Government

California’s Community Colleges Can’t Live With Accreditor, Can’t Live Without It

December 18, 2015

A handful of California’s community colleges may have a problem offering new bachelor’s-degree programs, as planned, by 2017.

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, one of the nation’s seven regional accreditors, had asked the U.S. Department of Education to allow it to accredit baccalaureate programs at two-year colleges. The change sought by the commission, called an "expansion of scope," is necessary because the state is allowing 15 of the community colleges to offer four-year degrees.

But a federal panel that advises the secretary of education on accreditation matters voted on Thursday to limit the accreditor’s ability to approve new baccalaureate programs. That could leave as many as four colleges unable to begin offering those degree programs before a fall 2017 deadline.

'The ACCJC is no longer a reliable authority regarding the quality of education or training provided by the colleges it accredits.'
The deliberations by the federal panel, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, over the accreditor were punctuated by the backlash over its 2013 decision to revoke the accreditation of the City College of San Francisco. Nearly three dozen commenters showed up at the hotel where the panel was meeting, most of them to register their criticism of the accreditor over that decision.

The first comments came from the prepared remarks of Brice W. Harris, chancellor of California’s community-college system.

"There is widespread consensus among our colleges that the ACCJC is no longer a reliable authority regarding the quality of education or training provided by the colleges it accredits," said a system spokesman, Paul Feist, reading the chancellor’s remarks. (Though he was scheduled to be at the meeting, Mr. Harris had to leave early on Wednesday morning for personal reasons, Mr. Feist said.)

A 6-Month Extension

The accrediting commission monitors two-year colleges in California, Hawaii, and several U.S. territories in the Pacific Ocean.

For about a dozen years, the accreditor had approved three baccalaureate programs in partnership with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, which accredits four-year institutions in the same region.

The Education Department nixed that arrangement in 2013, finding that it violated a rule against colleges’ being accredited by more than one regional agency. The California colleges that were previously approved remain accredited, though one has moved its accreditation to the senior commission.

This year, however, the state enacted a law permitting up to 15 of California’s community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees. And in order to be eligible for federal student aid, those new programs must be approved by the community-college accreditor.

But for the accreditor to oversee two-year colleges with baccalaureate degrees, it must first pass muster with the National Advisory Committee, an 18-member panel that recommends whether the department should approve accreditors as gatekeepers of federal aid.

'Our system no longer believes the commission will accredit colleges in a consistent, collegial, fair, and transparent manner.'
On Thursday, however, the committee had questions about whether the accreditor could adequately assess baccalaureate programs. For example, a report by Education Department staff members determined that the accreditor’s policies and requirements for reviewing bachelor’s degrees were not clear and integrated into the proper standards.

In addition, the accreditor is still dealing with a handful of issues stemming from its 2013 review by the advisory panel, which found 15 areas of noncompliance with federal rules. While the agency has corrected most of those problems, Education Department staff members found, for instance, that the accreditor still did not clearly identify to its members the difference between recommendations for improvement and requirements for meeting standards and federal regulations.

The accreditor has also appealed two areas where it was found out of compliance. Those issues — concerning the acceptance of the agency by others and the composition of its policy and decision-making bodies — remain on appeal with the education secretary two years later.

In the end, the advisory panel voted to give the accreditor six more months to meet the federal standards. The panel is likely to review the accreditor’s actions again in December 2016 to ensure that it is in compliance.

In the meantime, the accreditor has already approved 11 of the 15 California colleges that want to offer bachelor’s degrees, and those programs will be allowed to accept students. Three other colleges that have started the effort to have their baccalaureate programs accredited may or may not finish the process in the 90 days before the Education Department officially endorses the panel’s recommendation.

Controversy Continues

That outcome may disappoint many of the critics who asked the panel to remove the accreditor’s recognition, making it ineligible to accredit colleges to receive federal student aid.

Nearly all of the critics were affiliated with the City College of San Francisco, which has been in a long-running political and legal battle over the accreditor’s 2013 decision to rescind the college’s accreditation.

While a lawsuit forestalled that action, members of Congress and pressure from the Education Department led the accreditor to create a new status, called restoration, that is allowing the college until January 2017 to meet the accreditor’s standards.

Mr. Harris, the system’s chancellor, expressed a more nuanced position in his prepared remarks, condemning the accreditor but asking that the commission be allowed to continue to accredit the colleges that have already been approved for bachelor’s degrees.

Opposition to the accreditor is "driven by overwhelming evidence that our system no longer believes the commission will accredit colleges in a consistent, collegial, fair, and transparent manner," said Mr. Harris.

The chancellor has said he will present a plan for a new model of accreditation before he retires, in April.

But until then, and probably for several more years, the colleges will have to continue to work with the accreditor, said Mr. Feist.

'We've listened to a lot of testimony filled with both facts and emotions.' But 'it makes perfect sense this is fixable. It makes no sense to disband the agency.'
Members of the advisory panel said they were frustrated by the continuing controversy and the accreditor’s failure to come into compliance with federal regulations in the two years since its last review.

Cameron C. Staples, president of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, another regional accreditor, was among the majority of panel members who voted to give the accreditor six more months to comply. But he said the accrediting commission had seemed to make a conscious decision to not comply with the federal standards and hadn’t really acknowledged that it was even out of compliance.

Anne D. Neal, a co-founder of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, was one of just three panel members who opposed the extra time. But she said she sympathized with the accreditor, which has had to "deal with a political stew unlike anything I’ve ever seen."

William J. Pepicello, president emeritus of the University of Phoenix and another member of the panel, took a more "philosophical view," he said, relying on his "training as a linguist."

"We’ve listened to a lot of testimony filled with both facts and emotions," Mr. Pepicello said, with people using words like "vindictive, reckless, toxic, and corrupt."

Such words indicate a failure of communication between the accreditor and its members and constituents, he said. But if those groups can clear the channels of communication, "it makes perfect sense this is fixable," he said. "It makes no sense to disband the agency."

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.