Community colleges look to transition away from state accrediting agency

By Harold Pierce, The Bakersfield Californian
March 23rd, 2016

accrediting california

The move, which has stirred debate, comes after state’s accrediting agency came under fire

After weathering years of criticism, the California Community Colleges approved plans to change the process of accrediting the state’s 113 institutions.

The move signals a dramatic shift from the state’s standing accreditation agency, which has come under fire for wielding vast power with limited oversight.

The resolution approved by the board comes about a week after college presidents and district chancellors voted to pursue a two-prong approach to the state’s accreditation model.

First, the Chancellor’s office would improve operations and governance of the Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). Then, in a long term approach, California community colleges would transition to an agency that also accredits four-year institutions.

“We feel that students would benefit from that,” Paul Feist, a spokesman for the Chancellor’s Office, said.

ACCJC President Barbara Bene said she was “shocked and surprised” by the decision, which she thinks was partly fueled by mounting political pressure.

The ACCJC became the subject of public scrutiny in 2013 after it withdrew the accreditation of City College of San Francisco. That raised questions about the far reaching powers of the board, which is tasked with determining whether the state’s 113 community colleges are up to snuff.

There’s also some anxiety over whether ACCJC will be approved to accredit institutions awarding multiple baccalaureate degrees, Bene added.

“There’s a short term story from this resolution and a long term story. The long term one is very vague and unclear,” Bene said, adding, however, that she’s unsure how confident she is that ACCJC will be the system’s accrediting agency long term given the actions taken. “We’re still trying to digest what this means. We sure hope we’ll be the accreditor and our commission intends to continue doing the work.”

The ACCJC is currently not in compliance with federal standards and has been warned by the U.S. Department of Education that it could lose its authority to accredit colleges, officials from the Chancellor’s Office said.

While Bene didn’t refute that statement, she said it too was fueled by political motives. ACCJC is not in compliance with several standards, but is working towards fixing that in the time the federal government has allotted, she said.

The decision had more to do with aligning with four-year colleges than it did political pressure or public scrutiny, Feist said.

“Over the years, scrutiny has been placed on ACCJC and — among some corners of the community college system — some expressed dissatisfaction to the commission, but during the process it became increasingly clear that it would be better to have community colleges aligned with four-year institutions,” Feist said.

The resolution approved by the board includes swift changes to ACCJC, increasing financial transparency, reforming governance and leadership and improving communication with colleges, officials said.

The Board of Governors is planning a transition to an accreditor that would include all higher education institutions in the Western region, officials said in a statement.

But that change won’t come quickly. Accreditation cycles run seven years, so an incoming accreditor would have to take over the state’s 113 colleges, putting “tremendous demands” on the agency, Feist said. There’s no estimate on when the transition would take place, he added.

The move could also signal an expansion of the California community college system’s fledgling baccalaureate pilot program offered to 15 colleges, including Bakersfield College.

“This change in accreditation, though it may take several years of implement, makes sense given that our colleges will start offering the bachelor’s degree,” BOG President Geoffrey Baum said.

Gov. Jerry Brown approved that legislation in 2014, allowing a limited number of colleges to offer four-year degrees to students in fields that are not duplicated in the CSU and UC system, but also have a demonstrated need for the local workforce. Bakersfield College offers a Bachelor of Sciences in industrial automation, opening a pathway for students to apply for high-skill jobs in oil and agricultural industries.

“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but given the enormous public support that was voiced for community colleges to get into this arena, I think there’s an expectation that it may expand,” Feist said.

If that happens, it could critically alter the mission of California community colleges, which for years have acted as pathways to transfer to four-year institutions.

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