes.

Several trustees indicated a desire to begin that process in the coming months.

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