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Oakland Community College plans to reapply for accreditation for a virtual campus, hoping to undo a snag that could lead to most of its online classes being canceled for the winter term.

The possibility of mass course cancellations arose after the state’s largest community college was denied accreditation for online programs that would let students earn degrees while taking most or all of their courses outside traditional classrooms.

Officials would not characterize the magnitude of the cuts to online classes, taken by 3,000 students, or about 12 percent of OCC’s 24,000 students. But OCC is examining 257 accredited courses to see if they meet standards for online degrees set by the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission, one of six regional institutions that evaluate colleges.

Initially, OCC told faculty members that all sections of online courses would be canceled for the winter term while the school reapplies, said OCC spokeswoman Janet Roberts. But it’s no longer clear how many online classes will be cut.

The faculty was told of concerns that some students might take more than half of their classes online and complete work for a degree the college couldn’t grant them, Roberts added. At this point, no OCC student is close to earning an online degree.

“That was the concern and still is the concern,” Roberts said. “We don’t want to put students in that situation.”

Mary Ann McGee, president of the OCC Faculty Association, expects nearly all of the online classes to be cut since administrators already said they would have to cancel them.

Although she is glad that the college is advancing the process, she’s “extremely frustrated” because she said the faculty had been trying to get the administration to work toward approval of the online degree program long before it took action.

OCC’s enrollment has been declining for years and now some students may have to take classes elsewhere, according to McGee. Five years ago, the school had more than 29,000 students.

“This is very inconvenient for students,” McGee said.

“We have enrollment issues already, steady decrease for several semesters ... This is just one more problem.”

Growth demands changes

Cathey Maze, OCC vice chancellor for academic affairs, said there is plenty of room for online students in traditional classrooms at least during the winter term. The college is working to reapply for accreditation by next fall.

OCC, the state’s largest community college, has offered online classes since 2001.

But as the number of courses grew, a 2010 federal law required the Higher Learning Commission to approve online programs if students could take more than half of their classes online and earn a degree.

OCC applied in December 2012 for approval of 46 online associate degree programs, said Maze. But a recent HLC report concluded the request was premature and said OCC needed to do more to have its programs accredited.

“We are moving forward with our plans with the idea we will reapply,” Maze said. “We have assurances from them if we do what we told them we intended, they were sure we would get approval.”

Students will be informed how many courses will be cut before winter registration begins Nov. 3. Those who need to take courses can either take them in traditional classrooms or through Michigan Colleges Online, a collaborative allowing students to take 1,200 online courses.

How process works

When a higher education institution begins distance education offerings that include full degree programs, the schools must apply for institutional change, according to John Hausaman, a spokesman for the HLC.

The application is reviewed internally for completeness and then referred to a peer review by faculty and staff members of other higher education institutions.

Peer reviewers evaluate the application and the institution’s capacity to offer the programs, Hausaman said.

Then, the school can respond to the report before the application is presented to HLC’s decision-making body, which grants or denies the requested change.

“In the event an application is denied, an institution can reapply after six months,” said Hausaman, adding that OCC is approved to offer courses by distance education, but not full degree programs.

Online degree programs are becoming more common among community colleges.

Macomb Community College won permission from the HLC in January 2013 to offer online degrees, according to MCC spokeswoman Jeanne Nichol. Students can choose from 22 degree programs and 30 certificate programs.

The Wayne County Community College District does not yet offer online degrees, but it is moving toward it, spokeswoman Tina Bassett said.

“We want to give our students as many options as possible,” he said.

OCC’s to-do list long

A report to OCC from the HLC indicated that the college still had many steps to take to win accreditation for its online degree programs. Among them: Hiring an associate dean for distance learning, completing a review process for existing online courses, developing online course evaluations and establishing a marketing plan for online courses.

“While many plans are in place to implement a comprehensive distance learning program that includes online degrees, several of the key elements are not yet implemented or completed for OCC to effectively offer online degrees,” the report says.

Originally, OCC didn’t plan to offer online degree programs, said Maze, the school’s vice chancellor. But the courses, offered as a convenience, grew organically.

Still, just 1 percent of students take classes online exclusively, while another 11 percent take a combination of online and traditional classes.

As the college looks to the future, Maze said its virtual campus must offer all the same services online as it does to traditional students, such as tutoring, faculty advising and access to those with disabilities.

“We were in the process of piloting a process for online tutoring and advising with a collaborative software program,” Maze said. “They (the HLC) wanted us to have it fully implemented.”

A team that includes counseling and academic support center staff, teaching faculty and deans is working to implement the commission’s recommendations.

“It absolutely has to be done,” OCC board member Tom Kuhn said. “It will result in fewer online sections in the winter term, but hopefully we will be able to take care of the problem and get all these programs accredited.”

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