If you were attempting to convince the accrediting board for higher education that no harm will come to the quality and caliber of students’ education when 12 community colleges are merged into one, would 51 suggestions for revisions of the initial preliminary draft be nothing more than a series of helpful hints or harbingers of real danger ahead?

Time will tell.  As will the final draft of the submission, which must be provided less than a month from now on March 16.  That’s when the Connecticut Board of Regents must send the final version of its consolidation plan for the state’s 12 community colleges to the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). The proposal is for a “system wide consolidation of administrative functions and the administrative reorganization of the 12 community colleges.”

A letter from NEASC’s Barbara Brittingham to Jane Gates, provost of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, which is led by the Board of Regents for Higher Education, runs seven pages and is filled with questions, suggestions, cautions and requests for significantly more detail on plans.

Among the issues flagged by the NEASC’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, were two described as “overarching”:

1) low graduation rates (9 of the 12 institutions had graduation rates for first-time/full-time students below 15% in the 2017 reviews; certainly this rate is highly imperfect, but the percent of community colleges that were below 15% is significantly higher than in other New England states with multiple community colleges); and

2) finances, with the Commission expressing concern for 10 of 12 community colleges in their most recent comprehensive evaluation or interim report. With a proposal to remove $28 million from the collective budgets, the Commission will need to know, among other things, that students will be at least as well served as now and that there are appropriate resources available to support the programs and services being offered. Please include more evidence about the claims made, especially about the need for fewer staff once the consolidation is accomplished.

NEASC also indicated that “We cannot tell in any useful detail what is being removed from each institution in the way of positions, services, contracts, or other expenses. We understand that some (much?) of the reduction in personnel expenses will come through attrition, but we cannot tell what the contingencies are for replacing key personnel who leave during the next several years.”

The accrediting commission is asking for:

  • who will be doing what, the timeframe, and expected outcomes
  • the cost and timeline to implement new features
  • examples of work that has already been accomplished or is substantially underway
  • a multi-year budget, incomes and expenses, that reflects each of the campuses, the expenses of the central community college office, and expenses associated with the regional offices.
  • Information on the many people now located at the various campuses that would be reassigned to work in Hartford at the system office

The Board of Regents was also directly cautioned “not to unintentionally mischaracterize the words or positions of the Commission,” pointing out an instance in the draft in which a policy was incorrectly attributed to NEASC.

It also notes the proposal’s claim that one financial aid system will “support more students, increase enrollment, and therefore increase tuition and fee revenue.”  The NEASC Commission directs the Board of Regents to “please include evidence to support the claim.”  It also asks for cost and time estimates regarding the Board’s claim that “functions that are currently maintained by each campus could be automated” and evidence to support the claim that a “consolidated structure is well-suited to address the opportunity/achievement gap that exists” in Connecticut.

Among the questions raised about the academic integrity of the proposed consolidation, NEASC includes this:  “With the proposed centralization and the proposed elimination of department chairs and program coordinators, it is not clear how the programs will be coordinated and overseen at the institutional level.”

Questions were also raised about the “aggressive” timeline for curricular changes, whether two years for students to complete discontinued programs is realistic, and planned changes in the number of student services professional and support staff.

The CT Mirror first published the NEASC response to the Board of Regents for Higher Education draft plan.  The Board of Regents has denied The Mirror’s request for a copy of the plan submitted to NEASC, saying it was a draft submitted for feedback and not ready for public release, the news site reported.

According to CSCU booklets, over the course of the past five years, the institutions of the system have collectively experienced a “precipitous decline” in headcount enrollment, both full-time and part-time, of undergraduate and graduate students. From fall 2011 to fall 2016, enrollment declined 11.1%, from 95,962 students to 85,318 students. Among the CSCU System’s 17 institutions, 16 experienced enrollment declines ranging from 29.4% to 0.6%. Three of the institutions experienced declines greater than 20 percent.  Among the CSCU System’s 17 institutions, 16 experienced enrollment declines ranging from 29.4% to 0.6%. The state has also reduced funding to the colleges and universities, a key driver in the consolidation plans.

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