The Great California Accreditation War

Accreditation is like the pancreas: not very interesting, but a source of serious problems if it malfunctions. 

The pancreas of higher education just said “ouch.” An accrediting agency, licensed by the federal government to keep colleges in good order, just got a (temporarily suspended) death sentence.

What’s so important about accreditation and how did this strange circumstance come about?

Accreditation in higher education is a stamp of approval that says colleges must meet minimum academic, financial, and administrative standards. Before 1965 it didn’t count for much. It was like the “seal of the American Dental Association” on a tube of toothpaste—it didn’t tell the consumer anything, but showed that someone was watching. 

But in 1965 Congress passed the Higher Education Act, which required colleges and universities to be accredited if they wanted to accept federal student aid money. Suddenly accreditation was very important, because that federal money was an indispensable part of most colleges’ business models. 

In the years since accreditation has acquired other formidable powers. For example, it is practically impossible now to transfer academic credit from an unaccredited college to an accredited one. Considering that community colleges are all about transferring credit to senior colleges, if federal educrats dump their accrediting agencies, it’s a problem. Such is the case with the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which the Department of Education just notified it may soon lose its authority.

Here’s what happened.

In 2013 the ACCJC decided to revoke the accreditation of the City College of San Francisco (CCSF)—which, with 80,000 students, is the largest community college in the nation. The reason was a feud that went back to 2006.

Even back then, ACCJC provoked complaints from other California community colleges for throwing its weight around. The Peralta and Compton Community College Districts threatened to sue for “discrimination” if ACCJC didn’t back off. Two of the top ACCJC staff members were former Peralta staff members who allegedly had bad feelings towards their former employer. The California Federation of Teachers (CFT) also poked around, and called on the California legislature to investigate ACCJC and see if an alternative accrediting body could be created.

The presence of the organized muscle of CFT should tell knowledgeable readers that we are headed deep into California noir. Accrediting agencies are often thuggish organizations; teachers unions ditto. Community colleges are often sinks of patronage appointments, wasteful spending, and derisory academic standards. This is a story that promised no Galahads; just bare-knuckled do-what-it-takes lads. 

In 2006, ACCJC found fault with how CCSF was run, but gave administrators some “good cause extensions” to fix the problems. But by 2009, ACCJC’s patience waned, and on June 30 sent a letter to CCSF Chancellor Don Griffin demanding a follow-up report. 

The aim was to get CCSF to improve its “student learning outcomes” and “financial planning and stability.” The letter ended with a chilling reminder that deficiencies must be corrected “or the Commission must take action to terminate accreditation.” 

CCSF first tried to fix the problems, but by 2013, faced with the loss of accreditation, CCSF chose the path of warfare. We might summarize this as the “You think you can dis-accredit us?  We’re going to dis-accredit you,” approach.

CCSF fought back with formal legal and bureaucratic appeals, claiming that:

  • ACCJC applied its sanctions inconsistently—it threatened to revoke CCSF’s accreditation for small problems while accrediting other community colleges with larger problems;
  • ACCJC wasn’t transparent about its own procedures; and
  • ACCJC hadn’t followed the proper accrediting spirit—to work to make colleges better rather than just to lower the boom.

Instead of arguing that it upheld standards of academic and financial integrity for a poorly run community college, ACCJC defended itself mostly on narrow legal grounds. And it lost. 

Last December the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) recommended to the Department of Education that ACCJC be put on six months’ notice – either shape up, or lose federal recognition as an accrediting agency. 

Department of Education officials agreed that ACCJC was so badly in the wrong that it, not CCSF, must be drastically reformed or terminated. The agency is now in the unaccustomed position of having to justify itself.

I look upon this as an outsider who has no dog in the fight. Every accrediting body I have ever dealt with—more than a dozen—has had sketchy procedures, a big attitude, and staff members ranging from well-meaning, by-the-book officials to hard-edged ideologues who see accreditation as a chance to impose their political views on everyone else. 

This battle was too tangled for me to say which has the better case. Did ACCJC exercise its authority improperly? Or did CCSF just summon enough friends to pull the rug out from under its accrediting agency?

ACCJC may have revoked CCSF’s accreditation mostly as a message to a rotten system, figuring that only a death sentence on a prominent victim would motivate real reform throughout California’s community colleges. We might view ACCJC’s action as an act of exemplary bureaucratic terror.

In truth, this conflict isn’t really about procedure. It’s about control and (supposedly) the public interest. 

Even here, the picture is mixed. ACCJC tried to impose a more extensive and intrusive assessment regime on CCSF, to be able to judge its “learning outcomes” properly.

Yes, we want students to learn something in the classroom, and some subjects lend themselves to clear-cut assessments. Can the students get the right answers or not? 

But “learning outcomes” are often used by accrediting agencies to demand stupidities. The “learning outcome” of a course on literature is not so clear-cut. Did ACCJC hold CCSF to a reasonable standard, or a stupid one?

ACCJC also apparently told CCSF that it had “too few administrators.” This is astonishing.  Higher education is awash in administrators: Redundant administrators redundantly managing other redundant administrators. If CCSF had found a way to curb their proliferation, it should be given an award, not censure. 

ACCJC told school officials to cut back on faculty “shared governance.” That’s a toss-up. The faculty role in governance is not good or bad in itself, but generally it’s better to have faculty members engaged to make things work beyond their own classes.

ACCJC criticized CCSF for being underfunded. Some part of the conflict therefore seemed to be a consequence of the California state legislature not wanting to pony up the money CCSF needed to meet ACCJC’s standards. Budget cuts and increased tuition raised howls from the student body, which turned the budget cut issue into a complaint that the cuts jeopardized “diversity.”

In effect, the students argued, “If you make us pay more money, there will be less diversity. What is the point of CCSF if there is no diversity?” It’s not clear whether the diversity issue inspired the bureaucratic bushwhacking of ACCJC, or whether students always shout “diversity!” when their pocketbooks take a hit. 

All of this may seem a tempest in a teapot, but it sheds light on an accreditation system that does not instill confidence.

On the whole, it bends to the needs of the colleges and universities more than to the needs of the public. Seldom does it call out a college or university in time to prevent it from going off a financial cliff. And virtually never does an accrediting agency nail a college for educational malfeasance.