April 24, 2018

Accrediting body rejects community college consolidation

PHOTO | John Stearns
PHOTO | John Stearns
Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.

A pitch to consolidate administrative functions at the state's dozen community colleges to save millions of dollars has been rejected by a regional accrediting body, raising the possibility of higher tuition or closing a campus.

Mark Ojakian, the president of the Board of Regents, said he is considering closing one or more campuses and further raising tuition as a result of his inability to implement consolidations intended to mitigate the fiscal emergency facing Connecticut's community colleges.

"It forces us to consider options that we have strongly fought against," he wrote to college staff Tuesday.

The $28 million in promised savings, however, didn't guarantee the fiscally trouldled colleges will avoid deficits in coming years. College officials estimated the plan would put the college's finances in the black for two fiscal years before heading back into deficit.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, an accrediting agency known as NEASC, said the plan's call for shedding 200 administrative positions and aligning curricula for more than 200 degree programs at the 12 community colleges was too great an undertaking to do so quickly with such a reduced staff.

Accreditation from the association serves as a guarantee that a college's degrees have educational value and is essential to make students eligible for federal financial aid.

"The commission was not persuaded that planning for the new Community College of Connecticut as outlined in the Students First report is realistic," NEASC Chairman David P. Angel wrote to Ojakian on Tuesday. "Because of the magnitude of the proposed changes, the proposed timeline, and the limited investment in supporting the changes, the Commission is concerned that the potential for a disorderly environment for students is too high for it to approve."

The rejection doesn't mean that the idea is dead. The colleges can still pursue the merger – but it would take at least another 18 months to be approved by the commission, said NEASC President Barbara Brittingham during an interview.

Ojakian, however, expected it would take another five years to complete the steps the commission is asking for.

"The problems that our institutions and students face cannot wait five years. In five years, our institutions will be financially insolvent," he wrote staff.

The NEASC meeting last week to review the community college proposal was closed to the public and media. Brittingham declined to disclose the vote.

She said that there was agreement the plan was too half-baked to be approved.

"What they are proposing looks like a college, but it's not ready," she said, adding that the commission wants to work with the schools to help them to the finish line in the future. "We want to help them address those challenges and do that in a way that is consistent with the commission's standards. Here's the path through."

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