by Michael Vasquez
Is Miami Dade College — the nation’s largest community college — in danger of losing its accreditation following the recent warning by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools?
Almost impossible, according to higher education experts, who cite the school’s strong national reputation coupled with the fact that community colleges are rarely, if ever, stripped of their accreditation.
Still, MDC finds itself on the defensive following the association’s board of trustees warning that the school relies on too many part-time faculty to teach students. MDC has more than 1,000 part-time faculty; 664 are full-time.
MDC has six months to address the concerns of the board, which will meet in December to review the college’s standing. At that time, the association could maintain the “warning” status for up to two years or place the school on probation, which can ultimately lead to a loss of accreditation.
An association spokeswoman on Thursday declined comment.
MDC College President Eduardo Padrón was not made available for comment. But in a letter last month to the association, he said MDC was hiring more full-time faculty.
The warning represents the first-ever disciplinary action taken against the school by the board.
Despite the warning, experts expect MDC’s accreditation problems to be short-lived.
Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers even went so far as to say the accrediting body needs MDC’s membership more than the school does.
“Do you know who accredits Harvard? Does it matter?” Nassirian said. “Miami Dade, believe it or not, has that kind of superstar status.”
Norma Kent, a spokesperson for the American Association of Community Colleges, said she couldn’t comment on MDC’s situation, but said she could not recall a single community college losing accreditation in the past 16 years.
Other kinds of colleges have on occasion lost accreditation. Such a punishment can cripple a school as it renders it ineligible for federal grants and loans that many students rely on to finance their education. Students at unaccredited schools also have difficulty transferring their credits.
At MDC, the board found the school short of a “core requirement” that states “the number of faculty is adequate to support the mission of the institution and to ensure the integrity of its academic programs.”
There are no specific numbers or ratios in that rule, leaving the door open to debate over what constitutes an “adequate” number of full-time faculty.
In a response letter written to the board shortly after its decision late last month, Padrón insisted MDC has made hiring full-time faculty a priority. He wrote that MDC had reduced the number of part-time faculty from 1,547 in 2009 to 1,030 in 2010. The school employed 664 full-time faculty in 2010 and established 44 new full-time faculty positions this year.
Padrón also wrote that MDC’s percentage of full-time faculty for advanced and professional programs is on par with, and in some cases higher than, comparable Florida institutions. “More than any of these data, the success of our students and the acknowledged quality of MDC’s programs demonstrates our compliance,” he wrote.
Lean state budgets have dictated much of MDC’s reliance on part-time faculty. Florida’s community college enrollment has jumped 35 percent in the past five years, while per-student state funding dropped by 25 percent.
Accrediting bodies, at the same time, have been criticized by Congress and elsewhere for failing in their quality-control mission.
“It’s really helped light a fire under the accreditors,” said Julie Margetta Morgan, a higher education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
But Morgan said the full-time faculty rule is “vague” and holds little value for prospective students trying to figure out whether MDC offers a quality education.
Morgan advised focusing instead on graduation rates, licensure passage rates and whether employers think highly of your particular academic program.
“I’m skeptical about whether the ratio of full-to-part-time faculty even says that much about the quality of the institution,” Morgan said.