Cuesta College awaits decision on accreditation

Ruling due in January: College leaders are cautiously optimistic following panel’s two-day visit last week

acornejo@thetribunenews.comNovember 3, 2012 

A bird's-eye view of Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

The future of Cuesta College rests in the hands of a six-member team assembled to determine whether the college has fixed the deficiencies that threaten its accreditation.

A final decision will not be made until January by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. At stake is whether the college will lose its accreditation and be forced to close. 

The report, written after the team’s two-day visit to the campus last week, will be a key determining factor.

“It went very well,” President Gil Stork said of the visit. “They were very positive and complimentary of the work that has been done and indicated that their report should have a very positive tone.”

The visiting team interviewed 26 people on campus who play crucial roles in planning, and it reviewed hundreds of pages of documents created by the college to show its compliance with requirements.

Stork said the adrenaline could be felt on campus during the visit.

“The mood on campus was much like when we are getting ready for a big game,” he said. “We were ready for it and excited to share our progress.”

The college has been struggling to retain its accreditation since 2009, when it was notified by the accrediting commission that it was not meeting nearly a dozen standards.

In February, the college was told it still needed to fix insufficiencies in three areas: planning and assessment, technology resources, and financial planning and stability. If it failed to do so, the school’s accreditation would be revoked, and Cuesta would be forced to close.

The panel gave Cuesta a “show cause” status, meaning the college must show it can meet the demands of accreditation.

Plan for possible closure

Years of volatile leadership and a lack of high-level attention to the required standards led the college to its struggle.

One of the main challenges for the college was to show it had sufficiently linked its key operating plans to future fiscal resources.

A legion of college employees and administrators led by Vice President Deborah Wulff, who was appointed by Stork to oversee the process, has been working tirelessly to get things on track.

The college was also ordered to prepare for a report outlining its plans for closure, as required by the commission, should the school fail to meet the requirements. The 12-page plan prepares the campus for the worst-case scenario.

Should the commission revoke Cuesta’s accreditation, the college would begin the closure process in the spring session of 2013. Cuesta would make arrangements for students to transfer to other community colleges, promptly disseminating academic records and other necessary documents.

Students who have completed 75 percent of their degrees or education programs at the college would be permitted to finish their study elsewhere but could still receive their degrees from Cuesta.

All teaching staff would be notified by March 15, and all classified staff would receive 60-day layoff notices.

The Cuesta College Board of Trustees would be responsible for deciding whether the college would file for bankruptcy.

Upcoming decision

When the commission meets in early January, Stork said it could:

• Revoke accreditation.

• Reaffirm accreditation.

• Continue the “show cause’’ sanction for another year, giving the college more time to prove it is meeting the requirements.

• Delay a decision until June, when the commission meets again.

Stork said his only concern is that while Cuesta believes it has all of the required planning documents and processes in place, it has not had much time to prove that they work.

“The only unanswered question is how the commission will treat the fact that we still have not been able to demonstrate a full cycle (one year) of implementing our planning process,” Stork said after the recent team visit. “The clear indicator, at least to me, was that it wasn’t a reason to take someone’s accreditation away.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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