Tighter Reins on Accreditor

Federal panel recommends limiting authority of controversial agency that accredits California's community colleges and giving it little time to resolve federal compliance issues.

December 18, 2015

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The fate of California's community college accreditor remains in doubt after a federal panel on Thursday recommended limiting the accreditor's power and extending its existing authority for only a short period of time.

Members of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity voted, 7 to 3, to recommend that the Education Department take away the accreditor’s current authority to approve four-year degree programs at community colleges and give the accreditor six months to prove that it is meeting federal standards.

A six-month extension is among the strongest rebukes of an accreditor that the panel typically makes, short of calling on the department to revoke its recognition entirely. Some of the critics of the accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, had sought the latter penalty, which they say is needed because the accreditor treats colleges unfairly.

The accreditation panel’s recommendation -- on which the Education Department will now have 90 days to make a decision -- came after hours of testimony and discussion over the past two days.

The ACCJC, long at odds with some two-year colleges in the region, has been the subject of unrelenting criticism since 2013, when it sought to revoke the accreditation of the City College of San Francisco. That decision drew sharp criticism from faculty unions and California political leaders, who both filed lawsuits and brought their complaints about the accreditor to the Education Department.

As they did at a hearing in 2013, supporters of City College and faculty union leaders again testified at length this week about their unhappiness with the accreditor.

They were joined this time around, though, by the state community college system, which is separately seeking to move toward a new accreditor for its more than 100 institutions.

A system official, Paul Feist, on Tuesday said that the system, which enrolls more than two million students, wants the Education Department to deny ACCJC’s request to expand its authority to accredit four-year degrees.

Feist said that the community college system “no longer believes that the commission accredits colleges in in a fair, collegial manner.”

Still, he said, the state system doesn’t want the department to limit the accreditor's current, limited authority to approve two-year colleges looking to offer their first bachelor’s degree at this point.

Of the 15 California community colleges that will start offering bachelor’s degrees by next year under a state pilot, 11 have already been approved by ACCJC under its existing, limited power to accredit four-year degree programs. Revoking that authority, Feist said, would jeopardize the remaining programs.

The California agency again defended itself from its critics. Officials from the agency, though, struck a far more aggressive tone than they did in 2013. The Education Department’s accreditation unit, they said, was seeking to “micromanage” the accreditor and the unit’s recommendations were an “overreach.”

The agency decried the “improper politicization” of their case and suggested that faculty unions and other critics had manufactured opposition to them in California.


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