Local: Education

Barras: Abusing the District's public university, Part 2

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Local,DC,Education,Jonetta Rose Barras

When Walter Smith sent out his year-end solicitation letter from DC Appleseed, where he is executive director, one 2012 achievement listed was his service as chairman of the mayor's advisory panel on independence for the city's community college. Smith boasted the advisory group's recommendations had been adopted by the D.C. Council.

READ PART 1
See Part 1 of Jonetta Rose Barras' two-part series on the University of the District of Columbia at this link.

"Now, we are working to ensure that both the community college and [University of the District of Columbia] are thriving," Smith wrote.

Actually, Smith and his cohorts, including the Brookings Institution's Alice Rivlin, have exacerbated UDC's financial woes while instigating a leadership crisis that followed the firing of the school's president, Allen Sessoms.

Those troubles have been compounded by a legislature that has treated UDC as an adult job training program rather than an institution of higher learning. Further, the federal tuition assistance grant, or TAG, has exported potential students, providing up to $10,000 for District high school graduates to attend state universities anywhere in the country -- except UDC.

"There are no good guys in this story," said one high-level government source who, like others I spoke with, requested anonymity.

A little background here: When Federal City College, Washington Technical Institute and D.C. Teachers' College were merged to create UDC, District officials intended to build a competitive, affordable public institution. Despite a string of underwhelming presidents and infestations of political cronies, UDC actually enrolled and graduated more District residents than many of the area's private universities. Its decline began in the 1990s, when the financial control slashed its budget, sold off several of its assets and advocated conversion to a community college.

In 2008, Rivlin, a former control board chairwoman, and Smith rekindled that effort, underscoring the adage if at first you don't succeed, try again.

While UDC always has offered associate degrees, District-elected officials soon caught the community college fever. Responding to Smith and his posse's advocacy, legislators mandated the creation and physical separation of a community college.

That unfunded mandate forced UDC officials to use the school's reserves. An operating deficit was born.

Adding insult to that injury, the council demanded UDC submit an application to Middle States for accreditation of the community college as a "branch campus." Further, in the 2013 Budget Support Act, the legislature ordered UDC to set aside $14.48 million of its budget for the community college and transfer select tuition to that institution.

That meant more than $20 million was snatched from UDC's main "flagship," undermining its stability while activating "right-sizing" as the mantra du jour.

Smith, UDC's trustees and others claim they intend to save the flagship four-year institution. But rather than removing obstacles hindering its success -- redirecting the TAG program, for example -- their machinations have led to the current multilayered crisis. Further, they have created a public relations nightmare, sending the message that UDC is incapable of providing a quality education to anyone.

Meanwhile, it appears minimum resources offered UDC are being pimped to assure the community college's accreditation. Then, you can expect the flagship to suffer a quick death.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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