Eliminating college program approval regs is the right choice for CT

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The entrance to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

If you owned your own restaurant and wanted to create some new signature meals to strengthen your menu, attract new patrons and increase your competitiveness, how would you feel if you had to wait for state government officials to review your suggested dishes, taste those recipes and approve their preparation before you could offer them to customers? To make matters worse, what if that process could take a year or more and, meanwhile, up the street and in surrounding towns, other restaurants were not restricted from changing up their menus as and when they saw fit?

For many of Connecticut’s private non-profit universities and colleges, this hypothetical example of unnecessary government oversight —while far less weighty in scope and importance— is analogous to a program-development challenge we are facing. Except instead of gastronomical delicacies, it is our ability to add new educational programs without time-consuming government oversight and an onerous approval process that is on the table.

Beyond questioning our ability as experienced, professional educators to make smart, well-informed choices for our own institutions, these burdensome delays prevent us from responding more quickly to changing market demands, student requirements and competitive challenges. Unfortunately, it is yet another example of how Connecticut limits competition and innovation.  And while this oversight is not unique, 36 other U.S. states have ended this restrictive control of academic programs.

Currently, Connecticut’s Office of Higher Education (OHE) reviews each new proposed program twice—once for licensure and once for accreditation. The federal Department of Education has delegated accreditation oversight to the regional accrediting bodies— The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)— in our case. This regional accreditation review comes in addition to reviews that are internal to each university and, oftentimes, in addition to very rigorous reviews by professional accrediting bodies for disciplines such as nursing, engineering, physical therapy and business. These, along with our own internal review processes, should be more than sufficient.

Other states require that both private and public institutions inform them of new programs, but do not insist on analyzing and approving them after they have been evaluated by professionals in the field. What’s more, in Connecticut, four of the State’s 16 independent colleges, including Yale, Trinity, Wesleyan and Connecticut College—as well as the University of Connecticut and colleges in the State University system—are exempt from this extra oversight.

Not only does this create an uneven playing field, but it inhibits private universities’ ability to respond to evolving markets. Given the lengthy review process and the need to create, staff and advertise a program, this can mean that a school under this time-consuming microscope loses an entire academic year or more before admitting students to a new program. It also adds costs and delays to important curriculum development and reform.

The state’s private colleges and universities serve a very important role for current and prospective students, for their future employers and for our local and regional economies. We provide relevant and highly sought-after majors, degrees and certificate programs that meet employer demand and help Connecticut to remain competitive and attract new companies and workers.

We also connect with the employer community through advisory relationships, internships, research collaborations, guest-teaching opportunities and statewide economic-development efforts. In developing new programs, we assess academic foundations and rigor, institutional fit, support, faculty resources and market viability. Only the academically and financially strong programs are ultimately offered.

The Connecticut legislature is now considering S.B. 24, an Act Concerning Program Approval for Independent Institutions of Higher Education. In recent legislative hearings, many Connecticut employers stood alongside their college and university colleagues to support the passage of this bill. Connecticut’s leaders should support legislation that adds value, increases competitiveness and helps Connecticut remain an attractive venue for students, employers and educators.

If passed, S.B. 24 would exempt non-profit colleges and universities that meet specific standards from the program-approval processes now administered by OHE. As a result, new programs can align more effectively with employer needs, competitive trends and economic opportunities. Additionally, it will help level the educational playing field within the state for all institutions of higher education, and across much of the country. And while the quality of a student’s education is of far greater significance than a dinner out, righting this wrong will leave a better taste in all of our mouths.

Rupendra Paliwal is acting provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, and vice president of Strategic Planning at Sacred Heart University.

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