(Update, 11:40 a.m., December 13)
WASHINGTON -- A federal advisory committee on Friday recommended that the Education Department extend for one year its recognition of California’s community college accreditor and require the agency show that it is complying with federal standards.
The accreditor has been under fire for its decision earlier this year to revoke accreditation of City College of San Francisco. Many supporters of the college -- faculty unions, student advocates, and some elected officials -- had been pushing for the panel to recommend the Education Department strip the accreditor of its federal recognition.
The Education Department and the advisory panel had raised concerns about a range of issues, including how the accreditor reviews colleges, the composition of its site review teams, and whether the accreditor’s policies enjoyed “wide acceptance” of the education community.
Inside Higher Ed will have more on this story Monday morning.
WASHINGTON -- During a hearing Thursday, several Democratic senators mulled whether the federal government should get more involved in the accrediting process. They might have been less enthusiastic if they saw what was happening at another meeting two blocks away.
The federal panel that reviews accreditors, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, held that gathering. Faculty members and students from the City College of San Francisco, who for the past year have essentially waged war against the accrediting agency that is threatening to revoke the accreditation of their college, pleaded their case to the panel.
Faculty union representatives and student leaders asked the panel to recommend that the Education Department no longer recognize the accrediting agency -- effectively stripping the accreditor of any meaningful power. Only colleges that are approved by federally recognized accreditors can participate in federal student aid programs.
Supporters of City College from various constituencies are already mounting three separate legal challenges against the accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.
The staff of the Education Department’s accreditation group has recommended that ACCJC continue to be recognized by the federal government for another year to try to bring itself into compliance with a range of issues. But City College supporters have decried that recommendation as a mere slap on the wrist.
On Thursday, CCSF faculty, union representatives and students hammered ACCJC for its decision to revoke accreditation.
The chair of the colleges’ disabled students group testified that the threats of closure had depressed and “traumatized” students. A student veteran who fought in Iraq told the committee that ACCJC’s decision had exacerbated the already difficult plight of student veterans on the campus. A CCSF librarian accused the accreditor of intimidation and said it had lost the trust and respect of the community.
Supporters of the college have also enlisted help from members of Congress in the district.
The chief of staff to Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat who represents the Bay Area, read a statement from the congresswoman accusing ACCJC of acting in a “cavalier and destructive manner.” Both Speier and Rep. Anna Eshoo have been pushing to take their case against ACCJC directly to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Some of the concerns resonated with members of the NACIQI panel on Thursday.
Anne D. Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni who sits on the panel, said she was concerned that ACCJC was focusing too heavily on governance issues at the colleges that it reviews and was inappropriately interfering with institutional autonomy.
“I have a profound concern that this is an issue where an accreditor is out of control,” she said. However, she added that an accreditor’s decision to close an institution is not evidence that it was not meeting the federal standards of how an accreditor should act -- which will be at the heart of the panel’s deliberations when they begin Friday.
The agency’s director, Barbara Beno, offered a preliminary defense of her organization’s actions to the panel.
“The decision to withdraw accreditation from any institution is not an easy one and not one we take lightly,” Beno told the panel. She said her agency should not be punished for holding an institution accountable for the accreditation standards that are agreed upon by the academic community.
The panel -- which will make a nonbinding recommendation to the Education Department on the status of the accreditor -- ran out of time Thursday to finish hearing public comments and to reach a decision. (That was largely because NACIQI spent nearly five hours in intense and often acrimonious debate about whether to recommend renewing the recognition of the Council on Chiropractic Education, with much of the discussion centered around whether the accreditor is inappropriately pushing the practice of chiropractic in the wrong direction. The accreditation panel ultimately voted to extend recognition for the council for three years, after most of its members concluded that the philosophical issue was not the panel's to resolve.)
It will convene again on Friday, when members are expected to issue a final recommendation on the community college accreditor.
Debating the Future of Accreditation
Back at the Capitol, the topic for the morning hearing  was how accreditation can better meet the needs of “21st-century learning.”
It was one of several hearings the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension has held as its members prepare for the eventual reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Sen. Tom Harkin chairs the committee. The Iowa Democrat might have been talking about the pressure accreditors are feeling these days when he said Congress feels pulled “betwixt and between” as it tries to encourage promising practices in higher education while also guarding against low-quality and fraudulent education providers.
“We don’t want to stifle innovation,” Harkin said. “But we want the quality assurances. We want to protect the taxpayers’ dollars.”
Harkin and a handful of his Democratic colleagues asked a panel of experts whether the federal government should push accreditors to set a higher bar for the institutions they accredit.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, asked panelists if Congress should set a “bright line” with minimum standards for colleges to participate in federal financial aid programs.
Warren said thresholds could be set for student loan default rates, graduation rates or the retention of students with Pell grants.
“From the outside, it doesn’t look like it should be quite so hard,” Warren said of the role accreditors play. “The goal is to identify the schools that are of really low quality.”
The panelists, however, argued the feds should leave most of the decisions on standards to accreditors.
“Bright lines are tough,” said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the former president of Teachers College at Columbia University.
For example, Levine said a one-size-fits-all graduation rate could hurt colleges with open-door admissions policies. “If we have 50 percent as the bright line, we’ve just closed every community college in the United States,” he said.
Even so, Harkin was unconvinced that accreditors are tough enough with colleges. In particular he was critical of how rarely accrediting agencies go through with the “death penalty” of shutting down poor-performing institutions.
Only four colleges lost their regional accreditation in 2010-11, Harkin said, citing data from the Congressional Research Service.
“That’s out of 7,000 institutions. That means 6,996 are doing a great job,” he said. “Or maybe our standards are too low. I don’t know. Which is it?”
Attempting to tackle that question was Ralph Wolff, who recently stepped down as president of the senior college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
He said accreditors had begun driving a harder line with sanctions. Many colleges have made major improvements as a result. However, Wolff said accreditors should be more open  about their work.
“The process is opaque right now,” he said. “You can’t see what most accreditors do.”
Harkin’s Republican counterpart, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, agreed that it’s valid to ask whether poor-performing colleges were being allowed to continue offering a shoddy product -- wasting tuition dollars and taxpayer money along the way.
However, Alexander, a former university president and U.S. secretary of education, was more concerned about the federal government overreaching by placing unnecessary regulations on accreditors and colleges.
"Is all this necessary?" he asked.
Both Warren and Harkin raised questions about perceived conflicts of interest by accreditors. The agencies’ review teams are staffed by volunteers from higher education, making the process a form of self-regulation.
Alexander wasn't buying that problem, either. He said academics by nature are skeptical, and are more likely to be tough on their peers than overly “congenial.”
More importantly, the Tennessee Republican said an alternative, federally run form of accreditation is far from realistic. And he said academics are best qualified to judge academic quality.
“The only other thing to do is to just hire a bunch of regulators and put them in the Department of Education and travel around and see 7,000 institutions,” said Alexander. “That would be a disaster. They wouldn’t have a clue about what they were seeing.”