The Colorado Commission on Higher Education Thursday decided to postpone action on a proposal to put for-profit Westwood College on “probationary accreditation,” choosing to wait until after a national accrediting organization finishes its review of the college.
While the Westwood discussion included some emotional testimony from students urging the college not be put on probation, the issue was handled in a straightforward manner.
The meeting’s surprise fireworks came on a different topic at the very end, when Department of Higher Education Director Rico Munn and Mesa State College President Tim Foster sparred over the college’s proposed tuition flexibility plan.
Westwood is a career, business and technical school with two campuses in Denver. Last month its north campus was placed on probation by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges.
That agency concluded Westwood needed to properly demonstrate student achievement, show that it has proper management and administrative procedures, provide its policy for handling complaints, comply with standards for student recruiting and demonstrate it has the administrative capacity and procedures to meet accreditation requirements. (See this letter, especially page 6, for details.)
State law allows the CCHE to put an institution on probation if it has been placed in that status by an accrediting agency. Westwood is providing further information to the accrediting commission, which is supposed to consider the case again in November.
Cheryl Lovell, DHE chief academic officer, said her proposal to put Westwood on state probation “is simply based on the belief that we have a duty to warn students and citizens of Colorado.”
Westwood supporters, lead by well-known lobbyist Mike Feeley, argued for delay, claiming imposition of state probation now would unfairly stigmatize the college in the eyes of students, graduates, employers and the public. (Colorado probation would apply to both Westwood campuses.)
Natalie Williams, north campus president, said imposing probation “will cause the students to question the value of their education.”
Criminal justice student Michael Wyatt said, “Putting Westwood on probation would be detrimental to the school, to the students and to the students who have already graduated” because of “that stigma on the school.”
Commissioners decided to put a decision off until December. “I just think we should wait until we have a definitive answer from the [accrediting] agency,” said new commissioner Richard Kaufman of Centennial. Only Commissioner Patricia Pacey of Boulder voted no.
For-profit colleges have been under congressional, regulator and media scrutiny for months because of problems with high-pressure student recruitment, low graduation rates, high levels of student loan defaults and other issues. (See reports on the issue from the non-profit news service Pro Publica, and this Education News Colorado story on the growth of for-profit schools.)
Feeley, a former legislator who’s now a lawyer with the politically connected firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, acknowledged industry problems. He noted that a General Accounting Office investigation found serious problems at Westwood campuses in Texas and said, “We have taken those criticisms and those findings to heart.”
Munn vs. Foster
Some of the disagreements over the new college tuition flexibility proposals, which have been simmering since last summer, bubbled up late in the meeting when the CCHE was briefed on the plans, which were filed last Friday. (See this EdNews story for details on the plans.)
Of the nine plans filed, department staff has accepted all but one, a brief document filed by Mesa.
Munn said Mesa’s plan wasn’t accepted because the college didn’t specify the tuition increase it would need if state higher ed support is lower than $500 million next school year. (The Mesa filing basically said it reserves the right to ask for a specific tuition increase later.)
“They are either asking for nothing or for unlimited authority. … We’ve asked Mesa State to amend that plan,” Munn said.
Foster, participating in the meeting from Grand Junction via speakerphone, had a different view: “We have followed every guideline you asked us to do.”
Both men revealed that they’d separately contacted the attorney general’s office for advice on whether Mesa had followed CCHE guidelines in its application.
Foster said he’d just received an e-mail from an assistant attorney general saying Mesa’s paperwork probably was OK.
“I don’t want to get into a game of ‘telephone’ over who talked to the AG when,” Munn said, adding that he was sending over a pile of paperwork for state lawyers to look at.
The back and forth flustered some commissioners, who worried that if Mesa’s proposal isn’t accepted now, the college might be left out in the cold if state budget conditions worsen by next spring.
But, Commissioner Happy Haynes of Denver said, “We gave everybody notice. … I don’t think we change the rules in the middle of the game.”
Foster retorted, “I think you’re changing the rules in the middle of the game.”
The question of what exactly will happen to Mesa’s application was left hanging. Chair Jim Polsfut of Arvada, who kept trying to hurry the discussion along, said, “I’m not sure if we have a quagmire that needs resolution yet … we can wait and see how this all sorts itself out.”
There were three subtexts beneath the banter:
- Several college presidents have been unhappy with the Oct. 1 deadline for the plans, arguing that was too early in a uncertain budget cycle that won’t be resolved until May.
- Colleges also don’t like to talk publicly about possible tuition increases at this time of year for fear that will scare off applicants.
- The often-blunt Foster, even though he once was higher education director himself, tends to favor institutional autonomy rather than more centralized control by the department and CCHE.