Accreditation process fails to make the grade

Way community colleges are judged needs to change

letters@thetribunenews.comFebruary 16, 2014 

With board members, faculty and staff watching, Cuesta College President Gil Stork on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, announced that the college had satisfied accreditation requirements.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Cuesta College has reason to celebrate; after five years, it has received the blessing of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

While it was hard to believe that Cuesta would ever have been forced to close, that possibility was on the table at one point. With accreditation reaffirmed, a huge cloud has lifted and we congratulate the entire college community — administration, faculty, staff and students.

At the same time, we join those around the state who are calling for major reform of an accreditation process that has become far too burdensome, punitive and secretive.

The state Legislature has ordered an audit of the accreditation process, and President Barack Obama has called for reforms that would stress real-world benchmarks, such as dropout rates and affordability. That would be a welcome change, because the current process is too much of a bureaucratic paper chase instead of a straightforward assessment of what should matter most: the quality of teaching, the relevancy of educational programs and the ability of students to achieve their goals, whether they plan to transfer to a four-year university, begin a career or gain a particular skill.

Under the current evaluation system, an alarming number of community colleges in California are coming up short. One decision has been especially controversial: The commission decided to pull the accreditation of City College of San Francisco, which enrolls 80,000 students. That would force the school to shut down, since it would no longer be eligible for government funding. The decision is on hold for now, however, pending the outcome of legal challenges filed on behalf of the school.

Meanwhile, Cuesta College already is gearing up to start the evaluation process over again. Because community colleges are accredited every six years, Cuesta is due for another review this year, even though it was essentially give a clean bill of health just this month.

Officials expect the next review to go much more smoothly, since they’ll be able to apply lessons learned over the past five years. That’s good, because the last go-round took a big toll: Enrollment dropped, it was harder to recruit employees and morale suffered.

There were more tangible costs as well: Since 2011, Cuesta has spent $154,503 on consultants who prepared various studies and reports to satisfy accreditation requirements ($70,000 of that from the Cuesta College Foundation and the remainder from the general fund) and another $82,370 on dues and administrative costs relating to accreditation, for a total of $236,873.

Granted, that’s an insubstantial sum compared to the college’s general fund budget of $46.6 million, but remember , it wasn’t long ago that the college was cutting programs it could no longer afford on account of state budget cuts.

That raises another concern: How in good conscience can community colleges be penalized by the accreditation process for problems that can be traced to state revenue losses? We believe community colleges must be fiscally prudent, but they are often at the mercy of a state Legislature that’s been notorious for balancing its budgets on the backs of other government entities. As a Cuesta College report notes, state allocations for community colleges have decreased each year for several years, including a total $584 million reduction in 2011/2012.

To further burden community colleges with a cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive accreditation review every six years is excessive, for the colleges and for taxpayers.

We strongly urge leaders in higher education and state and federal lawmakers to find a better way to ensure that community colleges are delivering a quality education to students.

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