MCALLEN, RGV – South Texas College has hired outside attorneys to challenge Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board after auditors said the college cannot waive tuition for their continuing education program.

Shirley Reed, President of South Texas College (STC), said the college has a continuing education program designed for at-risk high school students who may not finish a post secondary education. Continuing education is often confused with dual enrollment, however continuing education does not qualify for academic credit.

“We wanted them to have employability skills and to have a certificate to say they’ve had some preparation in customer service, communication [and] workplace ethics,” Reed said. “That was the whole intent–to help some of these rather at-risk challenged young people to get basic employability skills.”

STC entered a partnership with several school districts to incorporate the continuing education program. Reed said the agreement was the college would waive tuition if the teachers would help educate their students. Nearly 4,000 or 5,000 students have participated in the program.

However, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recently audited STC and said the college shouldn’t be waiving tuition and collecting state content hours. Reed said in 2013, an audit was made and the same auditors said everything was fine.

STC emailed Duane Hiller, program director of THECB, asking if waiving tuition was legal. The college received a confirmation from Hiller saying yes.

“So we expanded the program and it grew very rapidly,” Reed said. “I think the coordinating board was shocked as to how many students we were serving and shame on us for responding to the community need and doing such a good job. Shame on us.”

With the amount of success STC has achieved with dual enrollment programs and the continuing education program, Reed said the board can’t believe how well students from South Texas are doing.

“If this was in Dallas or Houston, we probably would be getting an award for what we do,” Reed said. “But because it’s in South Texas there’s almost a condescending arrogance.”

THECB sent STC a letter stating they’ll be deducting money beginning in August. The amount of money the board intends to take back is approximately $2.3 million.

“I didn’t appreciate the tone, the kind of questions that we were asked,” Reed said. “Almost the innuendo that we were fraudulently claiming this money. STC has a very high level of integrity. With just a sterling board and to suggest we fraudulently claimed this, that’s quite offensive. The board is incensed [and] I’m really quite disappointed in the coordinating board and the commissioner.”

Weatherford College experienced similar events to STC. However, Reed said they chose not to fight the board.

“You have to be concerned about the political fallout because we have to work with this agency,” Reed said. “If we sue them, we now have a very adversarial relationship. But when they start questioning our integrity, you’ve crossed the line.”

Reed said STC is working with outside attorneys. The college has the option of presenting their case to a judge or STC can file a lawsuit to let a jury decide.

“It’s quite unfortunate, but that’s the reality of what we’re dealing with,” Reed said. “I talked with Senator [Juan] Hinojosa and he was quite taken back by this action and I don’t want to speak for him, but the impression I got from the conversation was that state agencies have to be accountable. There has to be a state process where you can question their decision making.”

Reed said the legislature needs to clarify the statutes in the legislation.

“In the legislation, statutes say that the board must approve the tuition–there must be a minimum tuition, but that only applies to what we call credit courses where you’re getting academic credit for the courses. It is silent on continuing education. It doesn’t say you have to charge. It also doesn’t have a minimum age.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows South Texas College President Shirley A. Reed at the proposed site for an expanded nursing and allied health complex. The Rio Grande Guardian will be covering the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s criticism of South Texas College in more depth later this week. Rio Grande Guardian reporter Steve Taylor contributed to this story from McAllen.