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.
Unlike in many other countries that exercise governmental control over all levels of education, colleges in the United States have chosen a self-regulating peer-review process for quality assurance. Accreditation guarantees that an institution meets standards; that the education given is of value to the student who earned it; and that employers, trade-related and profession-related licensing entities, other colleges and universities can accept a student’s credentials as legitimate. If a college is not accredited, its students cannot obtain financial aid and the institution cannot receive various public funds. This is a successful self-governing system that underscores accountability, given the fact that billions of taxpayer dollars are used for American higher education.
Almost all California colleges adhere to the accreditation process.
Regional accrediting commissions, such as the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, are membership organizations formed by institutions that join together — partnering — to create standards and policies for quality. The institutions also select individuals to serve on evaluation teams and on the commission. When an accreditation decision is finalized, ACCJC and the particular college involved provide transparency by posting the information on their websites.
Each college is reviewed every six years to ensure quality and compliance with accreditation standards, state requirements and federal regulations. If a college’s performance slips below thresholds, federal law mandates that the institution has a limited time — two years — to correct its deficiencies. This “two-year rule” is designed to protect the public interest by preventing substandard institutions from continuing to operate.
Similarly, each regional accrediting agency is reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education to assure that the agency meets federal regulations. The ACCJC was recently reviewed and its recognition was extended.
The ACCJC has practiced continuous self-improvement since its formation in 1962. For more than half a century it has been responsive to its member colleges. Recently the commission launched a review of its own accreditation standards by seeking input from its member institutions and the public. Hundreds of persons from the colleges provided comments. The most common theme was: Don’t change much. The standards may need some “tweaking” and adjustments, but there is nothing large that needs to change. There were dozens of ideas for “tweaks.” The commission is currently vetting a draft of new accreditation standards. Member colleges and the public are welcome to provide input prior to the formal adoption of the standards in June.
While the Bay Area economy improves, graduating students still face a tight job market. At the same time, many employers have difficulty finding skilled workers to fill vacancies. Global competition requires top-notch education. As some students flock to career-building programs, many, many more are seeking four-year-university transfer courses as well as lifelong-learning and English-remediation classes. Current factors have prompted some community colleges to add tech-focused curricula.
College leaders must carefully allocate limited resources to meet varying needs. Meanwhile, accreditors like the ACCJC are in the limelight, because the public expects them to help colleges do more and do it better.
Partnership is critical in assuring educational quality. Accreditation standards are created in collaboration between the commission and its member community colleges. Standards are enforced by peer evaluators who uphold the principles of self-regulation. Government provides guidelines. To the degree that the entire partnership is responsive to new, sometimes urgent demands placed upon it, quality assurance for our colleges will be better preserved.
Sherrill Amador is the chairwoman of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. Barbara Beno joined the commission as president in August 2001. Prior to her appointment, she served as commissioner for both the ACCJC and the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, Western Association of Schools and Colleges.