Topeka A dispute between Washburn University and the Kansas Board of Regents goes to the fundamental question of who is in charge of Kansas higher education, officials say.
Under agreements signed between Washburn and 14 community colleges, students can stay at the two-year community schools and earn a four-year degree from Washburn.
Essentially, the program allows students to transfer 84 hours of junior college credit to Washburn 20 more credit hours than is normally allowed from other public universities.
Under the Washburn program, a student can take 84 hours of credit at the community college and then finish a bachelor's degree from Washburn by taking 40 hours of upper-division work via the Internet.
Washburn officials say this helps degree-seeking students who may not be able to afford moving to a campus far from home.
"This is for the student who can't leave their county and doesn't have access to a four-year degree program," said Ron Wasserstein, vice president for academic affairs at Washburn.
The same standards
But officials at the other universities say the agreements between Washburn and the other community colleges are watering down the four-year degree.
At Fort Hays State University, graduates average 59 hours of upper-division credit, according to FHSU President Edward Hammond. By allowing 84 hours of lower-division credit within a 124-hour degree program, "you are significantly reducing the quality of that degree," Hammond said.
"The issue is one of standards. We have asked the Board of Regents what is the standard for a baccalaureate degree. We all need to be playing by the same standard," he said.
Kansas University has decided to stay out of the fray, according to Lynn Bretz, interim director of University Relations.
"This is an issue between Washburn and regents policy," she said.
Janice DeBauge of Emporia, the lead regent working on the issue, said Washburn shouldn't be allowed to form agreements on its own that will affect other universities.
"This is a statewide coordination issue that must be addressed by the Kansas Board of Regents," DeBauge said.
She said the Washburn agreements change the mission of the community colleges.
"These kinds of decisions must be made by a statewide panel, not a university," she said.
Kim Wilcox, president and chief executive officer of the regents, said: "The issue is whether or not the regents has the authority to define what degrees are. That is perhaps the most fundamental question that we as a state could face."
But Washburn officials say they are within their rights to offer the program. Washburn is somewhat independent from the regents. Unlike KU, Kansas State University and the regional universities, Washburn also is supported by local property taxes in Topeka, and it has its own governing board.
Under the 1999 overhaul of the higher education system in Kansas, the reconstituted regents were to oversee the six public universities and be the "coordinating" board for Washburn and the community colleges. The question is what does that coordination entail?
Can the regents order Washburn to pull the plug on the program? Washburn officials say the regents doesn't have that authority and if it tried to force the issue would probably be challenged legally.
"Somebody the attorney general or the courts would probably have to evaluate what everybody's legal status was," Wasserstein said, though he said he hoped that wouldn't happen.
Wasserstein doesn't buy the argument that Washburn is watering down a four-year degree by allowing 84 hours of credit from a community college. He said lower-division courses offered at a community college are on par with those at a state university, and notes that those credits are transferable to a state university up to 64 hours. Why would credits above that 64-hour limit be tainted, he asked.
And he said he doesn't believe the program will take students away from other universities. Only 170 students are in the program, with 130 of those at either Johnson County Community College or Kansas City Kansas Community College. The agreements include only five degree programs, which include criminal justice, human services, technical administration, nursing and governmental administration.
Dan Radakovich, vice president for academic affairs at JCCC, said Washburn is simply doing what many other universities are allowing.
"It seems to me that Washburn is right in the mix with the rest of the nation," he said.
Radakovich said the agreement with Washburn helps students who need to stay in the community for work or family reasons.
"It benefits the students and I think that's what it all should be about," he said.
The dispute flared at the regents meeting earlier this month with no resolution. Now regents members and staff are meeting with Washburn officials in hopes of reaching a compromise by the November regents meeting.