Cuesta College looks to leave sanctions behind

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

Cuesta College, which has spent five years striving to retain its accreditation, expects to hear soon whether it is finally free of sanctions from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

Cuesta President Gil Stork, who attended a Jan. 10 commission meeting, anticipates good news in early February.

The community college was first told that it was not meeting nearly a dozen standards in 2009.

In 2012, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges put Cuesta on “show cause” status — one of the final steps before accreditation — and told the school it 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 could have its accreditation revoked.

After meeting most of the demands for accreditation, Cuesta retained its accreditation and was downgraded in 2013 to a warning status, the least serious form of sanction.

“It is not a perfect system, but I would have a difficult time devising a better one,” Stork said.

Stork said his biggest criticism of the accreditation process is the lack of clarity regarding the standards and the need to train peers tapped to evaluate colleges on them.

“What I found in our six-year process is every visiting team had a little different interpretation of what our compliance issues were,” Stork said. “That made it a guessing game to some degree.”

The ambiguity of the standards also leads to a lot of subjectivity, he said.

“We own our problems,” Stork said. “We know the areas we were very deficient in but we did the work … we responded to the challenge and worked with the commission rather than the courts. I don’t think that (the latter) serves anybody — it just creates sides and doubt and detracts from where the real issues are.”

At the recent commission hearing, Stork highlighted a portion of the report issued by the last visiting accreditation team to evaluate Cuesta College.

In its report to the commission, the team wrote, “It is the opinion of the team that the administrators, faculty, staff, students, and supporting community of Cuesta College have engineered a remarkable turnaround that is astonishing in its breadth and depth.”

“To create a cultural shift of this magnitude in an institution the size of Cuesta College is a remarkable feat and should be applauded,” the team continued. “If Cuesta College maintains its current course, there is every reason to believe that this college will sustain these changes and improvements and achieve the level of excellence that it seeks.”

During its multiyear effort to retain accreditation, the college’s enrollment suffered, and recruiting job applicants became difficult. It also damaged morale.