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College officials rankled by New York State’s slow pace of approving degree programs

Eager to bolster its nursing program, D’Youville College in fall 2013 asked the state Education Department to approve a new accelerated bachelor’s degree program that would train nurses in about a year. ¶ A year and a half later, the college still has not received the approval. ¶ D’Youville officials now wonder if they’ll have enough time to market the new program and recruit students for this year’s fall semester. ¶ “It has been an enormous challenge,” said Arup K. Sen, vice president for academic affairs at D’Youville. “When we send it to State Ed, we’re pretty much at their mercy. The reviewal process should be 30 days. Not months. Not years.” ¶ D’Youville tailored the program for college graduates looking to change careers. With nursing jobs in high demand, college officials anticipated a strong response. So when the college proposed the program, officials hoped to offer the program the following fall.

D’Youville officials are not the only ones frustrated by the long wait to get approvals from the department.

College and university officials across New York have complained that such delays are common for the state Education Department. It routinely takes six to nine months – and sometimes more than two years – for the government department to complete reviews.

“They have to speed up the process,” said Satish K. Tripathi, president of the University at Buffalo, which currently has seven new program submissions under review.

College officials say the delays hurt students and hold back the state’s economy, which relies more than ever on a highly educated workforce.

Some higher education leaders across the state called New York’s system antiquated and overdue for an overhaul, especially as colleges and universities face growing pressure for their degrees to lead to immediate employment.

While local higher education leaders say they have moved to adapt and update their curriculums, they fear New York’s colleges are falling behind others, because most other states don’t require their colleges and universities to seek approvals for program changes.

“The competition for students is going to be even more intense than it’s ever been,” said Cynthia Zane, president of Hilbert College. “The reality is our academic programs are the heart and soul of our business,” Zane said. “It’s imperative that our academic programs are cutting-edge.”

Cuomo’s proposal

For years, college leaders have requested that New York State speed up program reviews.

In his proposed budget, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called for dispensing with the reviews altogether – as other states have done. At first, Cuomo included only the state’s public colleges and universities in his proposal but now it includes the state’s private institutions as well.

But members of the state’s Board of Regents, which oversees all educational activities within New York, including higher education, have expressed reservations about eliminating the reviews. Elizabeth Berlin, the state’s acting commissioner of education, recently urged state legislators to oppose the governor’s proposal, which she said would “lower quality controls” and potentially lead to less-rigorous academic programs.

Berlin also suggested that colleges and universities were often at fault for the slow pace of reviews.

“Delays that occur in program review are typically related to the quality of the submission,” Berlin said recently during a joint legislative budget hearing on higher education.

It’s unclear how much support the governor’s proposal has in the State Legislature. Last year, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, and Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, sponsored bills that would have removed the state Education Department from reviewing academic programs. But the legislation went nowhere.

“That bill was, I think it’s fair to say, not well received by those who are partial to State Ed,” said Schimminger, who reintroduced a similar bill in January at the behest of college and university presidents in Western New York.

‘The whole picture’

State education officials called the delays overstated, and said they most often result from colleges and universities trying to introduce new programs without adding a single new course or qualified faculty members to teach new courses.

“They’re trying, in any way, shape or form, to skimp on these standards,” said John D’Agati, the state Education Department’s deputy commissioner for higher education. “We push back and say, ‘We expect you to hire the appropriate faculty.’ ”

Good proposals for new programs don’t take longer than three or four months to be approved, D’Agati said.

The office that reviews applications for new programs absorbed some layoffs a few years ago with the state in the midst of a budget crisis. The state Education Department has asked the governor and legislators to restore some of those positions, which would help speed up the reviewal process, D’Agati said.

But, he added, “No matter how many people we hire, if it’s a bad proposal that’s not meeting the standard, you’re going to have these long delays.”

Last year, 14 staff members reviewed about 1,000 submissions for new programs and they processed more than three-quarters of those submissions, he said.

Robert M. Bennett, chancellor emeritus of the Board of Regents, said the program approval process could be made more efficient.

“But no review at all? No, we can’t have that,” Bennett said. “What kind of quality control would that be?”

The state Education Department examines new program submissions within a regional context, canvassing nearby institutions to determine whether there’s too much duplication or overlap in a particular program area.

“If someone wants to introduce a new program and there are already four others, one of our jobs is to say, ‘This isn’t needed,’ ” said Bennett. “We fashion ourselves to be properly independent. We’re going to look at the whole picture here.”

Duplicative review

College and university presidents called the state review process unnecessary because the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, a nationally recognized independent accrediting association, already closely examines their programs for quality during an accreditation review.

“It’s an exhaustive process. Accreditation is a high-stakes game. You lose your accreditation and you’re in trouble,” said John Hurley, president of Canisius College.

The state’s review process doesn’t provide any extra benefit for students attending colleges and universities in New York, Hurley added.

Some college presidents also said the qualifications of state reviewers don’t measure up to the curriculum experts who evaluate colleges and universities on behalf of Middle States.

“It’s a nonsensical situation. We are all accredited in New York,” said Daemen College President Gary A. Olson. “They are the experts on the curriculum. They know if you’ve got a good, rigorous program or one that’s a problem.”

It’s not as if the colleges are asking for an end to all state Education Department reviews and regulations, Olson added.

“State Ed has all kinds of other reasons for being,” he said. “There are other more high-level and appropriate areas to weigh in on.”

Gallivan said he sees no reason for “duplicative sets of regulations” on colleges and universities.

“Why can’t the market drive this?” he asked.

But D’Agati, the state’s deputy commissioner for higher education, said Middle States evaluators examine only a sampling of offerings at colleges, after their programs are up and running.

“Very often, they don’t see everything we see,” D’Agati said. “When a college comes in and says, ‘We want to start a new program,’ one of the things we look at is, how did their other programs do?”

Before an institution puts money into a new program, it ought to make certain lower performing programs get the attention they need or are phased out. Otherwise, they’re shortchanging students, D’Agati said.

“Colleges don’t like that. They just want to be able to expand and institute new programs, without getting rid of old ones,” he said.

More new programs

New York is in danger of losing ground if it doesn’t act quickly to change the new program reviews, the local college presidents said.

Pennsylvania moved in 2012 to eliminate its state program approval process, and a similar measure is being considered in Massachusetts.

“With Pennsylvania and Massachusetts going this way, that really ups the ante,” said Zane, the Hilbert College president.

Thirty-six states, including Texas and California, do not have a state education department approval process, according to the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities.

“I’m sensitive to the state Education Department’s desire to maintain quality control, but I know having worked in other states that there are other ways to do it that are more efficient,” said Todd S. Hutton, president of Utica College and chairman of the CICU board of trustees. The state Education Department already seems to be overwhelmed with applications, and the pace of submissions is only going to accelerate, he said.

“Schools are very, very active in developing new programs for the marketplace,” he said.