Community colleges throughout California are facing sanctions from the agency that accredits colleges in the West, largely a result of the state cutting funding for several years as the federal government has stepped up performance standards.
The most severe cases are at the community colleges in San Francisco, San Luis Obispo and Eureka, where officials have issued sanctions one stop short of yanking accreditation and have ordered the colleges to make plans to shut down.
Several others are facing milder sanctions from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, a division of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. This year the commission has put 10 campuses, including those in Modesto, Redding and San Jose, on the midlevel "probation" status. It has placed another 14 campuses including those in Berkeley, Oakland, Merced and Fresno on the low-level "warning" status.
"The problems colleges have run into with accreditation are abnormally acute at this point in time in California," said David Baime, a senior vice president with the American Association of Community Colleges.
"The colleges in California have been subject to such savage budget reductions that it has placed institutions under a great deal of financial and administrative strain. I think that's a big part of the issue for the colleges."
Money problems are at the core of the accreditation crisis at City College of San Francisco. Accreditors dinged the school for three years of deficit spending, putting 92 percent of its budget toward salaries and benefits, and not reining in its mission even as funding dwindled. The college serves 90,000 students at more than 100 locations and offers scores of free non-credit classes.
"We have no choice but to fix these problems," said college spokesman Larry Kamer. "Loss of accreditation would be catastrophic, and we're just not going to let that happen."
Colleges need accreditation to accept federal financial aid, offer courses with transferable credit, participate in league sports and award diplomas. Without accreditation, many schools would shut down for lack of students.
Compounding the problem for California colleges are increased academic expectations set by the federal government, which tells accrediting commissions what to look for when they judge schools. The sticking point for some is a federal requirement that accredited schools demonstrate "learning outcomes."
In other words: It's not enough for a college to show what it teaches. It must also show what students learn.
The tougher academic standards were put in place just before the recession prompted California to start cutting funding to its community colleges. State funding has dropped 12 percent over the last three years, said Jack Scott, chancellor of California's community college system. It will fall another 7 percent, he said, if voters reject the tax hikes in Proposition 30 on the November ballot.
Together, the academic and financial pressures have created a one-two punch for California schools trying to renew their accreditation.
"When you're attempting to meet the accrediting standards it tends to require some research and faculty release time, which is not without cost," Scott said. "It is an additional expense in most cases."
The three colleges facing the most severe sanctions City College of San Francisco, College of the Redwoods and Cuesta College are considered fully accredited while they go through a one- to two-year process to correct their problems. They are required to make plans to shut down in case the problems are not fixed.
Accreditors detailed the following concerns for each school:
San Francisco City College Deficit spending; too much of budget goes to salaries and benefits; too few administrators for size of school; failure to conduct financial audits.
"The Commission is concerned about the institution's ability to successfully adapt to the changing resource environment facing public community colleges," says its letter to the school.
College of the Redwoods (Eureka) Student records not securely stored; deficient professional development and employee evaluation systems; lack of documentation about student learning outcomes in course syllabi and other publications.
The school "has not demonstrated consistent and reliable compliance with Accreditation Standards," the commission wrote.
Cuesta College (San Luis Obispo) Lack of planning and evaluation in technology infrastructure and student learning.
"The Commission is concerned as well about Cuesta College's financial stability," it wrote.
Cuesta College President Gil Stork said he welcomes the chance to improve his school, but that the sanctions are disruptive and have caused him to lose some students.
"There's a lot of panic that sets in," he said. "The staff panics. Students are not sure if they should start at the college, or continue."
Kathy Lehner, president of College of the Redwoods, said professors are on board to address the accreditors' concerns but that the college has lost about 10 percent of employees because of budget cuts.
"All the things they tell us to do would be much easier if we had all the staff we used to have," she said.