Protesters march to save City College San Francisco on July 9, 2013. (Philippe Vieux-Jeanton / Flickr)

Community College in the Crosshairs

Even as Obama is calling for free community college, California’s landmark system is under attack by accreditors allied with ALEC and for-profit schools.

BY Rebecca Burns

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Activists fear that the closure of CCSF, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community colleges, would open the floodgates of privatization in higher education and force students to choose between incurring high debt and quitting school.

On December 9, 2014, dozens of students and faculty from the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) packed into a courtroom to witness the conclusion of an unusual trial.

Since July 2013—when the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) announced it would revoke CCSF’s accreditation—the student-faculty Save CCSF Coalition has scrambled to demonstrate that the school deserves to remain open by appealing to public figures and organizing rallies and sit-ins. Loss of accreditation effectively ensures a school’s closure by disqualifying it from receiving federal money, including financial aid for its students.

But that day in December, CCSF wasn’t the one in the hot seat. Instead, it was the accrediting commission, accused by the city of San Francisco of illegal conflicts of interest that biased its decision against CCSF.

Chief among those alleged conflicts was ACCJC’s relationship with conservative groups and foundations that advance the agenda of for-profit colleges and private student-loan providers—such as the Lumina Foundation, a research and grant-making body that has close ties to private lender Sallie Mae (which until 2012 was a sponsor of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Education Task Force). Notably, the ACCJC received a grant from the Lumina Foundation to help schools better assess “student learning outcomes,” or SLOs—a data-driven method of evaluation that critics believe are ineffective measures of student learning that can nonetheless be used to penalize faculty. Failure to adequately implement SLOs was one of the ACCJC’s reasons for sanctioning CCSF.

“Put simply,” the lawsuit explained, removing access to community colleges “pushes students into for-profit colleges and forces them to incur significant debt—to the benefit of for-profit colleges and private lending institutions.”

In fact, that's already happening. A U.S. Treasury report released in December 2012 found that state budget cuts to community colleges correlate with increasing enrollment at for-profit schools, which nearly 10 percent of students now attend. In many cases, the transition from public to private is fueled by a so-called reform agenda like the one advocated by the Lumina Foundation and ALEC. It promotes increased “productivity” in higher education through such measures as rigid performance metrics and an increased role for for-profit colleges.

Many see unsettling parallels between these measures and the corporate-backed “reforms” pushed in K-12 education that have led to a rash of school closings in urban areas. Education activists fear that the closure of CCSF, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community colleges, would open the floodgates of privatization in higher education and force students to choose between incurring high debt and quitting school. Some of the college’s more than 70,000 students would likely turn to San Francisco’s for-profit colleges, such as the Art Institute of California or Heald College, as well as the city’s burgeoning market of sleek online education startups. While CCSF charges California residents only $218 per semester and a per-credit fee of $46, annual tuition and fees at the Art Institute and Heald College amount to $21,000 and $26,000, respectively.

A 2013 report from the San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s Budget and Legislative Analyst estimated the potential economic costs of CCSF’s closure: The 16,000 students taking ESL classes at CCSF would earn approximately $13,500 less per year if they were not able to gain English skills, and 5,000 CCSF students who were working toward a high school diploma would lose an estimated $8,800 in annual earnings. In a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco, CCSF has helped uphold values of equity and accessibility, says engineering instructor Wendy Kaufmyn, a member of the Save CCSF Coalition. “What ACCJC is saying is, ‘You can’t afford those values anymore,’ ” she says.

A victory for CCSF?

On Friday, the coalition got good news: The judge issued a tentative ruling against ACCJC, saying the commission had engaged in “significant unlawful practices” in its evaluation of CCSF. He directed San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera to write an injunction spelling out the terms of “a full, fair reconsideration of City College” by ACCJC. The judge will then finalize the injunction after considering any objections from ACCJC. CCSF can either opt for the reconsideration or continue with a “restoration” process offered by ACCJC last week.

The judge stopped short of overturning ACCJC’s accreditation decision completely and rejected some of the city's claims about the agency's conflicts of interest, which ACCJC is hailing as a victory. An ACCJC statement released following the ruling said that the agency was “extremely gratified that after a full evidentiary hearing and extensive briefing by the attorneys, Judge Karnow essentially found that the ACCJC did not do anything wrong with respect to its decisions regarding the accreditation of CCSF. Now the focus can hopefully return to the restoration of CCSF’s accreditation status.”

Nevertheless, many observers have termed the ruling a significant win for CCSF supporters. The California Federation of Teachers, which represents instructional faculty at the college, said that the decision “vindicated” the union's longstanding claims that the accreditor applies unfair and uneven sanctions to the state's community colleges. “ACCJC is not a fair and constructive overseer of accreditation for California’s community colleges,” said President Joshua Pechthalt in a statement. “Its bad behavior was revealed in this trial, and demonstrates the need for reform of community college accreditation in California.”

As of September 2014, 15 other CCC schools were in danger of having their accreditation revoked by ACCJC. Activists say, therefore, that the bigger fight ahead is over the open access mission of California Community Colleges (CCC). In 1960, California promised every resident access to higher education—if not through the more selective University of California or California State schools, then through the community colleges. Today, 112 schools serve 2.1 million students, making CCC the largest system of higher education in the nation—and the typical annual tuitions of about $1,200 make it one of the most affordable. CCC tuitions stand in contrast to the average of $9,139 at the nation’s public four-year colleges and universities and $42,419 at private colleges—resulting in an average national student loan burden of almost $30,000 per graduate.

While accreditors such as ACCJC must be authorized by the federal Department of Education (DOE), they are private bodies and operate with relative autonomy, which critics say makes them easily swayed by outside funders and priorities. But, following a complaint from the California Federation of Teachers union, the DOE made a rare determination in January 2014 that the ACCJC had violated a number of criteria for recognition, including the requirement that “standards, policies and accreditation decisions are widely accepted” by educators. The DOE warned that ACCJC could lose its ability to accredit colleges if it does not come into compliance. 

The tussle in California between education “reformers” and their critics comes in the midst of a nationwide conversation about the role of community colleges in ensuring affordable higher education. President Obama's plan, outlined in last night's State of the Union address, to provide two years of free community college to some students could breathe new life into school systems hobbled by funding cuts, but is likely to face stiff opposition from a Republic-controlled Congress and proponents of for-profit schools.

It also remains to be seen whether Obama's pronouncement that free tuition will be reserved for “responsible” students will prove overly restrictive, and whether the plan will contain hidden costs shouldered by students. For coalition member Kaufmyn, saving community colleges such as CCSF means not just preventing their closure, but keeping them “open and accessible to those who need [them] most.” Kaufmyn says that faculty and students won’t give up the fight to save CCSF's open access policy and the lifeline it provides for people of color, immigrants and low-income residents.

Though CCSF has remained open, many students are already feeling the squeeze of financial policies implemented in response to ACCJC’s sanctions. Itzel Calvo, 20, enrolled at the college in 2013 with hopes of majoring in Latin American studies and eventually transferring into the University of California system. But at the beginning of 2014, the administration began requiring students to pay each semester’s tuition and fees up front, or enroll in a payment plan requiring 20 percent down. For Calvo, who as an undocumented immigrant is ineligible for in-state tuition, coming up with a lump sum of $3,000 to register for classes proved impossible. Previously, she had been able to save up the money over the course of a semester. Now, she has had to put her studies on hold and is working as a restaurant hostess, hoping to earn enough money to return. While the CCSF’s new policies have put a strain on her studies, she believes its closure would have put higher education permanently out of reach. For many low-income students of color, especially the undocumented, she says, “City College is the only option.”

Rebecca Burns is an In These Times associate editor. Her writing on labor, housing and education has also appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Chicago Reader, Dissent, Jacobin and other outlets. She can be reached at rebecca[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

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