Editorial: Community Colleges Hit By Triple Whammy

Three community colleges, including one of the biggest, San Francisco City College, have been hit with "show cause" sanctions, the most severe penalties college accrediting agencies can impose short of yanking accreditation.

Beyond these three campuses facing the most severe sanction, The Bee's Laurel Rosenhall reports that 24 other community colleges have been placed on probation or received warning letters from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. The number of sanctions issued fluctuates year to year, but the trend lines are sharply up this year, and that's worrisome.

Officials within the community college system say a triple whammy has contributed to this problem: massive state budget cuts, tougher federal standards requiring better documentation of student outcomes, and increasing demand for educational services.

Over the last four years, state support for community colleges has declined by $809 million, or about 12 percent. To absorb cuts that massive, colleges have been forced to reduce course offerings by 15 percent, increase class size, lay off faculty and other staff, institute furloughs and borrow money. If the governor's tax increase measure fails, community colleges are bracing for another $338 million in cuts.

The reductions come at the same time that the federal government, through its regional accrediting agencies, is demanding that colleges document student learning in a more systematic and reliable way.

Finally, more students are flooding into community colleges. The largest high school class in state history graduated last year. Those new graduates collided with laid-off workers returning to community colleges to upgrade their skills and seniors looking for continuing educational or recreational opportunities.

Some community colleges, traditionally open to all comers, were slow to make necessary adjustments. San Francisco City College stands out. It ended the last fiscal year with a $5.9 million deficit, part of the reason it now faces a "show cause" sanction. Other colleges have been slow to develop systems that reliably track what students learn and whether they make progress toward degrees, vocational licenses or jobs.

Some critics complain that the accrediting agency itself has been overzealous. But the commission is made up of community college officials from throughout the West, including peers of the leaders who run the institutions being sanctioned. They understand what is required to successfully operate a community college.

Chances are remote that community colleges – even those facing the most serious sanctions – will actually lose accreditation. It's happened only once in state history. But the sanctions serve to remind college leaders that even if the governor's tax increase measure passes in November, tough actions will be required to keep these important institutions viable.

The Bee's past stands
"Courses that solely serve an enrichment or recreational purpose, "lifelong learning," should not be subsidized with state funds. … Community colleges should be a place for young people to find direction, and for older students to retrain or reinvent themselves."


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