Merced College's accreditation warning status was keeping it vigilant

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJuly 9, 2013 

Merced College's president said Monday that getting the "warning status" on the school's accreditation removed was a top priority, and now that the goal has been fulfilled, staff will focus on maintaining accreditation standards.

"It's an absolute necessity for the college," said Ron Taylor, its superintendent-president, of the lifting of the sanction Friday.

"You don't want a college like this to stay on sanction any more than necessary," said Taylor, who took the helm in July 2012. "It's distracting and identifies weaknesses that need to be addressed anyway."

The college had been on warning status from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges since June 2011, according to college officials.

Officials at Merced College breathed a sigh of relief after the region's accrediting commission removed the warning status placed on the college, a black cloud they say could have affected public perception of the school.

Community colleges throughout California face sanctions from the accrediting commission as federal standards are ratcheted up and state funding is reduced. The most severe cases were Hartnell College in Salinas and San Francisco City College, which lost its accreditation.

Modesto Junior College was one of 10 campuses placed on probation last year, the second time that has happened. Merced and Columbia colleges were among 14 campuses to receive the lower-level warning.

A warning, which is the least severe of four sanctions placed by the commission, is issued when an institution doesn't meet certain standards. The other levels of sanction are probation, show cause and removing accreditation.

Merced College had to make improvements in a few areas: program review, student learning outcomes, planning and resource allocation, and governing board development.

Taylor said another deficiency was the college's human resources department. To comply with the commission's recommendations, the college restored a human resources director position that was eliminated to save money and added another staff member.

The college also hired an accreditation consultant at $78,000 for 18 months to provide guidance during the process, Taylor said.

Joanne Schultz, vice president of administrative services, said the progress made by the college is "significant," but it must keep the momentum going.

"We realized that while we received this positive news, we're not out of the woods," Schultz said. "We have to keep this level of standards going. There is the reality that we have to continue to do great, and we plan to."

Although there was a lot of hard work happening behind the scenes to resolve the issues, the warning status created some confusion for the public.

"A couple of years ago when this happened, it really caught people's attention and people were uncertain what it meant," Taylor said. "I don't think it affected enrollment, but I do think it raised a lot of concern in people's minds in the community."

Comparing the fall semester to this year, student enrollment at Merced College has declined by 2.5 percent, but Taylor said it's doubtful the accreditation warning was a factor.

"We have seen a decline, but it's only been in the last few months and wasn't related to the initial news of the accreditation sanction two years ago," Taylor said. "My take in speaking to students is they understood that the college remained accredited."

Dennis Jordan, president of the Merced College Board of Trustees, called the warning a "serious matter" that could have created some misconception.

"When you see in big headlines 'college placed on warning,' naturally, the average citizen thinks the college must be in bad shape," Jordan said. "It was not in bad shape, but there were things that needed improvement and other things that needed to be put into play."

Jordan said the situation could have escalated if staff hadn't worked to resolve the deficiencies quickly.

"I don't think it had a major impact on attendance, but if it had continued to go to the next level, that would have been a signal that things were really going south," Jordan said. "And if a college loses its accreditation, it affects directly the students."

Without accreditation, students cannot qualify for federal financial aid and their course work won't transfer to other institutions, according to Robin Shepard, spokesman for the college.

"Accreditation is really like a report card to the public that assures them that we have quality programs," Shepard explained. "Everybody on campus understands how important it is."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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