Student Success is Accrediting Agency’s Primary Mission

By Dr. Steven Kinsella

Accreditation of colleges and universities has been part of American higher education quality assurance for more than a century. It is designed to protect students, taxpayers who fund colleges and the wider community from low-quality or even fraudulent education institutions.

Accreditation assures students and others that the credits, certificates and degrees it awards will be of value to students and to employers. Each college or university is periodically reviewed to determine whether it meets published standards of quality and specific federal requirements for eligibility for federal funds. When an institution falls short, it is given limited time to improve and comply. If it does not meet standards, an institution is not permitted to achieve or maintain accredited status.

Accrediting agencies are reviewed every five years by the U.S. Department of Education to ensure the agency meets federal regulations. Agencies that meet federal requirements are given “recognition,” though not all accreditors are able to achieve recognition. During the USDE review of any agency, all stakeholders — community leaders, students, college administrators, faculty and classified personnel — are encouraged to provide feedback to the USDE through the department’s call for third party comment.

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges is recognized by the USDE. The commission has practiced continuous self-improvement since its formation in 1962 and, to encourage community input, it also has policy and procedure for comments and complaints and, during periods when it is revising standards, for ideas about what should change.

The ACCJC welcomes comment by third parties such as the Board of Governors or the public. The commission reports its accreditation actions and policy changes twice per year to the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, the California Community College System and, now, the legislature. While ACCJC shares information about its work and welcomes constructive criticism, its accreditation actions on institutions are required by federal regulations to be separate from state oversight and independent from external influence by college constituency groups and related organizations.

While Assembly Bill 404 is spurred by the recent debates about City College of San Francisco, it is important to distinguish between constructive comment and suggestions for change, and unwarranted critique. The February 17, 2015 decision by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow ruled the allegations about the ACCJC, its commissioners and its staff were unproven.

Among the many findings Judge Karnow made were: no inadequacies in the ACCJC conflict of interest policy; no conflict of interest or apparent conflict of interest with the 2012 CCSF volunteer-peer evaluation team; no wrongdoing by the ACCJC and its staff.

The court ruled, however, that the commission made an error in not informing the institution in advance of its noncompliance with 10 standards, and ordered ACCJC to undertake a process to remedy that error. That process is ongoing.

The ACCJC remains committed to fulfilling its purpose — to assure the institutions it accredits meet accreditation standards, and beyond that, strive to improve quality. Our communities’ students are best equipped for success when colleges offer the best in curriculum, pedagogy, support services, facilities, and instructional technologies, and when colleges are financially stable with governance focused on providing quality education to students.

Dr. Steven Kinsella, ACCJC Chair, began his service on the Commission in July 2010. He has been President/Superintendent at Gavilan College for the last 12 years. Dr. Kinsella has worked in community college higher education for 23 years.


ACCJC continues accreditation transparency practices

By Dr. Steven Kinsella & Dr. Sherrill Amador

California Assembly Bill 1942, as passed, represents a vote of confidence in the peer evaluation process that is followed by member institutions of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges. It also represents the heightened interest and concerns of the state for its role in ensuring academic quality and institutional integrity.

The bill directs that certain information be provided to the Legislature to “improve transparency of the accreditation process.” It formalizes the transmittal of information to particular committees of the Legislature that has been posted regularly on the ACCJC website and in ACCJC publications, sent to the State Chancellor’s Office and to the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, and provided on request to legislative staff and committees.

The additional level of regular notifications to the Legislature can be provided immediately, on request by the Legislature should the bill not be signed.

The ACCJC makes public its summary, “Recent Commission Actions on Institutions,” at the time the institutions being reviewed are notified. It also makes public its actions proposing or finalizing changes to policies and Accreditation Standards. All of this information is always published within 30 days of the Commission’s January and June meetings where actions are taken.

The same information on actions of the Commission is also published in the ACCJC’s spring and summer newsletters. Finally, a Public Disclosure Notice with more detailed information is provided for any institution on Probation or Show Cause through a link that appears at the institution’s citation in the online Directory of Accredited Institutions.

For persons who want even more detail, the ACCJC requires member colleges to post their evaluation team reports online “one click away” from the college home page, and we are working with institutions to make sure that these reports can easily be found on the colleges’ websites.

The ACCJC welcomes the interest of the Legislature in the quality of public and private community colleges in California, and its greater involvement in addressing the challenges that some colleges must overcome in order to meet quality standards that align with standards of the other regional accrediting commissions and are approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

We hope the process of deliberation on this bill and the provision of regular notifications concerning accreditation actions will help the Legislature as it works with the State Chancellor’s Office to find ways to support California community colleges, both those working to meet standards, and the many institutions that regularly have successful accreditation reviews.

Steven Kinsella, ACCJC Chair, is an administrative member of the Commission, and has been president/superintendent at Gavilan College for the last 12 years. 

Sherrill Amador, ACCJC past chair, is a public member of the commission. Amador began her service on the commission July 1, 2004 after retiring from a 32-year career in community college education.

 This blog was first published in the San Francisco Examiner.

The importance of accreditation

The Fresno Bee
April 30, 2014

The recent focus on City College of San Francisco and its possible loss of accreditation has put many California community colleges under the spotlight … and rightly so.

Accreditation has been described as a public statement that a certain threshold of quality has been achieved or surpassed. Each institution affiliated with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) accepts the obligation to participate in a cycle of periodic self-evaluation and external reviews by a team of peer reviewers.

The colleges of State Center Community College District — Fresno City College and Reedley College — have undergone examination by ACCJC and have worked diligently to resolve the issues raised in the commission’s report in 2012 when they placed the colleges on “warning.”

On Oct. 15, 2012, the colleges submitted follow-up reports to the commission. In a letter dated Feb. 11, 2013, ACCJC acted to remove the warning, and reaffirm accreditation and required the colleges to submit another follow-up report.

In a letter dated Feb. 7, 2014, that was received by Fresno City College and Reedley College, the commission stated that “the Colleges provided evidence that they met the associated Standards.”

It is not uncommon in the accreditation process for questions and issues to be raised that require a response from the institution. As a result, both colleges are now in good standing with ACCJC and all accreditation issues have been resolved.

In the past, I have participated on accreditation teams and chaired many others in California, across the nation and in Europe. So to understand accreditation and how the colleges respond, it’s helpful to look at how the process has evolved over the years.

There have been significant shifts in the focus of accreditation over time. In the 1960s, accreditation focused on processes to ensure institutional viability. By the 1990s, it had shifted to students moving through the institution. By 2002, ACCJC approved its new accreditation standards that ushered in an era of student and institutional outcomes, assessment and collection of data and analysis. This provided the framework for guiding institutional process development, decision making and demonstration of institutional effectiveness with regard to student learning outcomes and student achievement. During this major shift many California community colleges were warned for not meeting all the new standards.

The most recent shift in accreditation is highlighted by the revised 2014 ACCJC Accreditation Standards expected to be approved this summer, which introduce three additional areas of accountability. The areas are: 1) a response to local interests in clarifying and simplifying Accreditation Standards; 2) addressing regional and national interests in student completion, time to degree, and quality of degree; and 3) addressing regional and national interests in productivity and student equity.

Our new Willow International Community College Center is going through the process to become Clovis Community College, the third accredited college in State Center Community College District.

Willow International was granted candidacy status effective March 6, 2013. There is one final step that needs to be taken before it becomes Clovis Community College. Willow International must submit another self-evaluation report documenting how the college meets the eligibility requirements, accreditation standards and polices.

This report is being completed and will be submitted to ACCJC in February 2015. The commission will send an external evaluation team in March 2015 to evaluate Willow International’s readiness to become a college. If everything goes as planned, the commission could make the final determination to grant initial accreditation to Clovis Community College in June 2015.

The districtwide governance process has continuously worked to address the issues raised by the accreditation standards. Key districtwide task forces and formalized committees have continued the work of districtwide planning to ensure ongoing, districtwide dialogue.

The bottom line is this: Fresno City College, Reedley College and the future Clovis Community College will be stronger as a result of the accreditation process and will continue to provide outstanding educational opportunities for students for many generations to come.

Bill F. Stewart is the interim chancellor of State Center Community College District.

Read more here:

The Way Forward for City College

By Sherrill Amador, Frank Gornick & Steven Kinsella

As the clock ticks toward a July 31 deadline, there is a call to “give more time” to the City College of San Francisco to make the changes necessary to prevent its loss of accreditation. Unfortunately, the problem isn’t the clock – it is the college’s unprecedentedly flawed structure as well as federal law. However, there is a path forward that will protect students, taxpayers, and the San Francisco community served by the college.

During its 2012 evaluation by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), City College was found to be in terrible condition; evaluators noted scores of deficiencies that needed fixing by the college. Problems included deficient student services, outdated instruction guides, antiquated computer systems, and lack of fiscal controls.

The college was in a precarious financial position — laden with $4.6 million in unpaid student fees dating back 10 years, a payroll system that allowed access to 125 people, and a self-insured workers compensation fund that had a $4 million negative balance. Additionally, many internal control weaknesses resulted in overpayments and underpayments of staff salary, employees receiving unverified health and other benefits as well as underreporting of vacation time taken.

While CCSF continued to construct new buildings, many students attended classes in old buildings that were deteriorating due to deferred maintenance. There were also insufficient student resources for library and learning support.

The independent evaluators found that these and other problems occurred and persisted because CCSF had one of the worst organizational structures among the California community colleges, with decisions often made by committees that were not accountable to anyone, rather than by faculty or administrators responsible for their actions. These deficiencies are cheating students of the education they need and wasting millions of taxpayer dollar.

A year later, after having warned and advised the college to make significant improvements while still accredited, the Commission found that very little had been done. The college was still out of compliance with more than 50 accreditation standards. Only two of the 14 recommendations for improvement provided to the college in 2012 had been completed. The college’s substandard structure and lack of progress left the Commission no choice but to terminate accreditation.

Despite the efforts of some leaders to help City College swiftly improve, internal discord has prevented sufficient progress. This dysfunction has been documented by independent parties, including the college’s own external auditor and the state’s Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team, an auditing agency that twice reviewed and reported on portions of City College’s operations. (A U.S. Department of Education audit that began in November 2013 is ongoing.)

It is important to put this in perspective. The Commission, made up of member colleges, has evaluated its member colleges in California – now numbering 117 – for more than 50 years, each school every six years. A team of expert peer evaluators (experienced faculty members and college administrators) assesses the school’s academics, finances, facilities, technology, and governance. The Commission does not take over, or close, a failing college. Instead, like an auditor, it points out deficiencies and recommends improvements to help a college remain open. Each college determines its own future.

In recent history, only one other California college has been in a similar predicament. Compton Community College was so substandard that it lost its accreditation and was shuttered in 2006. Compton College has been rebuilding as a strong, effective educational institution under the guidance of El Camino College, and hopes to re-apply for accreditation soon.

While some plead that City College simply be given more time to fix its problems, this is not up to the Commission.

Congress and the Department of Education have specified that an accrediting body allow no more than two years for a substandard college to come into compliance or lose its accreditation. The “two-year rule” is designed to protect students and taxpayers. In fact, the Department of Education has put all accreditors on notice that they could lose their federal recognition if they do not apply the two-year rule. Without federal recognition of the Commission as an accrediting body, every community college in California could lose access to taxpayer dollars — federal financial aid for students. Any change to the two-year rule requires Congress to enact a new law.

Since last summer, critical leadership changes have occurred at City College, and the school is beginning to turn things around. However, by their own testimony, City College representatives estimate that it requires up to four years to fully recover.

Yet there is a plan that protects students and the college:

CCSF could seek accreditation anew by applying for “candidacy” status. A candidate college is eligible for federal financial aid and state funding; its students’ course credits are generally transferrable, and its degrees or certificates are recognized, as long as the college is eventually successful in obtaining accreditation after a period of candidacy. Currently there is a candidate institution in the State Center Community College District, and within the last five years Woodland Community College, Moreno Valley College and Norco College were candidates before becoming accredited.

Candidate status would allow City College a fresh start. It would provide two to four years of time for it to complete its recovery and to ensure that it meets all accreditation standards.

ACCJC has advised and supported City College throughout the college’s accreditation history, and especially since 2012. All the other member colleges in California are fulfilling peer accreditation standards that they themselves have established. This begs the question: Why should City College be accredited without meeting the same standards?

The solution for City College is clear: candidacy leading to re-accreditation, while administrators, faculty and staff work together to address the school’s remaining structural deficiencies.

About the Authors:

Sherrill Amador, ACCJC Chair, is a public member of the Commission. Dr. Amador began her service on the Commission July 1, 2004 after retiring from a 32-year career in community college education wherein she worked as an instructor in career and technical education, a dean, a vice president, and a president.

Dr. Frank Gornick serves as an administrative member of the Commission. Dr. Gornick began his service on the Commission July 1, 2009. He is Chancellor of the West Hills Community College District beginning 2001.

Dr. Steven Kinsella, Vice Chair of the Commission, is an administrative member of the Commission, and has been President/Superintendent at Gavilan College for the last 11 years.

Judge Strikes Complaint Against ACCJC

On March 25, 2014, the Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco, issued an order striking the complaint brought by the Save the CCSF Coalition against the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), effectively dismissing the lawsuit. ACCJC Chair Dr. Sherrill Amador stated, “The judge’s order shows that this was a frivolous lawsuit that wasted the energy and funds of the non-profit accrediting association of 133 educational institutions. It was one brought by a private third party that sought to interfere with the quality assurance process and did not serve the public interest. We are pleased this lawsuit has been struck.” Continue reading

Partners in oversight assure quality in our colleges

By Sherrill Amador and Barbara Beno

There has been increased discussion about ensuring the quality of American higher education for the future. This conversation occurs in Washington, D.C.; in the media; on campuses; and around dinner tables. Indeed, the nation has an acute need to boost the number of college completers and to improve their competency.

The debate is providing a great deal of push for college accreditors to be more rigorous in their evaluations and for colleges to be more accountable for student success. Locally, there is anxiety about the accreditation of City College of San Francisco.

Accreditors, colleges, the community and government are all partners in the accreditation process. As such, they must cooperate to achieve their common goals. When special-interest groups try to disrupt established standards, accreditors can no longer assure educational quality. The entire partnership is negatively affected: Everyone loses. Continue reading