State Community College accreditor determined unfit after five decades

City college of san franciscoIn deciding last week to remove the body that accredits community colleges in California, state commissioners erased five decades of authority and opened the door to a new oversight body.

The move to get a new accreditation plan in place could take a decade, while the state’s 2.1 million community college students look for guidance in a complex system.

The fatal action for the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges was its challenge to City College of San Francisco. The commission in 2012 began raising concerns about financial and governance practices at the college and at one point threatened to revoke the college’s accreditation, landing the two parties in court.

City College has acknowledged its precarious financial position and its revolving door of administrators. The school has pruned expenses and tightened its finances, according to a bond filing issued earlier this year.

Which leaves the state with a black eye in terms of accreditation of community colleges. Is the accreditation commission being punished for doing its job? Or was it unfairly severe in its application of standards?

Need for Accreditation

Accreditation is crucial for most institutions as it is required to access federal student loan money.

The state’s community colleges have seen a decline in enrollment over the past five years and faced an $18 million revenue decline in 2014, although state legislation propped up the San Francisco Community College District — of which the City College is part of — through additional funding last year.

The commission has been on the radar of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors for over a year.

In a report issued by a review committee from the community colleges board, the fate of the accreditation board was sealed.

From the report:

“Between 2009 and 2013 the ACCJC issued 143 sanctions out of the 269 accreditation actions it took. This sanction rate is approximately 53 percent, compared to approximately 12 percent sanction rates within the other six regional accreditors. The quantity and frequency of sanctions issued by the ACCJC, in conjunction with other controversial actions and practices of this accreditor, have led to frequent calls for reform of the accrediting process from member institutions of the ACCJC.”

The accreditation commission responded with a four–page announcement of new practices and noted that as of 2014, there were 30 percent fewer benchmarks required for approval.

“The new standards will be the basis for comprehensive institutional evaluations for reaffirmation of accreditation beginning spring, 2016,” a spokesman for the commission said.

The commission also announced it would host annual conferences for schools to receive input and answer questions about the accreditation process. The first conference is to be held in October 2016.

RELATED – State agency struggling to police for-profit colleges

The commission is part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of six regional groups in the U.S. that are charged with ensuring higher education institutions adhere to standards that begin at the federal level. The accreditors are overseen by administrators at the U.S. Department of Education and a board called the National Advisory Committee on Accreditation and Institutional Eligibility.

In addition to angering the state community college board of governors, the accreditation commission in California has drawn the ire of teachers unions and their powerful allies. The California Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit against the commission to keep the San Francisco City College open and registered a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the commission.

The American Federation of Teachers said the commission has “failed to focus on improving learning and academic achievement.”

Democratic U.S. Reps. Nancy Pelosi, Jackie Speier and Anna Eshoo called the ACCJC’s actions “outrageous.”

The commission is accused in one complaint of “extensive financial and political relationships with advocacy organizations and private foundations representing for‐profit colleges and powerful student lender interests.”

The commission accepted a $450,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, a group that has endeavored to change community college education and create a more universal accreditation system. Some onlookers have noted what they call the libertarian roots of Lumina.

But the practice of accreditation stems from federal regulation, which has increased in recent years. Community colleges in the U.S. collectively spend up to $6 billion to keep in compliance, according to a Vanderbilt University study. The study also listed 29 categories that colleges and universities are subject to monitoring and reporting.

Community colleges are subject to review every six years.

Steve Miller can be reached at 517-775-9952 and [email protected].

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