NW FerrumJohnsInauguration 01

President David Johns speaks in Vaughn Chapel during his inauguration ceremony in October.

The effort to add master’s degrees to the offerings at Ferrum College hit a speed bump when its application was denied by the school’s accreditor.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges declined to approve a “substantive change” that would allow Ferrum to grant more advanced degrees.

Ferrum College President David Johns, who took the helm at the Franklin County institution at the beginning of 2018, indicated his interest in offering master’s degrees shortly after arriving on campus.

He has characterized offering master’s degrees as the next step in the college’s evolution. Ferrum began as a training school, then transitioned to become a junior college and finally a four-year institution granting baccalaureate degrees.

“It’s really important to note this has nothing to do with the college’s accreditation, which is solid,” Johns said in an interview Thursday. “This is about our plans to expand offerings to meet some labor and workforce needs in the region.”

The college proposed two new programs: a master’s degree in forensic investigation and an education specialist degree. Both would be offered entirely online, a first for the college, Johns said.

Ferrum is currently defined by its accreditor as a Level II institution, meaning the highest degree it offers is a bachelor’s degree. The college hoped to move up to Level III and Level IV, which would allow Ferrum to offer a master’s degree and education specialist degree, respectively.

When an institution seeks to establish a new academic program or offer a degree at a higher or lower level, it must submit documentation outlining its plans which then goes to the board for its consideration, said Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

“Their plan and the supporting documentation was not satisfactory,” she said.

The board makes such decisions public, and releases what it calls a disclosure statement explaining its reasoning. The statement indicates Ferrum’s application was denied because it failed to demonstrate compliance with standards relating to faculty and program content. Those standards are outlined in a document titled The Principles of Accreditation.

Wheelan said the primary issue in Ferrum’s case was a lack of information.

Johns said the accreditor sought clarity on “how we assess learning consistently throughout all of our new programs.”

The president also said it can be difficult to have a full roster of faculty in place for a program that does not yet exist. To address the accreditor’s concerns about faculty, Johns said the college will include plans for hiring additional faculty in its next application.

Officials will also reevaluate the proposed programs. Johns said they are committed to the education specialist degree, but may propose something other than the forensic investigation master’s degree.

The college can resubmit its application for a level change at any time. Wheelan said the board would take up such matters when it next meets in December.

Ferrum plans to resubmit its application this fall for consideration in December, and Johns said college officials fully expect to be offering the more advanced degree programs this time next year. He said the college has even done some restructuring, creating a division of online graduate and education studies, in preparation.

“We’re putting things in place so we’re ready to roll when we get all of the green lights,” Johns said.

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