It was the last thing anyone wanted to worry about. With our roads and bridges crumbling and Connecticut a step or two away from the the brink of insolvency, officials now have to concern themselves with the viability of the Connecticut’s 12 community colleges.
The decision of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, a regional accrediting agency, to reject a plan to merge the colleges into one accredited organization has thrown the system into chaos and uncertainty. Click here to read the letter from NEASC’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Learning.
It is hardly surprising that Mark Ojakian, who heads the state Board of Regents that came up with the proposal, sounded a note of alarm in an op-ed in the Courant last week.
“The decision jeopardizes the innovations we were planning to implement related to student advising and support and keeps resources in administration that we believed could have been shared across the system rather than duplicated 12 times,” Ojakian wrote.
As a former teacher, I hear Ojakian’s words and they’re music to most educators’ ears. Most teachers I know complain about administration: there are either too many administrators or they’re incompetent or some combination of the two. But interestingly, CSU-AAUP, a union representing state university professors, is against the proposal.
Ojakian, a former chief of staff to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, has been trying to do what the formation in 2011 of the new Board of Regents overseeing all the public colleges except UConn was supposed to address — namely control escalating administrative expenses while directing more resources toward students and streamlining the process for transferring credits between the institutions governed by the board.
The proposal to merge the community colleges, called Students First, appears to be an extension of the regents’ mission, with an added sense of urgency in light of the perilous financial condition of the community college system.
The system has sustained $61 million in cuts since 2015 and is experiencing declines in enrollment. Ojakian has said that the system will be insolvent in two years unless changes are made to save money on overhead. The regents wanted the merger, which is projected to save $28 million, to be completed in July 2019.
In a remark that will make teachers giggle, one of the complaints NEASC had in its letter slamming Ojakian’s proposal was that there would not be enough administration — a condition cited by NEASC commission Chairman David Angel, himself a college administrator, who warned that “the potential for a disorderly environment for students is too high.”
Nevertheless, continuing the status quo will likely mean campus closures and tuition hikes. Three men connected with the state university system penned a persuasive op-ed in the Courant last week not only coming out against the proposal but calling for the dissolution of the regents, whose “waste of time, energy and money has been enormous.” And earlier this week the Central Connecticut State University Faculty Senate echoed that sentiment about the regents and actually called for Ojakian’s resignation. In their condemnation, however, neither group offered any substantive alternative for fixing what ails the community colleges.
This whole episode raises a larger question that I have thus far not seen an answer to. NEASC has said there is no appeals process for its decision on Ojakian’s proposal. But Barbara E. Brittingham, president of NEASC’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, told me she was traveling to Hartford this week to meet with the embattled Ojakian to listen to his concerns.
I was struck by the fact that there is no formal avenue for appeal. NEASC and its regional brethren (e.g. Middle States, the Southern Association) are independent nonprofits that accredit schools and colleges. When evaluating colleges for accreditation, they essentially have veto power over how the schools are structured. In our case, they can tell the state how its community colleges are structured.
This begs the question: to whom are organizations like NEASC accountable? Brittingham told me that NEASC’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education is accountable to two bodies: one is the federal government and the other is a separate 501(c)(3) organization.
“CIHE is overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, through a ‘recognition’ process specified in the Higher Education Act,” Brittingham explained in an email. “Being a recognized accreditor means that the commission’s candidate and accredited institutions can provide access to federal financial aid (e.g., Pell grants, subsidized loans) to eligible students.”
In response to my questions during a brief interview, Brittingham acknowledged that if an accrediting organization like NEASC consistently underperforms, it could lose its federal recognition, which would be a devastating blow.
And it has happened before. Both the American Academy for Liberal Education and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools lost their federal recognition either for noncompliance or because they were viewed as a rubber stamps for failing colleges. NEASC itself goes through the re-recognition process every five years.
And of course schools and colleges can always opt out of the accreditation process altogether, as happened six years ago when Burlington (Mass.) High School withdrew from the NEASC accreditation process only to rejoin three years later. Ironically, Burlington is also home to NEASC’s headquarters.
But there are serious consequences. When high schools withdraw from the accreditation process, it has implications for the college acceptances of their graduates. When colleges and universities withdraw, they can lose their eligibility for federal funding. And of course, there is the stigma attached to attending an unaccredited institution of learning.
If Ojakian can’t convince NEASC to change its mind, then it really is back to the drawing board because Ojakian’s is the only proposal on the table — that is unless his plan is subject to a full NEASC reaccrediation, an uncertain process that Ojakian said could take five years. For all the complaining coming from Ojakian’s adversaries, they have yet to offer a substantive alternative beyond “full funding” — whatever than means in this era of austerity.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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