Burning Down the House? Accreditation and California Community Colleges

Several days ago the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) published a report excoriating its regional accreditor, the Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). To my knowledge a state higher education agency has never banded together with disaffected voices within its state to take on an accreditation agency. Until now.

The ACCJC accredits two-year colleges in California, Hawaii, and American territories and protectorates in the Pacific Ocean. It’s been a rocky patch for ACCJC lately, especially since it attempted to deny accreditation to the City College of San Francisco in 2013. While CCSF has been granted a hiatus, ACCJC continues to generate new enemies who complain that the accrediting commission is out of touch. At an extreme are individuals and groups who now believe that scorched earth is the only solution. The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office may not have given a new voice to the arsonists with this report although many would see that fanning the flames is the same thing. Either way, it’s not unusual for arsonists to later complain about the fires they set.

Context is everything in this story and California certainly has its share of unusual circumstances that shape both how its colleges do business and how accreditation plays out. My work in attempting to facilitate strategic planning for community colleges in California during the past decade may provide insight. Full disclosure: my bias is that all colleges can do better and that to act on that a culture of continuous improvement requires leadership. If it takes external pressure to bring that about, I’m all for it. I also believe that finesse and a sense of shared purpose can make bad news easier to swallow.

There are solid examples of continuous improvement in California and the efforts of many smart and committed individuals who have brought about evidence-based decision making in their own institutions deserve praise. I have also seen the other side of the coin where a culture of living in the past makes individuals and organizations who deliver bad news a target. We all would like to believe the latter are a smaller proportion of the whole than those who want to set things straight.

For all intents, California community colleges have their own accreditation agency. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools oversees 11 states and the Higher Learning Commission serves 19. In contrast, ACCJC oversees just two states while California, with more than two million students in its 113 community colleges, dwarfs its counterparts under the ACCJC umbrella. California community colleges are not as much a “system” of colleges with direct control by the state but a loosely knit confederation of institutions governed by locally elected boards. Sacramento and the Chancellor’s Office are influential but do not call all the shots.

The California context also is found in the belief held by many that community college education was invented in California. It is true that the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education brought great and deserved visibility to the state. Five decades later, however, it’s hard to find evidence that the inertia unleashed by Clark Kerr and Governor Brown continues to inspire the rest of the nation.

California was at least a decade late to the student outcome assessment party. While colleges in other states, especially those in the Higher Learning Commission orbit, were grappling with how to define and assess student learning and institutional performance in the early 1990s, California only began to address accreditation standards in these areas in 2002. Many thought this thrust was a national fad that would fade only to register surprise and maybe resistance when ACCJC picked up the charge. That an external agency would bother institutions and their faculty to make student learning assessment a priority results in lingering anger in some quarters.

Many insiders–not all of them arsonists–find solace in last year’s report by the state auditor suggesting that ACCJC has been more punitive than other regional accrediting associations. The statement that ACCJC has been responsible for a “sanction rate of roughly 53 percent. By comparison the other six regional accreditors together had a sanction rate of just over 12 percent” is an oversimplification and a disservice to colleges and all regional accreditors. Accreditors do not all mean the same thing by “sanction.” Accreditors vary in the actions that they consider sanctions. They also vary in the actions that they make public. It also is not uncommon in California for a school to move through one sanctions type to another as progress is made; Cuesta, according to the auditor’s report, went through six actions, five sanctions and finally an action to reaffirm its accreditation. If it’s six sequential events on the road to getting better, why would they all show up as a negatives? Sounds like a counting problem to me. Sadly, no one in California has yet suggested that the methodology behind the 53% factoid just might be deeply flawed.

The auditor’s report also paints a different picture of the tension between colleges and accreditation than is promoted by the CCCCO report, including these statements, “it appears that California’s community colleges share responsibility for the higher sanction rate. As described previously, the commission sanctions an institution when it finds that the institution does not meet the commission’s standards.” It’s easier to be aggrieved when this statement is ignored, especially since the report also points out that an overwhelming majority of community college executives (88%) from colleges that had been sanctioned, agreed “that the commission’s sanctions were consistent with the evaluation team’s report recommendations.” Together, these statements might cause an insider to reach for a mirror and not a target.

What will the CCCCO report accomplish for California? The entire report reads more as a litany of grievances about accreditation processes and less as an indictment of accreditation standards. It is bound to attract some notice especially within the U.S. Department of Education. But, its lack of verifiable harm to institutions means it the feds will see it as one state higher education agency picking up disaffected voices and providing a new platform for quibbling especially since the charge by some inside California to strip ACCJC of its federal recognition last year fizzled. Don’t look for the CCCCO report to reopen that argument.

California can’t burn down ACCJC on the strength of this report. Even if enough fuel were found down the road, a replacement accreditor would need to be found. Given that this report means that California community colleges want accreditation to happen on their terms, another regional accreditor is unlikely to see California as a good candidate for membership and certainly not as an equal partner. In the meanwhile, it is easy to imagine that this report will provide cover, not just for arsonists, but those who will find it convenient to resist accreditation standards. Taxpayers and students, especially, deserve so much better.

Glenwood Springs, September 2015

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