The pictures are compelling. From a stone-faced police officer pushing a screaming woman out of a room to a young Hispanic man, fist in the air, chanting into a megaphone with the students behind him hold banners proclaiming “WE make the university”, the fall has been a turbulent time at the City College of San Francisco (CCSF).
Brief moments captured at a few of the protests that have consumed CCSF since July, when the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) issued an order threatening to terminate the school’s accreditation. The order, which demanded that CCSF address 14 major problems by March 2013 or be forced to close, is part of an ongoing trend of accrediting agencies asserting their authority.
A recent report from Moody’s Investor Services found that the number of sanctions from accrediting agencies, like the one facing CCSF, increased nearly 50% between 2008 and 2011. The primary reason for the accreditors’ negative actions was financial trouble. Almost 80 schools received some kind of sanction in 2011, the majority of which were handed out because an accrediting agency felt that a college or university had “failed to adequately prepare for losses in its endowment, reductions in state funding, or the increasing institutional costs of administering student financial aid.”
CCSF was not immune to criticism regarding its financial health. In WASC’s 66-page evaluation report, the agency determined that the college does not maintain an adequate funding base, fiscal resources, or have in place any plans to “improve institutional effectiveness to assure financial stability.” The evaluation team specifically pointed out that the school used 92% of its budget on salaries and benefits; something the team said has brought CCSF to a “financial breaking point.”
Cut, Consolidate, Reduce
“We are classroom focused which means we are going to have higher overhead,” Chris Jackson, a CCSF Trustee, said. Jackson, who has been one of the more vocal critics of the accreditation process, accused WASC of overstepping its bounds.
“Accreditation is supposed to be about academics but the report had nothing to do with actual coursework,” Jackson said. “All they said was cut, consolidate, and reduce.”
Like many schools struggling in the age of austerity, CCSF is exploring ways to cut costs, and like many institutions City College is looking at online education as a possible way to do it. Currently the school, with a student body of approximately 90,000 students, only offers 120 classes online—less than what other similarly sized institutions offer.
Jackson explained that CCSF “made a strategic decision” to invest in on-campus classes instead of online, but now the school “probably needs to start thinking about technology.” He went on to say that part of CCSF’s “apprehension about embracing technology” comes from the school’s mission to educate the entire community.
“We serve a different population than other schools in the area, we are the only school in San Francisco that offers GED classes,” Jackson said. “For someone who hasn’t had regular access to the internet coming to college and taking an online class can present a large digital divide.”
That mission, to educate as many people as possible, is what makes CCSF a community college, said Jackson. However, he feels that the goals of creating a far-reaching, community-based educational institution aren’t necessarily shared by the accrediting agencies.
“They are reshaping what community colleges are and can be,” Jackson said. “They are using accreditation as a tool to force policy changes.”
He went on to explain how WASC “wanted to change [CCSF's] mission statement” and instructed the board to “stop offering lifelong learning, GED classes, and art classes.”
“Accreditation wants us to be a junior college, not a community college that embraces expansive education,” Jackson said. “They only see room for people trying to find a cheap way to do their first two years, and only a small sliver people who go to a community college are trying to go to a four-year school.”
While repeated attempts to contact WASC for comment were unreturned, the organization did address CCSF’s mission statement in its evaluation report. The evaluation team recommended that CCSF “use its mission statement to inform its allocation of resources decisions” and wrote that the “action is needed to increase [CCSF's] reserves to a prudent level.”
The definition of ‘prudent level’ has become something of a sticking point among the CCSF community. An audit by the State of California’s Financial Crisis and Management Assistance Team found that the school was on the verge of bankruptcy and that if cuts weren’t made the school would soon be insolvent.
However, that assessment was made before two high profile education funding measures passed in November—one of which, a $79 property tax, provided CCSF with an additional $16 million per year. While the passage of the property tax helped CCSF, the proposals for the funds have proved controversial.
A petition circulated by the members of AFT 2121, CCSF’s faculty union, is accusing the administration of “squirreling away” the additional revenue to “meet vague demands from the accrediting agency” instead of using the funds to prevent budget cuts and layoffs. Criticism hasn’t been limited solely to union members.
“The administration doesn’t recognize that there is a pre-Nov. 6 reality and a post-Nov. 6 reality,” Jackson said. “There’s a disconnect between the people who worked to get the [property] tax passed and the people who want to use the money.”
Jackson’s opinion, while popular with some of CCSF’s faculty and staff, is not shared with everyone on the board. For John Rizzo, another CCSF trustee, it’s a question of solving the pressing financial and accreditation issues facing the school.
“The [property] tax doesn’t come in until fiscal year 2013 and we have a set of recommendations to implement before March and we are going to implement them,” Rizzo said. “We are under enrolled and we have to make cuts to deal with that.”
Rizzo explained that CCSF hasn’t met enrollment expectations for two years, and lower enrollment reduces the amount of money the school receives from the State of California. In order to maintain its funding goal the school has to enroll 34,000 full-time students. In 2011-2012 only 32,600 full-time students enrolled at CCSF, this year the administration projects full-time enrollment will drop to 23,700.
“The accreditation problems are probably effecting our enrollment,” Rizzo said. “The press has been saying we are closing or that we’ve lost accreditation, both of which are false.”
Rizzo, blaming a perceived lack of advertising, laid the enrollment crisis squarely at the feet of the administration. He acknowledged that the school has hired a marketing consultant who specializes in increasing enrollment and has “sent out a mailing,” before saying that the efforts may not be going far enough.
“I’d like to see more ads on bus shelters,” Rizzo said. “The administration says they are doing online marketing, but I haven’t seen it.”
Streamlining in Crisis Mode
CCSF spokesman Larry Kamer explained that the school has been using targeted marketing to attract students by buying ads in newspapers aimed at GLBT, Hispanic, and African American communities throughout the Bay Area. He said that the ad buys have been primarily limited to the San Francisco market, a move that reflects CCSF’s “community-based mindset.”
Kamer said that the community-based mindset has helped contribute to the school’s decision to focus on residential campuses instead of moving towards online education. He acknowledged that the attitude towards online education may be shifting.
“There has been an effort to do online education for the last few years, but we’ve need to do that for years,” Kamer said. However, he explained that any plans to expand online education at CCSF are fairly far down the road.
“We are still very much in crisis mode and the lion’s share of our energy has been putting together a report that shows meaningful progress is being made on the commission’s requirements,” Kamer said. While CCSF had to implement multiple austerity measures, including closing two campuses and consolidating various departments, nothing has been as controversial as asking faculty to accept an 8.8% wage cut and no one has been as upset about the cut as AFT 2121.
Although attempts to contact AFT 2121 were unreturned, in a recent update on contract negotiations the union’s leadership threatened legal action if the proposed cuts are carried out. Kamer said that, while the cuts are unfortunate, the college “was left with no choice but to implement necessary changes.”
“We have to deal with the cost of compensation,” Kamer said. “The compensation model was very high, even by community college standards.”
Compensation isn’t the only expense that has been reigned in. The school’s complicated system of shared governance, which cost the college $2 million per year, was dismantled in October in an attempt to cut overhead.
“The governance model was creating real cost to the college,” Kamer said. “Every dollar spent on process was a dollar not spent in the classroom.”
Kamer explained that the school replaced its three separate governance systems, which used 46 committees and subcommittees and involved more than 400 administrators, faculty, staff and students, with a more traditional approach.
“We cut way back on department chairs and streamlined the college into schools overseen by deans who spend 12 months a year working on planning and development,” Kamer said. CCSF’s administrative structure was a point of focus within the WASC report, the evaluation team noted that the college only had 11 deans, far fewer than other similarly sized institutions.
Pressure from Above
While WASC’s actions have been drastic, they have not come out of a vacuum. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, explained that her organization, like most of the regional accrediting agencies, has experienced heightened pressure from the department of education.
“Because federal financial aid funds have doubled there’s been an increase in accountability,” Wheelan said. “That’s the impetus for it.”
Wheelan is not alone in her assessment. The aforementioned Moody’s report found that accrediting agencies’ increasingly aggressive posture “comes in response to growing government criticism of poor disclosure about quality, pricing and outcomes.”
Wheelan explained that the increased pressure goes back to the administration of President George W. Bush, who called for an “increased focus on student learning.” In a bitter twist of fate, it is CCSF’s focus on student learning that some say is being undone by its accreditor.
“Both the auditors and the accreditors want us to take $8 million out of classes and put it in cash reserves,” Jackson said. “We prioritize putting students in classes, and if that flies in the face of accreditation then you have to wonder what the focus of accreditation is?”
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