Connecticut’s college merger plan rejected

April 24, 2018 GMT

HARTFORD — An accrediting body has given a thumbs down to a controversial and unprecedented plan to merge the state’s 12 community college.

In a three-page letter dated April 24 to system President Mark Ojakian, architect of the plan called “Students First,” the New England Association of Schools and College’s Higher Education Commission said it was not persuaded the plan was realistic.

Ojakian had proposed merging the states community college into one accredited body to save money and preserve student services. Under the plan, all campuses would remain.

“Students First was created to avert a major crisis for our institutions and our students,” Ojakian said in a statement released with the decision. He said the NEASC decision is not in the best interest of students.

“This decision by NEASC is devastating to our ability to hold the line on tuition and keep all campuses open,” Ojakian said. “ In the face of an on-going fiscal emergency, it forces us to consider options that we have strongly fought against because it will harm the 50,000 students who rely on their campuses and their campus communities.”

One of those options is to close campuses.

The plan got vocal push back from some faculty, staff, and foundations that work to support the 12 colleges. The fear was that the colleges would lose the “community” focus that makes them special.

The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities has been working for a year on the plan and hoped to complete the merger by the fall of 2019. It would have created one application and one financial aid form for students to fill out.

Considered a “substantive change”, NEASC met several times with state officials, issuing a lengthy set of questions and concerns in January including what would happen to students stuck in the middle as the colleges transitioned. Last week, the commission met to vote on the plan and disclosed it to state officials on Tuesday.

In a letter to Ojakian, David Angel, chair of the commission and president of Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said the commission determined what as being proposed wasn’t just a “change” but an entirely new institution that would need to go through an entirely different vetting process. That process can take up to five years.

“The commission is concerned that the potential for a disorderly environment for students is too high,” Angel said. The commission also faulted the merger plan for not appearing to have sufficient administrative staff at the campus level.

The plan would have merged more than 434 degree programs into 250. Many administrative positions would have been eliminated or merged. Resources saved, presumably would have been redirected to students services.

NEASC said the 12 separately accredited colleges can continue as they are now.

Ojakian said the accreditors are fully aware that individually, the colleges cannot financially survive.

“While we expected further guidance, we did not expect NEASC to redirect us to consider “candidacy for accreditation”, a new process that will take another five years,” Ojakian said. “The problems that our institutions and students face cannot wait five years. In five years, our institutions will be financially insolvent.”

In the coming days, Ojakian said the Board of Regents, which oversees both the community colleges and four state universities will review all options including legislative and accrediting options, a review of tuition rates, and the closing of one or more of our campuses.