Facing pressure to bring in more students as North Dakota's booming oil industry made it tougher to coax new high school graduates into college, Dickinson State University began looking overseas to boost its enrollment.
China, which sends more students to U.S. universities than any other nation, became one of the school's more reliable suppliers of young people.
But as an audit made public Friday revealed, lax recordkeeping and oversight resulted in hundreds of degrees being awarded to students who didn't finish their course work. Others enrolled who couldn't speak English or hadn't achieved the "C" average normally required for admission.
The report depicts Dickinson State as a diploma mill for foreign students, most of whom were Chinese. Of 410 foreign students who have received four-year degrees since 2003 _ most of them in the past four years _ 400 did not fulfill all the graduation requirements, it said.
The report raises questions about whether public universities, strapped for cash at a time of sharply declining state support for higher education, are cutting corners to attract foreign students who typically pay full out-of-state tuition. It also comes amid an unprecedented boom in the number of Chinese students studying at U.S. universities.
Dickinson State could face penalties from the U.S. State Department for violations of the federal student visa program, as well as sanctions from the Department of Education, the Department of Homeland Security and the Higher Learning Commission in Chicago, an accreditation agency, the report said.
William Goetz, chancellor of the North Dakota university system, and Dickinson State's new president, D.C. Coston, did not respond to emails and phone calls from The Associated Press. They held a news conference Friday in Dickinson to present the audit's findings.
"We will be telling (the affected students) that their records do not indicate they sufficiently completed the requirements," Coston said at the news conference. "Dickinson State stands ready to work with them individually to figure out what might be necessary for them to reach a point of completion."
Coston also held a meeting with students that was interrupted by a university lockdown after a professor was reported missing with a gun. Doug LaPlante, 59, was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound Friday afternoon near a Dickinson intersection, police said.
The audit did not mention LaPlante, but it said some affected students were business students. LaPlante was dean of Dickinson State's college of education, business and applied sciences.
The AP obtained the report through an open records request when it was distributed to members of the state Board of Higher Education before the news conference.
The audit examines the number of foreign students who took part since 2003 in a special program that allowed them to earn degrees both from Dickinson State and a university in their home country.
Only 10 of the 410 students who received degrees through the program completed all their course work and requirements, it said. About 95 percent of the students in the dual-degree program were Chinese, it said. The rest were Russian.
At least 15 foreign students were signed up for classes even though their grades were too low to qualify, the report said.
In determining foreign students' fluency in English, Dickinson State ignored two English proficiency tests that are considered good measures in favor of another that was not. Out of 27 Chinese students enrolled this spring, 21 "could not speak English at the required competency level, (and) thus were sent back home," the report said.
Many students did not have required documents such as English proficiency tests and bank statements, and some apparently fabricated course transcripts and Chinese university stamps that Dickinson State officials accepted.
"The student will change their transcript, stamp it official and submit it as an official transcript," the audit says. "The student can put any class or grade on their transcript they desire."
Founded as a teachers' training college, Dickinson State is nestled in rural southwestern North Dakota's oil-producing region, which has been undergoing an unprecedented boom as the state has vaulted into the top ranks of the nation's oil producers.
In the past five years, the school's fall enrollment has dropped from 2,670 students to almost 2,300, a consequence of what officials say are declining high school enrollments and the lure of high-paying oilfield jobs for young people.
Some of the shortfall was filled by students from China, which has been the leading exporter of college students to the United States, according to the Institute of International Education.
During the 2010-11 academic year, the latest for which figures are available, about 157,600 Chinese students were studying in the U.S., an increase of almost 24 percent from the previous year. The number of Chinese students in the United States has risen by at least 19.8 percent for each of the past four years.
Dickinson State's program typically required students to begin coursework at universities in their home countries, spend a year studying in North Dakota and then return to their home schools to finish their degrees.
The audit says Dickinson State did not get "completion transcripts" from most students' home universities but awarded them degrees anyway, meaning they received bachelor's degrees at Dickinson State for only a year's work.
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said some public universities are engaged in "disturbing" practices as they attempt to recruit international students. Financial pressure has prompted some to do business with shady overseas recruiters and team up with questionable institutions, Nassirian said.
"Then something like this happens and you realize that this is a slippery slope, that what might have started out as a good fit gradually gave way to a rubber stamping of people introduced to you by a partner you don't understand," he said.
The report says recruiters in China passed themselves off as Dickinson State employees, altering genuine school business cards to print their own with the title, "DSU China Center."
Students were promised they could earn their Dickinson State degree before finishing classes at their home university and the freedom to change their majors or classes as they pleased, which the audit says violated the terms of the dual-degree program.
Dickinson State had 127 agreements to work with international schools to grant degrees to their students. Only four had the detailed plans required to be recognized as valid. The report recommended canceling all the accords pending a fresh evaluation of each, and ending all agreements with outside recruiters.
Coston's predecessor, Richard McCallum, was fired by the Board of Higher Education last December for allegedly padding Dickinson State's enrollment totals in the fall of 2010 by counting students who signed up for brief seminars as full-time students.
The report on the foreign transfer program does not mention McCallum but said the number of questionable degrees granted to foreign students began to rise in the summer of 2008. McCallum was named the school's president in April 2008.
AP Education Writer Justin Pope in Ann Arbor, Mich., contributed to this story.