City College of San Francisco

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges moved last year to strip accreditation from City College of San Francisco. Unaccredited schools generally cannot receive state funding. (Ian C. Bates / The Chronicle / January 30, 2014)

The commission that accredits California's community colleges is under fire from above and below. The federal government has given it a year to improve its performance, noting, among other criticisms, that it has too few educators on its panels. That might help explain the groundswell of discontent among the colleges, which need the commission's approval to keep their classroom doors open; many of them contend that it is harshly punitive and insufficiently focused on the quality of education.

The discontent came to a head when the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges moved last year to strip accreditation from City College of San Francisco. Unaccredited schools generally cannot receive state funding; in this case, the college would most likely be forced to close, leaving 80,000 students in the lurch. The commission, one of three private, nonprofit accrediting groups within the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, needs the approval of the U.S. Department of Education to retain its authority.

San Francisco City College's loss of accreditation is on hold pending the outcome of a court challenge. Critics of the accrediting commission see this as the right time to question its authority and style. We see it as the perfect time to think bigger, and refocus the assessment of colleges nationwide on how well they educate students.

That sounds elementary. But most of the recent actions taken against community colleges across the country have had more to do with administrative, financial and governance issues than with academic quality.

That's not to say that such issues are necessarily unimportant. The San Francisco college's reserve fund contained only enough money to last a few days in case of a financial emergency. It was doing a poor job of tracking student outcomes. That's unacceptable. But the available data show that the college's students are more likely to graduate or transfer to a four-year college within six years than students statewide. It would be a shame to see a worthwhile school closed over administrative matters.

The Obama administration has suggested overhauling the accreditation process for all colleges to pay greater attention to dropout rates and affordability. That's closer to but still short of the mark. The dropout rate is easy to game with grade inflation, and a school should not lose accreditation over how expensive it is.

The questions that should matter most are the basic ones: whether the college offers a good selection of courses for its mission; whether academic standards are rigorous and instructors are adept at imparting knowledge and building student skills; whether students receive the counseling they need to plan the right course of study and achieve their goals.