Private colleges chafe at state review of programs

When Walter Harrison became president of the University of Hartford, he was astonished that a state regulatory process was holding up a proposed new academic program to train cantors, the officials who sing or chant prayers in synagogues.

The campus already had well-known programs in music and Jewish studies, and Harrison didn’t understand why a private university would need state approval under a procedure that could take months.

On Tuesday, 12 years later, in a hearing before state lawmakers, he recounted that story, hoping to end a longstanding licensing system that the state says is a crucial consumer protection safeguard for students but that private college officials call a waste of time.

Harrison was one of several representatives of private colleges supporting a bill that would eliminate a requirement that nonprofit private colleges and universities get state approval for new or revised academic programs.

State Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti, however, told the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee that the deregulation of academic programs “would be a disservice to Connecticut students, taxpayers and employers.”

The licensing process, he said, “is the only type of consumer protection that exists to assure parents, employers and taxpayers of the rigor and validity of programs offered by our colleges.”

In a program that has been in place for more than a half century, the state has had the authority to review proposed academic programs at most public and private colleges and universities, considering factors such as faculty credentials, library facilities and financial stability.

Four private schools – Yale University, Wesleyan University, Trinity College and Connecticut College – are exempt from the reviews under their legislative charters, Meotti said, but all other public and private colleges and universities must have their academic programs approved by the state Board of Governors for Higher Education.

Without such regulatory procedures, students would face the risk of diploma mills that sell college degrees with little or no work required, training programs masquerading as degree-granting programs, and career training programs that fail to meet state occupational licensing requirements, Meotti said.

Several private college representatives, however, told the legislative committee that their academic programs undergo rigorous internal reviews by faculty and others and that the state process is cumbersome and of little value.

“In my view, Connecticut’s current requirement is an unnecessary and redundant program that is out of step with the best higher education practices around the country,” Harrison said.

At the University of Bridgeport, the state’s review process delayed a bachelor’s degree program in health sciences that had originally been scheduled to start last fall, President Neil Salonen told the committee. The program was licensed only recently and will start next fall with a limited enrollment because of the delay, he said.

Only 10 other states regulate private, non-profit colleges and universities, said Judith Greiman, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges. In light of the state’s worsening financial crisis, repealing the licensing requirement not only would save time, it would save money, she said.

However, Meotti said later that Connecticut’s regulatory process has prevented abuses.

“There are states where higher education is much more the Wild, Wild West, and it’s buyer beware,” he said.