Accrediting officials advise state on college merger plan
HARTFORD — Accrediting officials overseeing one of the largest changes in New England higher education told state officials Thursday they need to see evidence a plan to merge 12 community colleges into one will leave some 53,000 students in the system better off.
“The commission is going to need more than ‘Trust us,’” said Patricia O’Brien, a senior vice president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
O’Brien, along with Barbara Brittingham, president of the commission, appeared Thursday before the Academic and Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Regents to answer questions and discuss the process for winning NEASC approval for the merger.
Brittingham called the plan — to keep all existing campuses but under a single accreditation — a very big deal.
“The biggest change I have seen in 18 years,” Brittingham said.
Under the plan, the number of community college administrators would be reduced and programs offered by the colleges — including Norwalk, Housatonic in Bridgeport and Gateway in New Haven — would be aligned.
One of the main concerns will be what happens to students stuck in the middle of what is expected to be a two- or more year process, Brittingham said.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” she said. “We want (students) served at least as well if not better.”
Hector Navarro, a student member on the Regents board asked if students should worry that existing programs would disappear during the process.
“What needs to be in (the) proposal is what will happen to programs,” Brittingham said. “All of them.”
Late last month, the Regents voted to advance the merger plan, called Students First, over the objections of a number of faculty and students who remain unconvinced the plan will save the state money or improve student outcomes.
Barbara Richards, a professor at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport and ex-officio member of the Regents, asked NEASC officials Thursday about the dangers a single, centralized system would pose when it comes to hiring on local campuses.
“How can we keep from just being another state agency where lots of friends and relatives of people get dumped,” Richards asked.
Brittingham said she saw no inherit reason one community college would be any more susceptible to that type of thing than 12.
In the audience Thursday were a number of union representatives from state universities. System President Mark Ojakian called the assemblage curious.
“This doesn’t effect them,” Ojakian said, insisting a merge is not envisioned for the state’s four regional universities which the Regents also oversee.
The proposal, headed to NEASC in March, suggests the move to merge community colleges is driven by severe fiscal challenges and changes in state demographics.
Brittingham noted that resources were a concern in the latest NEASC accreditation reports for 10 out of 12 of the state’s existing community colleges.
State funding to community colleges has shrunk by 15.5 percent since 2016 as costs escalate. Meanwhile the traditional college-aged population is on the decline.
It is unclear when the 28-member commission will formally take up the plan. The panel meets in March and April and has a summer retreat in June where Brittingham said no major business is conducted. Ojakian said he was hoping for a decision by July 2018 with hopes of the actual merger occurring by July 2019.
Brittingham said when the commission gets the proposal, it will focus on whether or not it addresses a set of accreditation standards that touch on nine areas including mission to academics and resources.
The panel can accept, reject or request more information. It will be looking for evidence that Connecticut is working toward meeting all standards, she added.
Brittingham went on to rattle off a list of examples of college mergers, all involving far fewer campuses.
Yvette Melendez, vice chair of the Regents, asked if any of the mergers have been reversed.
Brittingham could only name only one in New Hampshire where campuses shared presidents for awhile before pulling the pairings apart.
Regents Chair Matt Fleury said nothing raised by the NEASC officials Thursday was terribly surprising.
“We understand what is expected,” he said. The goal, he added, is to get as close to right as possible on most of the plan, and make adjustments before the actual merger takes place.