Saturday, March 27, 2004

Union Institute rules get stricter

Financial aid, progress in Ph.D. program documented more closely

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

WALNUT HILLS - A private, national university headquartered in Cincinnati has made sweeping changes in its Ph.D. program after separate investigations by the Ohio Board of Regents and the U.S. Department of Education.

Union Institute and University, known for its flexible program that allows working professionals to help tailor their studies to earn a degree, will now adhere to stricter reporting requirements.

Students will continue to talk to professors over the telephone or via e-mail instead of attending lectures in a formal classroom. But they must now follow more stringent rules when they document their academic progress and apply for financial aid.

Among the changes:

•  Union created a credit-hour system that more closely mirrors traditional college programs. Previously the school had not assigned credit-hours to specific coursework.

•  The college also set up more concrete semesters, which will define a student's eligibility for financial aid. Before the change, students were not required to re-enroll.

•  Students are now required to complete their doctoral program in no less than three and no more than seven years. The requirement had been no less than two years and no more than 10.

•  Students must also complete academic progress reports every six months. Before the changes, the time period was much more fluid, school officials said.

Neither review affected the school's bachelor's or master's degree programs.

The U.S. Department of Education reviewed Union's doctoral program in summer 2003 to evaluate whether the school was in compliance with federal financial aid requirements. School officials say the review stemmed from student complaints, as well as Union's purchase of Vermont College in fall 2001.

Union was not given details about the nature of the complaints, school officials said.

The department implemented an "emergency action," against Union in October, which froze about $5 million in federal financial aid to students until a settlement was reached in December 2003, school officials said.

Now, the institution can receive financial aid funds for doctoral students, but only after the Department of Education has approved the paperwork. School officials say delays have been up to 60 days.

"In a fairly brief period of time, we have worked collaboratively and productively with the Ohio Board of Regents and the U.S. Department of Education in a effort to review and strengthen our academic programs, services and accountability to learners," said President Roger Sublett.

The reviews made doctoral students such as Donald Ostasiewski, 63, a longtime professor at Thomas More College, nervous. Ostasiewski of Monfort Heights teaches business and economics courses. "It initially concerned me," he said. "One always wonders if your college is going to be there when it's fine to get your degree. But that faded rather quickly.''


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