A federally mandated commission that handles accreditation for universities in the southern United States placed the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley on probation Tuesday, possibly putting at risk the reputation of the school and the ability of its students to receive certain financial aid. 

The move is a blow for school officials working to build the UT System school into a research and education powerhouse for the South Texas region. The probation period will last for a year and won't have an immediate effect on how the university is run. But, according to the accreditation agency's sanction policy, probation "is usually, but not necessarily, invoked as the last step before an institution is removed from membership."

Losing accreditation would be devastating for the school. Students who attend unaccredited schools might not qualify for federal financial aid, and many employers and professional licensing organizations require that their applicants be graduates of accredited schools. 

UTRGV President Guy Bailey notified the campus community of the development in an e-mail Tuesday morning. He said the school received preliminary notification that day and will receive more information in mid-January. 

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"Please note that during this time, UTRGV remains fully accredited and the academic and administrative operations of the institution will continue as they have in the past," he wrote. 

All public universities in Texas must go through the accreditation process, which includes a review of the finances and operations of the school. Accreditors are looking to make sure that universities have an appropriate mission, have the resources to meet that mission and have a track record of success. Being placed on probation is a sign that a school hasn't met that standard. 

UTRGV is basically a brand new school, created through the merger of two existing University of Texas System schools, UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American, with the goal of building up a major research university in south Texas. Its first freshman class enrolled last year. 

The group in charge of UTRGV's accreditation — the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges — is meeting this week and has not released the details of its accreditation decisions. But Bailey said in his letter to the campus community that it was placed on probation due to the complex process of merging the schools. Bailey called them "timing issues," especially related to the dissolution of a prior partnership between UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, which is also based in Brownsville.

Many parts of the merger have been touted by UTRGV and its governing system as a success. The university awarded over 5,400 degrees in its first year. This year, it enrolled its first class of students in its new medical school. 

"We want to assure you that our primary effort throughout has been to ensure the success of our students; to facilitate the transition of legacy students to UTRGV; and to expand educational opportunities throughout the RGV," Bailey said. 

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Disclosure: The University of Texas System and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley have been corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune and Guy Bailey has been a financial supporter of the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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