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Accreditation woes a distraction for UTRGV students

Students at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley are worried after their school was placed on probation this week. The school's president says he is confident he'll get the problems fixed.

A student works on the campus of what was then the University of Texas at Brownsville. The university is now part of the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

EDINBURG — Sheena Odoy was studying Tuesday for her finals at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley when an alarming email shattered her focus — her university had been placed on probation by the federally mandated agency that accredits schools in Texas.

Suddenly, finals seemed a lot less pressing. 

The accreditation worries have added one more stress for Odoy and her classmates during an already taxing time. Probation means UTRGV’s status as an accredited university could be at risk. And that threatens the academic future of the school’s 27,500 students.

University officials have made clear that nothing will change for the school in the near term; the probation period lasts 12 months, and the school is allowed to continue operating normally in the meantime. But students said they were worried about what would happen long-term.  

“Losing accreditation means that your degree would no longer be valid,” Odoy said. “The university has been a little too calm. They need to be realistic and inform students to look for options.”

The loss of accreditation would indeed be devastating for the school. Many employers and graduate schools require applicants to have degrees from accredited schools. And students must attend schools that are accredited in order to qualify for federal financial aid. Currently, 63 percent of UTRGV’s students receive need-based aid from the federal government, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

University President Guy Bailey has tried to calm the waters, telling students in an e-mail that the school is working to make sure all the accreditation agency's concerns are adequately addressed.

In an interview, Bailey struck a confident tone, noting he’s been in this position before. When he became president of Texas Tech University in 2008, that school was under probation, too. It caused tense times in Lubbock, but the university emerged unscathed months later.

“I have experience in dealing with this,” he said.

History indicates that there’s a good chance that UTRGV will achieve the same result. It’s rare for accrediting agencies to repeal a university’s accreditation, especially a public university that’s backed by a prominent entity like the University of Texas System. (Accreditors are tasked with making sure schools are properly educating students and not putting them needlessly in debt. But in 2015, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan derisively called accreditors “watchdogs that don’t bite.”)

But for students, the news is still frightening. Some described it as just one more challenge in a tumultuous time for the university, which has campuses in Edinburg and Brownsville. Prior to 2015, those campuses operated as separate universities, and students and faculty have described logistical and political headaches as the schools were combined.  

Some students this week said they have had a hard time transferring course credits from outside the university and that teacher shortages have made it difficult to find open seats in courses they need to graduate.

Juan Manuel Perez, a former graphic design junior, said he changed majors to marketing because the arts departments seemed understaffed and underfunded. He said that most laboratories on campus had outdated versions of computer programs that he needed.  

“I enjoyed graphic design, but their program was really bad compared to other schools,” Perez said. “They didn’t have what we needed to improve as graphic designers. The school couldn’t improve it.” 

It’s unclear how much issues like that factored into the accreditor’s decision. UTRGV should get more details by mid-January. So far, the accrediting agency has only released a list of categories in which UTRGV was found to be deficient. Ten items were identified, including categories such as “integrity,” “financial aid audits,” “acceptance of credits” and “substantive change.” 

Bailey pointed to the merger as the main reason for the concerns, saying UTRGV has tried to do the complicated work of combining two schools in a relatively short time. Soon, the school will develop a plan to address the agency’s concerns, and he said he is confident that it can handle the challenge.

“It is something that we take very seriously,” he said. “But it is also something that is very doable.”

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Disclosure: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and the University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.  

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