COVER STORY: Flexing Their Muscles
C O V E R S T O R Y:
Flexing Their Muscles
Accrediting Agencies Demand More from Community Colleges
By Paul Bradley
Time was when the country’s seven higher education accrediting bodies were little more than good ol’ boy networks in bowties, horn-rimmed glasses and sensible heels. The gatherings of brethren would periodically visit campuses for a few days, renew acquaintances, take an inventory of books on library shelves, _calculate how many professors had doctoral degrees, make sure there was enough student parking. They’d give a college a stamp of approval and be on their merry way. Seldom were there negative findings or recommendations for improvement.
Measuring things such as the degrees of faculty members and library holdings are no longer good enough. Accreditors are now demanding evidence of financial stability and student learning. Boards of trustees need to prove that they are providing proper oversight.Institutions have to demonstrate meeting accreditation standards at all times, not just when gearing up for a self-study or accreditation team visit.
“There has been a lot of criticism of higher education over the past few years, and I think that’s going to continue,” said John E. Roueche, the noted community college scholar and president of the Roueche Graduate Center at National American University. “People are questioning whether mom and dad should send their kids to college. All of this has been percolating to the top.”
“So much has changed in the past few years as colleges have focused on students, on outcomes and assessments. Those things were unheard of 25 years ago. It’s been happening in all kinds of enterprises, and now it’s happening in higher education.”
Nowhere is the new, more muscular role of accreditors more in evidence than at the City College of San Francisco. Last month, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges) told the college it would revoke its accreditation in July 2014 unless the college addresses serious deficiencies.
CCSF — with 80,000 full- and part-time students — would become the largest school ever to lose its accreditation. Such a step would effectively ensure its closure by disqualifying students from receiving federal loans and grants and the college from state funding.
Whatever It Takes
CCSF has appealed the decision, and officials are working frantically to make sure the college stays open. California community colleges have stripped CCSF trustees of their authority and entrusted retired community college president Robert Agrella with “extraordinary powers” to unilaterally do whatever it takes to save the college.
It promises to be a painful path for a college already reeling from the prospect of possibly having to close its doors.
“I anticipate some difficult decisions….and those difficult decisions will be in the areas that were identified by the commission, where the institution fell short of meeting the standards,” Agrella said in an extensive interview with EdSource.org.
“And those decisions will involve some finance issues,” he added. “To carry that through is going to require continued sacrifice on a lot of people’s part, and I think those decisions are going to be difficult. And I might say that one of the things that is compounding our problems right now is the loss of enrollment.”
Indeed, a year of headlines trumpeting CCSF’s imminent demise is taking a toll on enrollment. Enrollment is down by as much as 15 percent, a significant figure since California community colleges are funded based on the seats that they fill. Professors are worried that their sections will be cut. Prospective students are concerned whether enrolling will be a futile exercise.
In the weeks leading up to the first day of classes, CCSF was scrambling to stem the enrollment decline. The words “OPEN” and “ACCREDITED” have been showing up all over San Francisco, on billboards, in newspapers, on fliers, radio, local cable television and social media.
CCSF is one of a growing list of California community colleges under ACCJC sanction. On the same day it announced its decision to yank CCSF’s accreditation, the panel also issued warnings to eight other community college campuses. One, the College of the Sequoias, is now operating under the most serious penalty — “show cause.” Five other colleges are on probationary status, and 13 have been given warnings.
The raft of warnings is due to several factors, said George R. Boggs, president emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges. Boggs is well-versed in accreditation issues, having been a member and former chair of the ACCJC while serving as superintendent/president of Palomar College in California.
“Some of this can be traced back to the Spellings Commission that focused on higher education accountability, affordability, and accessibility,” Boggs wrote in an email. “The secretary placed some of the fiercest critics of higher education onthecommission. The focuses on accountability, transparency, and affordability have only strengthened since then. President Obama and (Education) Secretary (Arne) Duncan have both expressed grave concerns about the escalating cost of higher education andthefact that college completion rates are too low.
“The federal government is now investing over $170 billion annually in higher education through grants, loans, and tax benefits, and those federal contributions have escalated dramatically inthelast few years, so there is a growing federal stake in higher education institutions and their performance. High loan default rates also raise a federal concern abouttheeffectiveness ofthefederal investment.”
“The seven regional accreditors are all feeling this pressure, but I believe ACCJC is takingthefederal direction most literally and most strictly.If institutions do not havetheevidence that they are meeting the standards, they are sanctioned. If they do not address recommendations,thesanctions become more severe.”
It was a year ago that the ACCJC placed CCSF under the “show cause” rubric, triggering an impassioned debate and demonstrations that veered toward intimidation. It also prompted college administrators to develop a sweeping plan to remake the college. Education centers were closed. The administrative structure was streamlined. Dozens of employees were laid off. A system to track student outcomes was adopted.
Last February, the college produced a 250-page report to the accrediting commission explaining how the school has adjusted operations to meet accreditation standards. The report was the product of months of work by college administrators and faculty.
But it wasn’t enough. All along the way, progress was stymied by foes of the commission who branded the ACCJC as a rogue bully intent on dismantling a cherished city institution. They refused to recognize the accreditor’s legitimacy and threatened lawsuits to stop it.
“There have been some people who have been working very hard, but it’s been a matter of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object,” said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement and a faculty member in the Community College Leadership Program at The University of Texas at Austin.
In the July 3 letter to college administrators, ACCJC president Barbara A. Beno said that commission members had voted to close the school in part because of its shaky fiscal planning, citing “the lack of financial accountability as well as institutional deficiencies in the area of leadership and governance” as the main obstacles to the college’s turnaround.
Those same flaws were identified in a report by the California Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, which was asked to conduct an organizational and staffing review limited of the college’s finance and administrative offices. It found an organization devoted to status quo.
“Decisions were often made based on maintaining peace and the status quo versus merit,” the report said. “There remains a reluctance to address outstanding issues that may be challenging in the district, including those in the finance and administrative services unit, because doing so might upset stakeholders and not be acceptable within the CCSF culture.
“This reluctance stops improvements and continues to foster a status quo operation....This culture and resistance to improvement has placed different district units at odds with one another, created internal tension and added to the inaction in the organization.”
McClenney believes that accrediting agencies are right to demand more out of colleges like CCSF.
“In the past, the criteria, the goal, was to get no recommendations, which I find to be bothersome,” she said. “If the idea is to improve, why wouldn’t we want recommendations? We all have to move in the direction of more improvement.”