NIC remains accredited — for now

(UPDATED, 4:02 p.m., with additional comments and reaction.)

North Idaho College will remain accredited — for up to one more year.

In what the college is calling a “neutral decision,” a regional panel is keeping the embattled Coeur d’Alene-based community college’s accreditation intact.

But NIC will continue to operate under the shadow of a “show-cause” designation. In other words, college officials still have to convince the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities that NIC should be accredited for the long haul.

In the short term, for as long as 12 months, the status quo will remain intact at the 90-year-old college. NIC’s 4,000 students will still be able to transfer their credits to other schools. Students will still be able to receive financial aid, such as Idaho’s Opportunity Scholarship. The reprieve could also give NIC a chance to address some of the other problems stemming from the accreditation battle — including a precipitous drop in enrollment that has unfolded over several years.

Nick Swayne

“We are relying on our community for continued support as we make forward progress in the challenging work ahead,” President Nick Swayne said in a statement to students and employees Friday, shortly after the NWCCU issued its decision. “I look forward to seeing you in fall semester.”

The NWCCU decision is the latest chapter, but not the final word, in an accreditation battle that has raged since 2021. The threats to accreditation have had little to do with academics at the state’s oldest two-year college. Instead, NWCCU has raised concerns about governance: a chronic leadership churn, including four presidents over the past two years; and constant infighting on the college’s five-member board of trustees.

In its three-page decision, NWCCU noted that college officials have made significant progress on several issues. The college’s finances are more transparent, for example, and trustees better “understand, embrace, and adhere to existing shared governance structures.”

But the letter from NWCCU President Sonny Ramaswamy also spells out nine to-do items. Included on the list:

  • The board must address concerns raised by staff and students, in a series of no-confidence votes directed at trustees. The board must also “demonstrate a willingness to work with and support faculty, staff, and students when their concerns are communicated.”
  • Swayne and trustees “should demonstrate a commitment to an environment respectful of meaningful discourse.”
  • Addressing leadership churn, NIC trustees “must act to unequivocally identify one CEO/President for the institution.” Swayne was reinstated in March, but Gregory South, brought on in December as an interim replacement for Swayne, remains with NIC on paid leave.
  • NIC must resolve legal, governance and accreditation issues that could impact the college’s “long-term financial stability.”

Resolving these issues “will require significant work,” Swayne said Friday. “The college remains committed to addressing all concerns.”

The extension gives NIC a reprieve of up to a year. At the end of the extension, NWCCU could grant accreditation, pull accreditation, or grant a second and final extension of up to another year.

Ultimately, NIC faces an April 1, 2025 deadline. If the college is not in good standing by that date, NWCCU must pull the accreditation, according to commission and federal guidelines.

Save NIC, a Coeur d’Alene-based nonprofit, welcomed Friday’s news of a reprieve.

“This is a positive outcome,” the group said in an e-newsletter. “While NIC remains at serious risk of losing accreditation, progress has been made and needs to continue for the next year and beyond.”

Accreditation is a pivotal educational and economic development issue in the Panhandle communities NIC serves, but the issue also carries statewide implications.

Community colleges like NIC derive most of their budgets from local property taxes and student tuition and fees, but they also collect state funding. In 2023-24, NIC will receive about $15.2 million from state tax coffers.

Community colleges represent a key ingredient in the state’s higher education network — and the State Board retains “general supervision” over all educational institutions, including community colleges. But over recent months, the State Board has sought to defer to the NIC’s local board of trustees.

State Board executive director Matt Freeman declined to comment Friday on the NWCCU decision — referring back to December statements from former board President Kurt Liebich, expressing concern over accreditation, but deferring to trustees.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Brad Little acknowledged that a loss of accreditation “would significantly impact current NIC students, businesses, and the entire region.” But the fate of the college will be determined locally.

“North Idaho voters elect NIC’s board of trustees with the expectation that they will act with the institution’s best interest in mind and lead appropriately,” Madison Hardy said Friday afternoon.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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