Trouble for an Accreditor

California community college system panel recommends the state's two-year colleges find a new accreditor, capping years of tension with its regional commission.

August 31, 2015

The future looks murky for the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

For three years the regional accreditor has sparred with supporters of City College of San Francisco, including faculty groups, San Francisco’s city attorney, state lawmakers and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. The commission also drew criticism from the U.S. Department of Education over its handling of City College’s sanctions.

The tension goes deeper, however. For many years officials with California's community college system office, campus leaders and faculty members around the system have complained that the commission has been too quick to punish colleges, among other gripes.

During the recent tumult over City College, the system's chancellor has for the most part refrained from directly challenging the accreditor’s authority. That changed Friday with the release of a report from a task force the system convened.

The system and its 113 colleges “have lost confidence in the ACCJC,” the report said. It also found that the commission, which is the only one of seven regional accreditors to specialize in two-year colleges, may no longer be a good fit for a system that has begun issuing four-year degrees.

“The task force concluded that the structure of accreditation in this region no longer meets the current and anticipated needs of the California Community Colleges,” the office of the system’s chancellor, Brice Harris, said in a written statement. “Furthermore, the task force concluded that several past attempts to engage with the ACCJC to make the accreditation process more effective and collegial have yielded very little in the way of progress.”

The commission is reviewing the report and plans to issue a response in the next week, Barbara Beno, ACCJC's president, said in a lengthy written statement.

However, Beno said the system office-issued report "certainly contradicts" feedback the accreditor recently received from individual member campuses across the state. Last year the commission updated its eligibility standards -- adding new emphasis on quality improvement. Beno said the ACCJC received input from hundreds of people at California's community colleges during the overhaul process, which took three years.

"There was to a great extent little call for change in the content of standards, but a request for simplification, clarification and elimination of redundancies," said Beno. "The task force report appears to not take into account the review and changes ACCJC has made."

It won't be easy for the system to take the task force's advice and make the switch to a new accreditor. Officials with the huge system, which enrolls 2.1 million students, said such a move could take up to 10 years to complete.

State lawmakers have proposed legislation to help make the change. But Harris will not take a position on those bills, the system said, adding that the discussion about whether, and how, to seek a new accreditor will take much longer than this legislative session.

The report calls on Harris to investigate all alternatives. But it specifically suggests two possible options.

One would be to form a combined, single accrediting commission under the umbrella of the WASC Senior College and University Commission. All other regional accreditors oversee both two-year and four-year colleges. ACCJC and WASC senior, as it is called, were separate but connected for decades, only splitting fully a few years ago. At this point, WASC senior only accredits institutions that offer at least two bachelor's degree programs.

Another approach, the report said, would be to identify another one of the five existing regional accreditors that could take on the job. Such a change likely would require approval of the U.S. Department of Education and maybe even of federal law.

Losing the state’s community colleges would deal a heavy, perhaps fatal, blow to the ACCJC. The accreditor’s total membership includes roughly 135 institutions, so fewer than 25 would remain if the California colleges were to move on. The commission accredits institutions in Hawaii and elsewhere in the West.

Harris said Friday that he generally agrees with the task force’s findings. He will bring the report to the system’s governing board next month and beginning discussing the possibility of finding a new accreditor.

History of Tension

Trouble between the system and the ACCJC predates the long-running tussle over City College.

The task force report cited a state audit from last year, which found that the ACCJC issued sanctions for roughly 53 percent of the actions it took during a recent five-year period. In comparison, the other six regional accreditors have an average sanction rate of 12 percent.

Some critics, however, say accreditors aren't tough enough on their members.

Beno cited that tension, pointing to recently updated regulations from the Education Department that "put great pressure on accreditors to take negative action on institutions when they are found to be out of compliance and have not quickly come into compliance." (Click here for those guidelines.)

Furthermore, she said the evaluation teams that make the call to penalize California community colleges are largely made up of academics and administrators from across the system itself. So if the system doesn't like the sanction rate, it's rejecting the work of its own constituencies, she said.

Beno also said California has handed the commission the task of pointing out the many problems funding cuts have created at its community colleges, including fiscal instability, lack of professional development for staff and leadership turnover.

"In the vacuum of state oversight of college financial conditions, it's too often an accreditation team that comes and finds ongoing severe financial problems that compromise educational quality," she said. "More state oversight and leadership is needed."

The heavily politicized dispute over City College took controversy over the accreditor’s approach to a new level.

In 2012 the commission identified a wide range of administrative and financial problems at the college. For example, it found that City College was running dangerously low on money and had only 39 administrators on staff for a college that enrolled 90,000 students.

The ACCJC’s sanctions threatened to shut down the college. But City College and its supporters fought back, alleging that the accreditor’s review of the college was deeply flawed.

A federal judge agreed with some of those allegations, ruling in January that the ACCJC violated laws and federal regulations by not giving City College an adequate chance to fix its problems.

The system’s task force described in its report what it said are the “ideal attributes” of an accreditor. Those qualities include a focus on improvement rather than compliance, collegiality and consistency, avoidance of conflict of interest or its appearance, and a transparent accrediting process.

The report said the ACCJC has consistently failed to meet those expectations.

The California Federation of Teachers (CFT), a union that represents many faculty members at California’s community colleges, called the report a validation.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Fred Glass, a spokesman for the group. “This is now a mainstream view within the system -- that the ACCJC has got to go.”

Glass said the CFT would push for a faster change in accreditor than the possibly decade-long transition that Harris’s office predicted.

“Ten years is too long for the system to suffer,” he said.


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