California Accreditor Under Fire

Education Department staff recommends sanctions for the accreditor of the state’s two-year colleges.

December 10, 2015

The embattled accrediting organization that oversees California’s community colleges should lose some of its existing authority and not be allowed to expand its jurisdiction, the U.S. Department of Education’s accreditation unit has recommended.

In a report published Wednesday, department staff recommended that the department revoke the accreditor’s existing federal authority to approve some four-year degree programs at California’s community colleges.

The staff also recommended that the accreditor -- the WASC Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, known as the ACCJC -- have its request for broader authority to approve bachelor’s degree programs denied.

The recommendation -- which was made to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which in turn makes recommendations to the education secretary -- is likely to further inflame tensions between the accreditor and the state community college system, whose leaders have sought to replace the accreditor, arguing that it has been unfair to their colleges, most notably the City College of San Francisco.

Amid complaints from City College supporters -- faculty unions, student advocates and some elected officials -- the Education Department in 2014 determined that the ACCJC was out of compliance with 15 federal standards for accreditors. The department gave the ACCJC one year to come into compliance with those standards. (The accreditor appealed part of the department’s decision to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has yet to issue a final determination.)

On Wednesday, department staff recommended continuing the overall federal recognition of ACCJC -- except for the four-year degree authority -- for another 12 months, although it uncovered some deficiencies with the accreditor’s processes. 

The ACCJC’s ability to approve four-year degrees is a somewhat separate matter.

After the California community college system announced plans to issue four-year degrees, the ACCJC won permission from the department in January 2014 to approve bachelor’s degree programs at community colleges on a limited basis.

The department’s accreditation staffers now want to curb that authority, though they would effectively grandfather in the accreditation of community colleges that have already won approval to award bachelor's degrees.

Their report says that the ACCJC “has not demonstrated that it has the experience necessary” to approve four-year degree programs at community colleges. The staff write that the accreditor need to adopt a “consistent, regular and thorough process” for reviewing four-year degree programs and that its faculty and curricular standards for such programs are “sufficiently rigorous,” among other things.

In an email, Barbara Beno, president of the accrediting council, noted that the staff report was "a recommendation that is not yet final."

"ACCJC will make its case at the NACIQI meeting for why we believe our standards and process for review meet the federal requirements and if necessary, will again request expansion of scope in the future when we have made the changes that NACIQI decides are necessary," she said. 

After the accreditor pleads its case next week before NACIQI, that panel will then, in turn, make its own recommendation on whether the department should continue to recognize the accreditor.

The NACIQI will also be reviewing other college accreditors, for which the department’s accreditation unit released its recommendations on Wednesday.

The department staff recommended that the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, another regional accreditor, be allowed to continue its recognition "until the Department reaches a final decision regarding the outcome" of a compliance report related to criteria governing "branch campuses" and "change in ownership." The commission is due to send the department a report on those outstanding issues by Jan. 11. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to clarify the commission's standing.)

In addition, department staff wrote that the National Commission on Career Arts and Sciences, a national accreditor overseeing cosmetology and beauty schools, be granted federal recognition for five years, citing a lack of any problems.

Historically, NACIQI has adopted the recommendations of department staff with few modifications. Next week’s meeting, though, will be the panel’s first after the Obama administration has made a concerted push to get tougher on accrediting agencies, especially those that approve for-profit colleges.


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