Over the last ten years, many California community colleges have received a sanction of warning, probation, or show cause from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which can create varying forms of panic on college campuses. A sanction from ACCJC means that the commission has determined that the college is not meeting all of the accreditation standards and that at least one issue must be addressed within two years.
If a college is sanctioned, a mad scramble begins to put a team together to address and recommendations, prepare a follow-up report, and bring that report through the local governance process for approval. Even though the commission gives colleges up to two years to address any identified deficiencies, most colleges attempt to get off of sanction in one year. When one factors in holidays, semester breaks, and the need to submit the report to ACCJC approximately one year after a site visit, colleges in this situation have approximately four months to develop solutions that will address any recommendations. The compressed timelines only increase the pressure felt by everyone involved and often lead to solutions that are not sustainable.
Recent changes to ACCJC’s “Policy on Commission Actions on Institutions” have created a new option for the commission through which colleges can have their accreditation reaffirmed and are required to submit a follow up report. The policy states that the follow up report will generally be due in one year, but the commission may grant up to eighteen months for the report. In fact, during the last two accreditation cycles, ACCJC has reaffirmed the accreditation of multiple colleges and required each of those colleges to submit a follow-up report in eighteen months. At first glance, this new practice might not seem like a positive thing because colleges would prefer to simply be reaccredited, but colleges that are required to submit a follow-up report have been found to not meet at least one standard, meaning that those colleges might have received a sanction without this option. For this reason, this new policy may be a positive step to help colleges meet the standards while remaining fully accredited.
Having eighteen months to address recommendations without any sanction is far preferable to having twelve months to address a sanction such as warning. Unlike the three to six months that a college would have to address recommendations that accompany a sanction, create a follow-up report, and send that report to the commission, a college under the new policy will have twelve to thirteen months to do those things. That additional time is a huge benefit, and it gives colleges a chance to look for a real solution instead of rushing toward the most convenient response. Additionally, since a college under the new policy is not under sanction, no possible restrictions exist on having a substantive change proposal approved.
By allowing colleges to address their issues without imposing a sanction, ACCJC has taken an important step that improves the accreditation process and helps make the process about improving colleges instead of being about punishing them. Hopefully, this step will be the first on a path in providing the community colleges with an accreditation framework that allows them to effectively meet the needs of students without always worrying about whether a commission sanction is around the corner.
In the Fall of 2015, eleven community colleges went through a comprehensive evaluation. Of those eleven colleges, ten were reaffirmed with the requirement that they submit a follow-up report in eighteen months and one college was put on warning. In the Spring of 2016, ten community colleges went through a comprehensive evaluation, with eight being reaffirmed with the required follow-up report and two being put on warning. Thus, in the one year since ACCJC began using reaffirmed with a required follow-up report, eighteen colleges, 85.7% of those evaluated, have been given this status. Further, all twenty-one colleges were found to not meet the standards because ACCJC’s manual indicates that colleges that are reaffirmed with a required follow-up report do not meet one or more standards.
While the addition of the eighteen-month option is a potentially positive change, in practice the new policy seems to have eliminated the possibility of any college being fully reaccredited following a comprehensive evaluation. The California community college system will need to watch future ACCJC actions closely to ensure that the eighteen month reaffirmation does not become the normal expectation for all colleges.
All colleges have areas in which they could improve, and those areas are usually identified by the college in their actionable improvement plans and the quality focus essay. However, room for improvement does not mean that colleges are not meeting accreditation standards. ACCJC’s new reaffirmation policy could be a positive change, but the commission may be taking this new option to an extreme where any possible positive impacts disappear. Hopefully, ACCJC will realize that the eighteen month reaffirmation with follow up is a great option to help colleges in true need of improvement but that many colleges are already doing good work and should be fully reaccredited.