One of Pima Community College’s premier program sites isn’t properly accredited — and students there have been cut off from financial aid as a result.

The Aviation Technology Program is in limbo because PCC neglected years ago to seek accreditor approval to operate it at Tucson International Airport, college documents obtained by the Arizona Daily Star show.

The lack of site accreditation means aviation students receiving financial aid don’t actually qualify for it. Under federal rules, students qualify only if enrolled in properly accredited programs.

The college is waiting to hear whether it will have to repay the federal government for aid dispensed in error before the problem was discovered.

PCC officials, who have discussed the matter in closed-door executive sessions six times since January, said Friday in response to questions from the Star that they hope to have the problem fixed soon.

PCC spokeswoman Libby Howell said the school’s Governing Board also discussed the issue in public, at a study session on Feb. 22. But neither the agenda, the board materials nor the minutes of the Feb. 22 meeting reference the aviation program’s accreditation problem.

Students concerned

Some affected students are skeptical — and scared.

Dennise Ponce said she was crushed to learn the federal government has frozen a $3,000 student loan disbursement she was expecting within days, leaving her without money to live on when her classes resume next week.

“I can’t pay my rent, and my car is in the shop and I can’t get it out,” said Ponce, 27, who quit a bartending job and relocated from Nogales to study aviation at PCC.

“I’m scared at this point. I’m worried about the future and how this will affect my grades.”

Ponce questions why PCC administrators, who have known about the problem for months, didn’t tell students until about a week ago.

“If they had let me know about this a few months ago, I could have saved up and planned for it,” she said. “Now I’m stranded.”

Howell said school officials waited to notify students until “we had more concrete and useful details we could share with them.”

PCC is doing what it can to help those affected, she said — for example, by offering tuition scholarships to students whose financial aid is frozen for summer classes. That doesn’t help students like Ponce, though, who is attending on a scholarship. She already doesn’t pay tuition, and took out the student loan to live on so she could devote herself full-time to her studies.

150 enrolled

Howell said about 150 students are enrolled in the aviation program, but it isn’t clear how many will need the tuition scholarships. Unlike students in the two-semester system, aviation students often take classes at different times of year, and PCC isn’t sure yet how many are taking summer classes.

The college hopes to have the problem fixed before fall semester starts, said a fact sheet recently distributed to affected students.

Howell said PCC officials recently discovered the problem and reported it to the college’s accreditor and to the U.S. Education Department.

Details are hazy because time has passed, Howell said, but it appears the aviation center, built in 2001, became subject several years later to an accreditation rule change that someone at the college overlooked.

The rule requires schools offering programs off-campus to get accreditor approval once more than 50 percent of a program is being run from a satellite site. PCC now is seeking that approval after the fact and officials hope to have a decision “shortly,” Howell said.

But that alone won’t solve the financial aid problem.

Once aid is cut off, it often takes the federal government “two months or more” to restore it, the fact sheet for affected students said.

As a backup, PCC may relocate half the aviation program to its Desert Vista campus, the closest one to the Tucson airport. But that plan also has a wrinkle: It requires approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which certifies aircraft mechanics and technicians.

The school’s aviation programs rely heavily on students having access to real aircraft in a real work environment, and that access would be cut in half if training moves from TIA to Desert Vista.

Not the first time

PCC faced a somewhat similar situation in 2012.

At the time, the college was about to move its paramedic program into a former elementary school when someone belatedly realized the change needed accreditor approval. The new classrooms stayed empty for months and taxpayers were stuck paying two rents until the matter was resolved , which cost about $85,000 in public funds.

Even after that, no one at PCC checked to make sure the college’s other satellite locations had proper status.

The college isn’t the only entity that overlooked the aviation site problem.

Both the Education Department, which dispenses financial aid, and the Higher Learning Commission, PCC’s primary accreditor, have visited the college repeatedly in recent years to address various problems and didn’t pick up on it.

PCC has been under sanction by its accreditor since 2013 and remains so. The college has until the end of the year to prove to the accreditor that it deserves a clean bill of health. Howell said the fact the aviation center problem was detected shows the college is making progress toward correcting its past problems.

PCC has had a string of mix-ups related to financial aid in recent years. In 2014, for example, the college was temporarily banned from enrolling military veterans because it failed to track their aid eligibility.

Ponce said she’s shocked such a situation could occur in the prestigious aviation program, which PCC often showcases when giving tours to visiting dignitaries.

The program itself is “magnificent” and instructors are top-notch, she said.

“I was told this was top aviation school, and it is. It’s just so disappointing that students have been put in this position.”

Contact Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@tucson.com or 573-4138.