Source: Sun Sentinel
Miami Dade College, the largest public college in the country, has been warned it could lose its accreditation because it does not have enough full-time faculty.
Although the school strongly disagrees with the finding, some inside and outside MDC fear this could be the first sign that all of Florida’s public colleges could be in jeopardy, as each deals with dwindling state dollars and surging enrollments.
“These cuts have been happening at Miami Dade College and other community colleges in the state for years,” said State Sen. Oscar Braynon, II, D-Miami Gardens, who serves on the committee that funds higher education. “I worry that the college system in Florida will eventually become almost devastated by budget issues.”
It is difficult for a college to operate without accreditation. Students cannot receive federal financial aid and would likely have trouble transferring their credits. MDC and other community colleges also play a big part in training the local workforce, so the business community could be adversely affected if a school loses accreditation.
“The school is still fully accredited, but this is the first sign that something’s wrong,” said Belle Wheelan, a top official with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which issued the warning late last month.
Officials from the association, the main accrediting body for schools in the region, have no official guidelines on how many full-time faculty a school should have, only that it must be adequate for the school’s mission. In the fall 2010, Miami Dade College had 658 full-time and 3,129 part-time faculty members.
“Based on the budgetary constraints affecting Florida public higher education institutions, as well as my conviction that the college has sufficient and adequate faculty to maintain the highest quality programs, I express my strong objection” to the warning, MDC President Eduardo J. Padrón said in a letter to the Southern Association.
The warning, issued late last month, was the least severe of three possible sanctions a college can get, with the more serious being probation or removal from the association. The school will remain on warning until at least December, when the commission meets again.
At that point, it could remove the warning, extend the warning, place the school on probation or remove its accreditation. Wheelan said a school is unlikely to lose its accreditation without first being put on probation.
Florida Christian College, a private school in Kissimmee, was also given a six-month warning due to questions about its financial resources and stability. Like MDC, the warning will last for at least six months.
Community colleges have seen their enrollments soar in recent years, as the state’s public universities have become more selective and expensive, and Bright Futures scholarships are paying less of the costs. The poor economy is also sending people back to college for degrees or re-training.
The number of registered students at Miami Dade surged from 93,891 in the fall 2008 to 146,060 in fall 2009.
At the same time, Florida’s community colleges have faced more than $100 million in budget cuts, due to the state’s declining revenues. An increase in students brings in more tuition dollars, but not enough to cover the needed additional full-time faculty. So some colleges rely on adjunct and part-time faculty.
Broward College officials said they don’t believe its number of full-time faculty (382) is an immediate area of concern.
“The administrators at the college are cognizant that the ratios must be monitored,” said spokeswoman Aileen Izquierdo, explaining the school is adding 10 new full-time faculty this fall. “For several consecutive years, Broward College has made the concerted effort to bring on more full-time faculty.”
The accrediting body will visit Palm Beach State College in October, after which the school will know whether it faces any similar issues, spokeswoman Grace Truman said. She said “at this point, we are confident we are demonstrating compliance.”
Wheelan said schools must adapt if they have limited budget resources.
Adding part-time faculty is “not an effective way to manage the budget,” she said. “Everyone’s having to take drastic cuts, but we begin to worry about the quality of education if an institution tries to spread itself too thin.”
Mark Richard, a paralegal professor who heads the United Faculty of Miami Dade College, said he believes the state needs to take action to avoid future problems.
“The Legislature has got to make it a priority to fund community colleges and public higher education,” he said. “At some point we’re going to get to a level that will undermine the institution. Who’s going to stop the bleeding?”
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