04/25/2012 01:09 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

D.C. Needs an Independent Community College and a Smaller, Stronger U.D.C.

For many years, the District of Columbia was the only "state" or major metropolitan area without a community college. In 2009, the University of the District of Columbia created a community college division, which was meant to fill that void. While U.D.C has all along indicated an interest in seeing the community college achieve its own accreditation and become "independent," the D.C. Council hoped to accelerate that process, and appointed a D.C. Community College Transition to Independence Advisory Board to work with the leadership of U.D.C and the community college to create a plan for independence.

On April 23, in testimony before the D.C. Council on U.D.C's FY2013 budget, the five-member Advisory Board made public its initial findings. The findings are premised on the need for the community college to retain consistent accreditation through the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the regional accrediting body, so that students remain eligible for financial aid, and that credits and degrees earned at the community college are recognized by other accredited institutions. This means that the best pathway to independence for the community college lies in becoming recognized first as a branch campus of U.D.C, and then becoming a separately accredited branch, before becoming fully independent of U.D.C.

The challenge, however, is that U.D.C. is currently in a precarious financial state. It has run a deficit for several years and depends on an increasingly larger appropriation from the District to meet its escalating costs. And independence of the community college depends upon U.D.C being a stable, fiscally healthy institution that can justify and support the creation of a financially-sustainable new branch.

In order to begin to move both U.D.C and the Community College down the path of fiscal stability and branch campus status beginning in FY2013, Advisory Board members Walter A. Smith, executive director of D.C. Appleseed, Carrie L. Thornhill, president and CEO of Great Start D.C. and chairperson of Deanwood Heights Main Streets, Alice M. Rivlin, senior fellow in the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution and visiting professor at the Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University, Joshua M. Kern, managing member of TenSquare, and John W. Hill, CEO of the Federal City Council, made three recommendations to the D.C. Council:

The Council should direct $14.48 million of U.D.C.'s funds in the FY2013 budget to the community college, which is the amount it needs to supplement tuition revenue to pay direct costs. The Council should also grant the community college line-item budget authority. These are necessary for the community college to meet Middle States' requirements for becoming a branch campus of U.D.C. -- an essential step for achieving independence.

U.D.C., as the community college's flagship university, must repair its precarious financial condition. Its costs per full-time student are 60 percent higher than comparable institutions. Its reserves are less than $13 million, compared with $50 million held by similarly sized institutions in good financial health. And its faculty and staff are of a size out of proportion to the student body. To address these circumstances, U.D.C. must develop a right-sized plan for itself that reflects the size and needs of its current and likely student body, puts the university on sound financial footing, and ensures the future of the community college.

U.D.C.'s board of trustees must develop with D.C. leaders a shared vision of public higher education for the city. The Council should condition the university's FY2013 budget on the development and implementation of a plan to right-size U.D.C and move the community college to independence.

Not only will the Mayor and Council need to work closely with U.D.C.'s Board of Trustees and leadership to develop a vision that aligns the University with the District's educational and economic priorities, but management and labor are going to need to move forward to ensure that new contracts support the same vision. There is hard work ahead but we are confident that, with everyone working toward the same goals, this work will be accomplished.