Report 2013-123 Summary - June 2014
California Community College Accreditation:
Colleges Are Treated Inconsistently and Opportunities Exist for Improvement in the Accreditation Process
Our audit of the accreditation process of California's community colleges highlighted the following:
- The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges (commission) was inconsistent in applying its accreditation process.
- It decided to terminate City College of San Francisco's (CCSF) accreditation after allowing only one year to come into compliance even though it could have given the college more time.
- It allowed 15 institutions to take two years to come into compliance and allowed another six institutions to take up to five years to reach compliance.
- The commission's deliberations regarding an institution's accreditation status lack transparency.
- The appeal process of the commission does not allow institutions a definitive right to provide new evidence—a limitation that may be detrimental in showing the progress made in addressing deficiencies.
- The commission sanctions community colleges at a higher rate than the six other regional accreditors in the nation.
- Options exist that may allow community colleges to choose an accreditor other than the commission.
- The California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office could improve its monitoring of community colleges to identify institutions at risk of receiving a sanction.
RESULTS IN BRIEF
To ensure educational quality in the United States, the federal government has established a system of independent accreditation for institutions of higher education. The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) formally recognizes accreditors that it determines meet criteria in federal law and regulations to ensure that they are reliable authorities regarding the quality of education offered by the institutions they accredit. For example, federal law requires accreditors to develop standards that the institutions they accredit must follow. Federal law also requires that any school receiving federal funds—for example, Pell Grants or Direct Student Loans—must have accreditation from an accreditor that USDE recognizes. There are seven regional accreditors across six regions. In California, part of the Western region, which includes Hawaii and other Pacific islands, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges (commission) accredits two year institutions, and the WASC Senior College and University Commission accredits four year institutions. State regulations specify the commission as the accreditor for the State's 112 two year public institutions. The commission is a nonprofit corporation whose membership is composed of representatives of accredited community colleges.
When an accredited institution does not comply with its accreditor's standards, federal regulations require the accreditor to terminate that institution's accreditation or to allow the institution up to two years to come into compliance—more if the accreditor has good cause to extend that time frame. When the commission finds an institution out of compliance, according to its policies the commission will place the institution on one of three sanction levels: warning; probation; or show cause, the most severe sanction. Regardless of the sanction level, an institution on sanction must address, within a specified time frame, those areas where the commission has determined it is out of compliance.
In July 2013 the commission notified City College of San Francisco (CCSF) of its decision to terminate the college's accreditation after the college had been on a show cause sanction for only one year, despite the opportunity to give the college more time. This action was inconsistent with the commission's treatment of other institutions during our audit period. Between January 2009 and January 2014, 49 California community colleges both received and were able to address their sanctions from the commission. Fifteen of these institutions took the full two years that regulations allow, and the commission allowed six more institutions to take more than two years and up to five years to resolve their sanctions. Further, the commission decided to terminate CCSF's accreditation even though the college had, with the cooperation of the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office (chancellor's office), retained the services of an external regulator; according to the commission, employing an external regulator is one of the criteria that can justify an extension to an institution's time to come into compliance. In addition, the commission continues to have the ability to extend CCSF's time to address deficiencies, as the commission is not restricted from reversing a decision to terminate accreditation.
Further, the commission conducts deliberations on the accreditation status of institutions in closed session, which could cause the public to question the integrity and credibility of the process. Although the commission is not bound by state or federal open meeting laws, more than 80 percent of the institutions it accredits are public community colleges in California, which are subject to such laws and thus accustomed to operating in an atmosphere of transparency. In fact, some community college presidents, superintendents, and chancellors (college executives) have expressed concerns regarding the commission's transparency. We surveyed the college executive at each of the 112 California community colleges. Overall, 62 percent of survey respondents felt the commission's decision making process regarding accreditation was appropriately transparent; however, a significant minority—38 percent—did not. Some college executives suggested that the commission should conduct its deliberations in public and others suggested the commission's deliberations should be open specifically to the college executive of the institution under accreditation consideration. Also, we noted that the institutions that had staff members serving as commissioners were less likely to receive sanctions. Only two California community colleges of 14 that had members on the commission between January 2009 and January 2014 received a sanction during their respective commissioner's tenure. Without open meetings, community colleges cannot be sure of the commission's reasoning for its decisions and this could lead to public skepticism about the commission's equity and consistency.
In addition, the commission's appeal policy does not provide institutions appealing the commission's decision to terminate accreditation with a definitive right to have new evidence considered as part of its appeal. CCSF is the first institution to go through the appeal process and filed its appeal in March 2014. Federal regulations require that accreditors have an appeal process by which an institution that is losing its accreditation may appeal the decision to a panel of individuals who were not involved in the decision to terminate accreditation. While the commission's process meets federal requirements, it does not expressly give an institution the right to introduce evidence of the progress it has made to address deficiencies that served as the basis for the original decision. Such a limitation could be detrimental to an institution that has made progress in addressing deficiencies in the period following the commission's decision to terminate accreditation. As the purpose of accreditation is to ensure quality among higher education institutions, and given the amount of time that passes between a decision to terminate accreditation and when an institution would file an appeal—nearly nine months in the case of CCSF—we would expect the commission's appeal process to allow institutions to describe any additional changes they have made to address the commission's recommendations. In fact, the consideration of such new evidence is exactly what will be happening as a result of the hearing panel's decision announced by the commission in June 2014.
Further, while we identified some concerns with the commission's policies and processes for accreditation, USDE also cited certain concerns with the commission's evaluation teams. In order to assess whether an institution meets its standards, the commission brings together a team of volunteers including administrators and faculty—institutional peers—from institutions throughout the commission's region to visit and review information from the institution. At the end of its visit, the evaluation team creates a report, with recommendations to the institution, and the commission will consider the results of the report in its decision making regarding the institution's accreditation. In August 2013 USDE reported that the commission placed the spouse of the commission's president on an evaluation team, noting that this action created the appearance of a conflict of interest. In October 2013 the commission revised its conflict of interest policy to explicitly prohibit relatives of commissioners and staff, such as the president, from serving on evaluation teams. Further, USDE found that the commission was not ensuring adequate representation of faculty on its evaluation teams, noting that the commission had appointed just one faculty member to each of the teams that evaluated CCSF in March 2012 and April 2013, which consisted of eight and 16 individuals, respectively.
Beyond our concerns with the commission's consistency and its policies, we noted that the commission also sanctions its institutions at a much higher rate than do the other six regional accreditors. Between 2009 and 2013, the commission took 269 accreditation actions—which included reaffirming accreditation, sanctioning an institution for noncompliance, or acting to terminate accreditation—on its member institutions and issued 143 sanctions, a sanction rate of roughly 53 percent. By comparison the other six regional accreditors together had a sanction rate of just over 12 percent. It appears that the State's community colleges themselves have some responsibility for the high sanction rate. In our survey, 88 percent of the college executives responding felt that the commission's recommendations were reasonable, meaning that the commission appropriately identified issues and concerns and that the commission's recommendations related to the issues identified. Two other factors also contributed to these higher sanction rates. The commission has more levels of sanction—three as opposed to one or two at the other regional accreditors—and a shorter accreditation cycle—six years as opposed to seven to 10 years at the other regional accreditors. However, the fact that the commission does not provide institutions with feedback on their self study that occurs before a comprehensive evaluation—a practice that some of the other regional accreditors engage in—may have an even greater impact on its high sanction rates because institutions do not have the opportunity to address any commission concerns before a comprehensive accreditation review from an evaluation team.
The commission is currently the only entity authorized by state regulation to accredit California's community colleges, but options exist that could allow colleges more choices for accreditation. State regulations currently require that California community colleges receive accreditation only from the commission. However, other accreditors could apply to USDE to expand their scopes of operation to include California community colleges. Finally, it may be possible for the Legislature to encourage the establishment of a new accreditor in California, although a new accreditor would require funding. Such a move would involve some risk as any new organization would have to meet all federal requirements—and have accredited institutions for at least two years—before being eligible for recognition from USDE. Regardless, as long as the State continues to name the commission as the sole accreditor for California community colleges, such choices are not possible.
In addition, the chancellor's office could improve its monitoring of community colleges to identify institutions that might be at risk of receiving a sanction from the commission. The chancellor's office, pursuant to authority delegated to it by the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges, oversees various aspects of the community college system, which includes developing minimum standards for institutions to receive state aid. According to the deputy chancellor, due to resource constraints the chancellor's office conducts limited monitoring to ensure that institutions are meeting the minimum standards the office sets. However, the office does not perform on site monitoring of institutions because it does not have the staff to conduct such activities. He stated that instead, the office has had to focus on those institutions facing significant fiscal issues and rely on community college districts to complete a self assessment checklist, which is not an independent review of the institution. Although the deputy chancellor explained that the fiscal year 2014-15 budget includes new positions for the chancellor's office and the office plans to develop indicators to detect when a college is struggling, it is too soon to tell whether such steps will have a positive effect on accreditation.
Although accreditation requires an investment of time and money, it helps institutions improve and allows students to receive federal financial aid. Over the last five years the four institutions we reviewed spent more than $500,000 in payments to the commission for annual membership dues and fees. In addition, certain faculty and staff spend time on activities pertaining to accreditation and two institutions entered into contracts with special trustees to address deficiencies the commission had identified. Further, college executives at the four institutions we visited stated that accreditation helps the institutions identify areas for improvement. Also, according to federal law, institutions and the students they serve cannot receive federal funds, such as federal Pell Grants, unless the institutions are accredited by a federally recognized accreditor, such as the commission. According to its annual financial reports for fiscal years 2008-09 through 2012-13, CCSF disbursed a total of almost $154 million in awards under the federal Pell Grant Program, which provides grants to undergraduate students with demonstrated financial need. Finally, despite some controversy surrounding their adoption, the four institutions we visited have used student learning outcomes to identify needed improvements to college courses.
We direct our recommendations to the chancellor's office because the commission is a nonprofit corporation which is governed by federal law and subject to the oversight of USDE. To better protect the State's interests in accreditation and to improve the accreditation process, many of our recommendations prompt the chancellor's office to engage the commission on behalf of the State's 112 community colleges.
To ensure that colleges receive consistent and fair treatment and are able to address deficiencies, the chancellor's office should work with the community colleges and request clearer guidance from the commission regarding what actions would allow for the full two year period in which to remediate concerns and what actions would constitute good cause for extending the time an institution has to address deficiencies beyond two years. In doing so, the chancellor's office should also encourage the commission to specify in its policies those scenarios under which it would find good cause so that institutions would have a better understanding of when they might reasonably expect additional time to address deficiencies.
To ensure that community colleges and the public are fully informed regarding the accreditation process, the chancellor's office should assist community colleges in communicating their concerns to the commission regarding its transparency and in developing proposals for improving the commission's transparency policies and practices.
To make certain that institutions receive fair treatment in appealing decisions that terminate their accreditation, the chancellor's office should work with the community colleges to advocate that the commission change certain aspects of its appeal process. Specifically, in keeping with the spirit of accreditation, when institutions have taken steps to correct deficiencies that led to the decision to terminate accreditation, the institutions should be allowed to have information on those corrections heard as evidence in their appeal.
To strengthen institutions' understanding of what they must do to comply with standards and to provide them with the opportunity to address certain issues that could jeopardize their compliance, the chancellor's office, in collaboration with the community colleges, should encourage the commission to develop formal opportunities for institutions to communicate with and receive feedback from the commission on institutional self studies and other reports before a formal evaluation takes place. In doing so, the chancellor's office should consider the practices of other regional accreditors and identify those that would best meet the needs of California's community colleges.
To allow community colleges flexibility in choosing an accreditor, the chancellor's office should:
- Remove language from its regulations naming the commission as the sole accreditor of California community colleges while maintaining the requirement that community colleges be accredited.
- Identify other accreditors who are able to accredit California community colleges or who would be willing to change their scope to do so.
- Assess the potential costs, risks, and feasibility of creating a new independent accreditor.
The chancellor's office should monitor community colleges for issues that may jeopardize accreditation. To the extent that the chancellor's office believes it needs additional staff to accomplish this task, it should develop a proposal for the fiscal year 2015-16 budget cycle that identifies the specific activities it would undertake to find and correct issues that could lead to sanctions of the community colleges and identify the staffing level needed to conduct those activities.
The chancellor's office stated that it generally concurs with our report's findings and recommendations. However, the chancellor's office disagreed with one of our recommendations related to allowing colleges flexibility in choosing an accreditor. Although we did not direct recommendations to the commission, it submitted a written response asserting that our report is generally inaccurate and incomplete. However, it provided no context or evidence to support its assertion.