Department of Education Warns Accreditor That Sanctioned City College of San Francisco

August 13, 2013

The U.S. Department of Education has warned the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges that it is out of compliance with several federal regulations and could face a possible sanction if the problems are not corrected within 12 months.

In a letter, dated August 13, the department cited four areas where the accreditor does not meet federal standards, including its policy on the makeup of visiting accreditation-review teams and its policy on conflicts of interest. Other areas deal with a requirement for the accreditor to provide a clear explanation to institutions of any areas where it finds an institution does not meet its standards, and the time frame the accreditor gives institutions for correcting those deficiencies.

If the accrediting commission, which is part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, has not brought its policies into compliance after a year, the department could act to limit, suspend, or even terminate the commission's federal recognition. Accreditors must be recognized by the Department of Education in order to serve as gatekeepers for federal student aid.

In a news release, the commission said that it was disappointed in the department's findings and would respond fully during its application to renew its recognition in the fall. "There will be some correction of errors of fact, and some provision of explanatory information," the news release said.

Union Claims a 'Major Victory'

The action against the accreditor is in response to a complaint filed by the California Federation of Teachers, which contended that the commission had violated the law and was biased by conflicts of interest in its decision to terminate the accreditation of the City College of San Francisco.

The federation, whose member groups include the union local that represents faculty members at the college, described the department's warning a "major victory," and it is calling on the commission to rescind its decision to terminate the college's accreditation.

"We are gratified that the department agreed with us that the process is deeply flawed, the union's president, Joshua Pechthalt, said in a prepared statement.

But it's unclear if there will be any impact on the commission's decisions regarding the Community College of San Francisco.

Fred B. Glass, communications director for the union and an adjunct faculty member at the college, said the department's findings imply that the decision itself was faulty and should, at least, serve as the basis for appealing the decision with the commission.

Leaders of the California Community Colleges system, however, do not share that view.

"At this point, we don't think it does anything to change the sanction the college is living with," said Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications at the system

Brice W. Harris, the system's chancellor, has said that the union's fight with the accreditor should be carried out separately from efforts to meet the accreditation standards.

While the college could use the department's findings as part of its argument in appealing the accreditor's sanction, the Department of Education could not use those findings to invalidate the commission's decision, said several accreditation experts, because the department has no legal basis to challenge accreditation standards that are not required by federal regulations.

The secretary of education could threaten to initiate an adverse action against an accreditor over an accreditation decision, said Michael B. Goldstein, a lawyer who specializes in accreditation for the law firm of Dow Lohnes. "But that still may not be enough of a stick," he said, "since the process of removing recognition from an accreditor is very complex and time-consuming."