Connected to the future

Senior Gerardo Lopez talks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at San Francisco's Burton High School.

Senior Gerardo Lopez talks to Education Secretary Arne Duncan at San Francisco’s Burton High School.

Most students like Gerardo Lopez — Latinos and blacks from low-income and working-class families — enroll in community college, take a few remedial courses and drop out. They’ve been told they should go to college, but nobody’s told them what level of academic skills are necessary to pass college-level courses.

Many think any major will qualify them for a good job. They don’t know how the system works.

“Gerardo Lopez is preparing to turn his dreams into reality,” I write on Open Standard.

“Hands-on” learning opportunities drew Lopez, a Honduran immigrant, to the engineering academy at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco. “As a kid, I loved to make little cars, bringing parts together to make something come alive,” he says.

But he didn’t know engineering was a possible career. His father is a hotel janitor; his mother is a housewife.

Now a senior, he spends two days a week as an “extern” at an architectural firm. Lopez hopes to major in mechanical engineering – or perhaps architecture – at a University of California campus or Stanford. If he hadn’t signed up for the engineering academy, “I wouldn’t have known what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.

Burton offers “career academies” in engineering, health sciences and information technology, all high-demand fields. Students take college-prep and career-prep courses together, visit workplaces, do job shadows and compete for summer internships.

“Employers say they can’t find the skilled workers they need,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told business and education leaders at Burton High last week. But CEOs aren’t talking to superintendents. “There’s a total disconnect.

Thirty-five percent of Burton High graduates enroll in four-year universities, said Principal Bill Kappenhagen. Another 43 percent go to community college and 22 percent go straight to the workforce.  The six-year graduation rate is high – 90 percent – for the four-year students, he said. But only 10 percent of those who go to City College of San Francisco graduate in six years.

What’s going wrong for the community college contingent? Some get bogged down in remedial courses or overwhelmed by work and job responsibilities. I’d guess many more would succeed if they aimed for a technical certificate or two-year vocational degree rather than taking general education courses.

“We’ve done a poor job of informing young people and their parents about the great jobs out there,” said Duncan. “It doesn’t have to be a college degree. There are six- or eight-week training programs that lead to great opportunities.”

Colleges go after aid-stealing ‘Pell runners”

Police are investigating a $200,000 financial aid scam at the San Francisco Bay Area’s College of Marin, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Twenty-three people are suspected of posing as online students to collect Pell Grants.

Two faculty members noticed that “several students in their online classes shared the same address and phone number, weren’t participating in online discussions and withdrew soon after financial aid had been disbursed,” reports the Chronicle.

California community colleges give fee waivers to Pell-eligible students and send the entire grant — up to $5,730 — to the student to cover books, living expenses and commuting. “Pell runners” disappear as soon as the check clears. It’s especially easy to scam online classes.

Three men posing as students pleaded guilty in February to stealing more than $1 million in financial aid received through City College of San Francisco, Chabot College in Hayward and Ohlone College in Fremont from 2007 and 2011.

. . .  A ringleader often recruits fake students who allow their Social Security numbers and other personal information to be used to enroll in courses and to apply for federal aid in exchange for a cut of the cash.

Colleges don’t have to repay the stolen money, but loans to scammers — which aren’t going to be repaid — will increase their student default rate.

Fraud rings steal as much as $1 billion a year, estimates the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General.

In the case involving City College of San Francisco, Chabot and Ohlone, the three men created 104 financial aid accounts for fake students, according to a federal indictment filed in the U.S. District Court in Oakland in August 2013.

Accreditors: Jellyfish or thugs?

Are accrediting bodies toothless jellyfish, or jackbooted thugs?” asks Matt Reed on Confessions of a Community College Dean @insidehighered.

Accreditation agencies enforce a producers’ cartel, argues Andrew Kelly in Forbes. It’s hard for new providers to get approval if they don’t resemble their predecessors, “but once you’re in the club, it’s remarkably rare to get kicked out.”

But City College of San Francisco‘s accrediting panel tried to shut down the long-established college, writes Reed. Judges and legislators came to the rescue.

“The California legislature passed unanimously (!) a bill to require the statewide community college accreditor to report directly to the legislature,” writes Reed. “The motive was to bring the accreditor to heel.”

 If the accrediting agency is really captured by incumbents, why is it giving incumbents a hard time?  Alternately, if it has an anti-incumbent agenda, as some have suggested, why?  If nothing else, the seeming “rogue” status of ACCJC calls into question the idea that peer review is necessarily clubby and insular.  In this case, it seems almost hostile.  The very independence from its sponsors that Kelly sees as an impossible dream strikes the California legislature as a clear and present danger.

. . . Accreditors can create barriers to entry, but they also force a certain honesty on providers who rely on federal financial aid.  (I’ll go farther.  If regional accreditors are such lapdogs, why do most for-profits avoid them in favor of so-called “national” accreditors?  And if regional accreditors are so clubby that nobody can get in, how is it that Phoenix and DeVry did?)

Accreditors have worked positive and professionally with Southern New Hampshire University’s competency-based College for America, “despite the very real threat that a competency-based degree” poses to established colleges, writes Reed, who works in New England.

CCSF evaluators proposed probation

City College of San Francisco, fighting to remain accredited, received a boost this week with news that all 15 members of the accreditation commission’s evaluation team recommended a lesser penalty.

The recommendation for probation was revealed in a documented filed in connection with a lawsuit against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Instead the commission told CCSF to “show cause” why it should retain accreditation in 2012. A year later, it moved to revoke accreditation, which would have made students ineligible for financial aid.

Last month, the commission gave CCSF two more years to improve its management and governance.

The panel, which wields enormous power over all community and junior colleges in California, has come under increasing scrutiny from educators, teachers unions and state and federal lawmakers who contend that it lacks transparency, operates with little oversight and relies too little on students’ academic progress when meting out sanctions

. . . U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) has criticized the panel for “potential intimidation and overzealousness,” and a state bill is pending that would require more “transparency, accountability and due process” in accreditation reviews.

The California Federation of Teachers and San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera, meanwhile, have separately filed suit against the commission alleging political bias and conflict of interest.

Trustee Rafael Mandelman called the revelation “completely outrageous and unforgivable,” reports the Times. “This should remove any doubt that this is an irresponsible group of people who cannot be trusted to accredit our community colleges.”

CCSF was ‘too big to fail’

City College of San Francisco has dodged a closure order and won two more years to improve, writes Kevin Carey, who directs education policy for the New America Foundation, in the New York Times. With 77,000 students, CCSF proved to be “too big to fail,” despite “chronic financial and organizational mismanagement.”

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges had set a July closure data, but faced a “fierce political backlash . . . challenging its right to exist,” writes Carey. The closure threat apparently has passed.

If accreditors can’t hold a college responsible, he asks, who will?

California’s 112 community colleges are run by locally elected boards which are required by law to share decision-making power with faculty unions.

At City College, the faculty dominated, said the accrediting commission. The college hired many more tenured professors than it could afford.

The accreditor, an independent, nonprofit body, can block federal financial aid by denying accreditation. “But like an army with no weapons other than thermonuclear bombs, its power is too potent and blunt to use,” writes Carey.

Accreditors are also financed and managed as membership organizations of colleges. Other colleges contribute volunteers to conduct site visits and evaluations, and college administrators are generally loath to condemn peers at other institutions publicly, particularly since their turn for review will eventually come. As a result, only the absolute worst-case colleges even approach facing meaningful sanctions. Simple mediocrity is ignored.

Politicians generally take a hands-off approach to higher education. While many big-city mayors have staked their careers on turning around troubled K-12 school systems, it is rare to see a major political effort focused on fixing dysfunctional local community college.

There’s little oversight of private nonprofit colleges, even though many  “receive a vast majority of their revenue from federal financial aid,” adds Carey.

For-profit higher education has come under federal and state scrutiny. Yet Corinthian Colleges, which is closing down after multiple investigations, had not lost accreditation for any of its campuses.

On EdCentral, Ben Miller has suggestions for improving accreditation.

Reprieve! San Francisco college won’t close

“In a stunning turnabout, City College of San Francisco will not be forced to close” on July 31, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.  The college is expected to retain accreditation under new rules proposed Wednesday by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

The 19-member commission expects to change its rules, let City College request more time to comply with accrediting standards, and avoid what are widely viewed as the catastrophic consequences of shutting down a college of nearly 80,000 students who would have few other educational options.

CCSF will have two years to implement “new and sustained practices that meet standards of quality,”  said Barbara Beno, commission president.

The commission has been under heavy political pressure to give CCSF more time to deal with management and governance problems.

CCSF hopes for accreditation reprieve

Faced with losing accreditation on July 31, San Francisco City College supporters hope a proposed policy change will lead to a reprieve, reports the Los Angeles Times. However, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges won’t release details of the proposed new policy till Wednesday.

The Novato-based accrediting panel, which oversees California’s 112 community colleges, moved last year to revoke the City College of San Francisco’s accreditation, citing long-running financial and governance problems.

. . . During a presentation behind closed doors this week, systemwide Chancellor Brice Harris and City College Chancellor Arthur Q. Tyler, among others, told commission members that the college has addressed 95% of the deficiencies cited by the panel and argued for more time to meet all standards.

The accreditation crisis has turned into a highly politicized game of chicken, according to Inside Higher Ed. “Neither side is backing down while the fate of the college, its 77,000 students and even a besieged accreditor hang in the balance.”

CCSF will be able to delay losing accreditation until a lawsuit by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is resolved. The trial is set for late October. The college also has filed an appeal.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, the minority leader in the House, threatens to close down the accrediting commission if it doesn’t give her home-district community college a break.

“ACCJC’s faulty reliance on outdated analysis of the health of City College, and its pursuit of an unworkable policy that ends state and federal funding to CCSF and puts the students and faculty in academic limbo is professionally crippling and destructive,” Pelosi said this week in a written statement, which two other Bay Area members of Congress signed. “Should this failure of leadership persist, new leadership is needed at ACCJC. The U.S. Department of Education should also consider whether to recertify ACCJC as an accrediting body.”

Commission leaders have offered to rescind the termination decision if CCSF drops its accreditation and applies as a new institution, triggering a two-year “candidacy” status.

City College of SF wins accreditation reprieve

City College of San Francisco will not lose accreditation until a legal challenge to the revocation is resolved, reports Bay Cities News. An accrediting commission had set a July 31 revocation date, after charging CCSF with mismanagement and poor governance.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera contested the revocation decision by the western regional branch of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow’s injunction will be in effect until a trial is held. A trial date will be set at the end of January.

Karnow said in a 53-page decision that the injunction was justified because of the severe harm to students, teachers and the city if the college lost accreditation and had to close.

“Those consequences would be catastrophic,” Karnow wrote.

“Without accreditation, the college would almost certainly close and about 80,000 students would either lose their educational opportunities or hope to transfer elsewhere; and for many of them, the transfer option is not realistic.

Herrera’s lawsuit and a similar lawsuit by the California Federation of Teachers charge the commission used unfair, biased or illegal procedures, was prejudiced against the college’s “open access”  mission and that two evaluation teams lacked adequate representation by professors.

As Matt Reed predicted, CCSF is too big to fail.

California accreditor survives — for now

The commission that accredits two-year colleges in California will keep its federal recognition for another year, reports Inside Higher Ed.  A federal panel told the accreditor to show that it is complying with federal standards.

The accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, has been under fire for its decision this year to revoke accreditation of City College of San Francisco. Many supporters of the college — faculty unions, student advocates, and some elected officials — had been pushing for the panel to recommend the Education Department strip the accreditor of its federal recognition.

More than two dozen students, faculty members, union leaders and other supporters of City College of San Francisco testified Thursday and Friday.

The federal panel also voted to recommend another year of recognition for the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which is under fire for how it’s handled complaints from adjuncts.

Last week’s meetings of the federal accreditation panel occurred against the backdrop of a larger debate over the future of accreditation that has begun to play out in Washington as Congress considers the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Policy makers have discussed, among other issues, whether accreditors are doing enough to promote innovation in higher education and whether they should do more to keep college affordable.

Outgoing Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter asked the panel to revisit its 2011 recommendations for improving accreditation and make new suggestions.

357 steps to accreditation at CCSF

City College of San Francisco is working to retain its accreditation and avoid a shut down, reports Inside Higher Ed. But the efforts may not be enough.

Administrators and faculty members have made steady progress on 357 tasks they must complete to satisfy the Accrediting Commission for Junior and Community Colleges. The college last week tapped Arthur Q. Tyler, a veteran community college leader, as its new chancellor. And Brice Harris, the chancellor of the state’s community college system, praised City College for the changes it has made.

“It’s been an exciting and exhausting 100 days,” Harris said last week during a conference call with reporters.

For example, he said the college, which enrolls 80,000 students, has made strong steps to stabilize its precarious finances. College officials recently decided to suspend plans to build a new performing arts center. And, working with the mayor’s office, they strengthened weak fiscal controls by filling several key positions in payroll and auditing.

City College also is trying to collect an estimated $10 million in unpaid student fees.

A website, CCSFForward includes updates on each of the 357 tasks the college is supposed to complete.

For example, efforts to better track student learning outcomes is about half complete, according to the website.

Faculty unions have filed a lawsuit to block closure. The suit claims the accreditation commission had overreached its authority.