There are no clear answers to the question of where City College of San Francisco’s 85,000 students will go if the college shuts down next year. That unprecedented and nightmarish scenario became a real possibility last week when the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges voted to strip the college of its accreditation in June 2014.
City College is San Francisco’s only two-year institution. No nearby community college is in a good position to run the college, which is California’s largest. And the idea of turning over control to another two-year college is not considered viable by college and state officials, sources said, in part because the commission does not favor it.
San Francisco’s geography and cost of living complicate the crisis. The city is on a peninsula, so while there are other community colleges in the Bay Area, it would be both time-consuming and expensive for San Franciscans to commute to them. That probably puts transferring to another two-year institution out of reach for most City College students.
For now officials at the college and the state’s community college system appear to be pinning most of their hopes for keeping the college open on an appeal with the commission.
The appeal process could also stretch beyond next year’s deadline, said officials with the college and the system. That means City College could buy some time and continue to enroll students with full accreditation status for more than a year. In a letter explaining its decision last week, the commission said the college would retain its accreditation until the appeal concludes.
Officials at City College submitted a draft closure plan to the commission earlier this year. The report described how the college would help students transfer, finish their degrees elsewhere and continue to be able to access their transcripts and financial aid documentation. It also tentatively discussed the handling of faculty and staff dismissals and the liquidation of the college’s financial assets.
The commission sent the college back to the drawing board with the closure report, finding that it did not provide sufficient detail. But a new and presumably heftier version would also remain a backup plan, according to the system, which will focus on the appeal.
The college has a month to request a review by the accreditor. It plans to pursue one, according to a college spokeswoman. A review, however, would result in an overturned decision only if City College was able to prove that the commission made procedural errors with its decision to yank the college’s accreditation.
That seems unlikely given that the commission found 12 unresolved problem areas among the 14 it identified last year. Those lingering deficiencies include dangerously low cash reserves, weak leadership, acrimony among faculty members and trustees, inadequate student support services and a failure to track and measure student learning, according to the commission.
An appeal is a different story. As that process unfolds, the college could provide updates to try to show it is making adequate progress on problems identified by the commission, which could then drop the threatened loss of accreditation.
City College will be led by a special trustee as it fights for survival. The system’s governing board plans to appoint the trustee in a meeting scheduled for today.
That new leader will have “extraordinary powers,” according to Brice W. Harris, the system's chancellor. Even so, righting the college and complying with the accreditor's recommendations won't be easy.
“It is, however, the only option to keep City College open,” Harris said in a video message. “My office will do everything in its power to see that City College retains its accreditation."
Many City College students were shocked and upset to learn that their college might soon lose its accreditation, according to Bay Area news reports. The credits and degrees students earn at the college will continue to hold value. But many are understandably worried about whether that will remain the case.
The college has already lost thousands of students in the year since it received a "show cause" sanction from the commission. And officials fear the crisis could trigger a much larger exodus.
On its website City College has stressed to students that it remains open and is offering classes this fall. It is also pushing that message on social media, according to Jennifer Aries, a college spokeswoman. And next week the college will kick off its fall advertising campaign, which will say "we're open, we're accredited; enroll at City College."
Professors and staff members have also left amid the tumult, according to faculty union leaders.
"We've been losing an incredible amount of talent, both through retirement and people going elsewhere," said Alisa Messer, an English instructor at City College and president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the college’s primary faculty union.
The incoming trustee might decide to downsize the college as part of the effort to rein in budget problems. Some have speculated that the downtown campus and others among City College's 11 sites might soon be on the block. San Francisco's real estate market is hot amid a tech boom, fueled in part by education technology companies.
Many faculty members have joined with a coalition of staff, students and local residents to fight the accreditor’s verdict. They have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education arguing that the commission has conflicts of interest and violated state and federal laws during its review of City College and other California community colleges.
Professors and others from the college plan to march in protest of the decision this week.
Legal challenges might also follow last week’s announcement. And San Francisco’s mayor, Edwin M. Lee, called for state intervention to keep the college open. But it’s unclear how, or if, California government could block the commission’s decision. That’s because accreditation is a voluntary form of self-regulation.
The commission, like other regional accrediting agencies, is run by a board of college leaders and faculty members from the region it oversees. Quality control at colleges that are voluntary “members” of an accreditor is determined by their peers, not state regulators. And technically accreditors do not take marching orders from state government, even though colleges must be in good standing with an approved accrediting body to receive state support or participate in federal financial aid programs.
The commission’s ruling last week was hardly a popular one in San Francisco. A primary faculty union called it an “outrageous attack on City College, on public education and on the affordability and accessibility of higher education to all San Franciscans.”
Yet an appeal might be the best bet for the college to keep its doors open. And the accreditor’s board will have the final say in that decision, too.