Culinary college weighing merger or appeal to avoid closing

Baltimore International College is exploring possible mergers with other institutions and weighing a possible appeal in its attempts to forestall closing because of lost accreditation, the college's Board of Trustees announced Thursday afternoon.

The culinary and hospitality management college learned at the end of last week that it would lose its accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education on Aug. 31. Without the accreditation, the downtown college would be unable to receive federal financial aid and would face an uphill battle to continue operating, President Edgar Schick said this week.

The college has 30 days from the date it received the accreditation decision to ask for reconsideration, and if that request is denied, it can appeal to a panel of reviewers who weren't involved in the initial decision.

"The Board is seeking ways in which the College can continue its educational programs in Baltimore, and is actively exploring an affiliation with another accredited college or university," read a statement posted on the college's website.

"Expressions of interest have come from multiple institutions and discussions are currently taking place. Negotiating an affiliation is complex, and the Board is moving as rapidly as possible to reach a positive solution."

On Thursday afternoon, students at the college's main building said they're nervous about their fate but loyal to an institution that's taking unfair criticism.

"There's a lot of frustration and anxiety," said Phillip Vellines, a first-year culinary student from Harford County.

"It's very frustrating," added classmate Ryan Kaiser, who hails from the Eastern Shore. "But we stand by our school. I have nothing bad to say about this place. This new administration was left with a mess, and they're trying to clean it up."

"The chefs are outstanding," said Vellines. "Everything they teach us is right on point."

Other students passed the day bemoaning the lack of a definitive statement on the college's Facebook page. Some said they felt betrayed that the college took their money (annual tuition and fees cost $27,390) when its accreditation was in peril. Some praised their instructors and said they wished to continue at Baltimore International.

Nancy Longo, the chef at Pierpoint Restaurant in Fells Point, said she was saddened by the plight of a school where she studied, taught and served on the board in the late 1990s. "I've talked to several alumni in the last 24 hours, and we're upset," she said. "We didn't feel like we got a poor education there."

Longo wondered if the school simply spread itself too thin by adding programs over the years. She predicted that a national culinary chain will take over the school. "That actually wouldn't be bad for the kids," she said. "But the sad thing is the loss of the Baltimore flavor."

Schick says the college has made great strides in the past year, adopting a strategic plan, clarifying its expectations for faculty and board members and adding support services for struggling students.

But a final report by the review team that visited Baltimore International in late April paints a damning picture of a college with little grasp of how to retain students, measure academic performance or generate revenue from sources other than tuition.

The report gives the college's administration credit for "good faith attempts" to address concerns raised by the Middle States Commission but portrays many of the college's responses as thin efforts to stave off the loss of accreditation rather than deeply considered changes. It rates the college as out of compliance with six of the 14 standards upheld by the Middle States Commission and in "serious danger" of falling out of compliance with two others.

The report also notes several troubling statistics, including that only one-third of instructional personnel are full-time employees and that only 8 percent of the freshmen who enrolled in 2009 became sophomores in 2010.

Given such retention problems, the report questions the college's projections for enrollment growth. The report says that when a vice president was "pressed on the reliability of enrollment projections given the flat enrollments over the past decade and the substandard retention and graduation rates, his response was that no one at the institution had a real statistical handle on the magnitude of retention and graduation activity."

Despite the college's addition of tutoring labs last year, the report says, "BIC has demonstrated no fundamental understanding of, and consequently no commitment to student success."

The report also questions the college's financial stability, given that it relies on tuition from students who often stay for no more than a year. "It is hard to see from what has been provided by the institution that there has been any serious movement with respect to fundraising," it reads.

Vellines, the student from Harford County, said he was shocked when he heard about the lost accreditation. "I was told by people I believe in that they were working through the process and thought they would meet the goals," he said.

He and Kaiser said they've seen none of the disorganization or lack of direction detailed in the Middle States report.

"They're not here every day to see what we see," said Kaiser, who plans to attend Baltimore International as long as it's operating.

"They're not giving up on us," he said of administrators and instructors, "so we won't give up on them."

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