By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety) - The College of the Marshall Islands’ continued U.S. accreditation remains uncertain — but indications from a Western Association of Schools and Colleges team that visited the college last week for the second time this year is that the college will likely remain on probation as it works to resolve the numerous eligibility problems identified by WASC.

"It’s easy to say that the college has serious problems," said Bob Harris, the WASC team leader, who also led the first review team last February. "In my experience, there are not many colleges that have eligibility problems."

But, he said, the Majuro-based college has numerous eligibility issues. Still, WASC doesn’t want to see colleges shut down and wants to see the College of the Marshall Islands rebound, Harris said.

A key part of accreditation, aside from allowing College of the Marshall Islands graduates to transfer credits to four-year U.S. colleges, is that it makes the college eligible for U.S. Pell student grants that currently account for more than 50 percent of the college’s operating budget. Loss of accreditation would halt the flow of Pell grants, putting the college’s future in doubt.

Among a list of administrative, academic and financial problems, Harris emphasized the lack of financial audits for five years, and the finding by auditors of 18 "material weaknesses" in the college’s financial accounting system.

"If I had one material weakness at my college, I wouldn’t have a job," said Harris, who is president of a community college in California. "It might not have been seen as a big issue here, but it’s huge."

Harris said there is a need for policies in all areas of the college. Despite the problems with no audits for five years, there is still no board policy requiring audits on an annual basis, he said.

In addition to the audit issues, there is concern about:

• Continuing high turnover of administrative staff, including the recent resignations of several administrators.

• Ongoing funding levels. The Marshall Islands proposed funding of $2.2 million — more than triple the usual annual grant — is still a "promise" and the college’s plan to pay back its debt can’t materialize until the college actually sees the money from the government.

WASC team member Judith Endeman said morale at the school was clearly higher because the staff and students were involved in the process.

"The college is awake," Harris said of the college’s effort since February to address its many shortcomings. But, he added, "it continues to be a major concern that there are no policies (in many areas)."

Harris was encouraged that faculty, staff and administrators have "bought into" the recommendations. "Change is difficult for human beings," he added.

"But here it is the order of the day. They’ve embraced change and they feel good about it."

Still, there are very significant deficiencies despite the college’s tremendous effort to rebound, he indicated.

The College of the Marshall Islands current probation status is the last step before a school loses its accreditation. "Probation is it," Harris said. "You can’t drop to a lower level."

He said there was no way to predict how the full WASC board will rule on the college’s accreditation situation when it meets in Jan. 2004. Still, he said: "No one wants to see the college fail. That’s the worst possibility. The commission will do everything to make it succeed."

Harris said "there’s a good chance that we’ll return in April (for another review in advance of WASC’s June meeting)."

November 25, 2003

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