City College of San Francisco's 85,000 students will lose their affordable public community college if its accreditation is revoked as scheduled. Some of the problems found by the regional Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges were indeed serious, but the situation also illustrates some of the problems with the accreditation process. It is at times focused more on disciplining schools and obscure governance deficiencies than on the educational issues that matter most.
The commission's decision doesn't go into effect for a year, during which time the college can appeal or work so quickly to improve that it can persuade the commission to reverse the decision. After receiving notice last year that its status was in peril, the college made improvements, but its efforts satisfied the commission in only two of 14 areas. Loss of accreditation would mean no more state funding — and therefore no more college.
The commission found severe shortcomings along with smaller, more peripheral ones that have little to do with whether students are actually receiving a good education. Among the worst: The college's elected board had failed to reduce expenses sufficiently; reserves were adequate for only three days of operations. It failed to track student outcomes. Some faculty members were intimidated by others.
But although the assessment was accurate, the fact is that matters should never have been allowed to get this far. Though the commission had issued critical reviews for several years, it should have been obvious after last year's report that a college with such a long list of deficiencies was not going to overcome all or even most of them in such a short time. The accrediting commission's chief job is to hold colleges to a certain standard, but it also must be cognizant of the harm it can do by imposing excessively harsh penalties and timelines. Are the shortcomings in San Francisco so dire that 85,000 students aren't learning anything worthwhile? Would they really be better off without any classes if the school can't meet all the commission's conditions within the next year? The commission could have provided more helpful guidance by setting priorities and giving the school more time: a year to fix the two or three most important deficiencies, another year to master a couple more, and so forth.
Community college officials throughout California have been chafing under what they see as a more demanding and rigid attitude by the accrediting commission in recent years. In a 2011 report that examined accreditation across the country, there were numerous complaints by college officials that the commission lacked patience, took a narrow approach and focused on discipline at the expense of improvement. The commission plays a necessary role in keeping schools up to snuff, but it needs to keep its eye on what matters: helping schools do right by students.