Is Higher Ed the Next Target of Corporate ‘Reformers’?

The proposed shuttering of City College of San Francisco bears unsettling parallels to K-12 school closings.

Rebecca Burns

Activists say no to privatizing City College of San Francisco. CCSF is the largest provider of ESL classes in San Francisco. (Photo from Save CCSF)

As stu­dents at City Col­lege of San Fran­cis­co (CCSF) reg­is­tered for fall class­es this month, they received an alarm­ing piece of news: The Accred­it­ing Com­mis­sion for Com­mu­ni­ty and Junior Col­leges (ACCJC), one of sev­en region­al accred­i­tors in the west­ern Unit­ed States tasked with ensur­ing the qual­i­ty of high­er edu­ca­tion pro­grams, announced that it would ter­mi­nate the school’s accred­i­ta­tion in July 2014. Cur­rent­ly serv­ing more than 85,000 stu­dents, CCSF will be the largest school ever to lose its accred­i­ta­tion, which will effec­tive­ly ensure its clo­sure by dis­qual­i­fy­ing stu­dents from receiv­ing fed­er­al loans and grants and the col­lege from state funding.

Many community members see the closure of City College of San Francisco—a lifeline to low-income residents, immigrants, and ex-prisoners in the community—as an attempt narrow the mission of public education.

The pro­posed shut­ter­ing of one of the nation’s largest com­mu­ni­ty and junior col­leges, labor and edu­ca­tion activists charge, bears unset­tling par­al­lels to the K‑12 school clos­ings that have wracked urban areas this year, and fore­shad­ows a cor­po­rate-backed reform move­ment come home to high­er education. 

As many com­mu­ni­ty col­leges have turned their backs on open-door admis­sions poli­cies and moved towards more selec­tive enroll­ment amidst deep­en­ing bud­get cuts, City Col­lege has fought to pre­serve the mis­sion of open and acces­si­ble edu­ca­tion for all. It’s the largest provider of Eng­lish as a Sec­ond Lan­guage (ESL) class­es in San Fran­cis­co and of free, non­cred­it adult edu­ca­tion cours­es in the state of Cal­i­for­nia. Through the Sec­ond Chance” pro­gram, which recruits and sup­ports for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed stu­dents, it also pro­vides impor­tant ser­vices for dis­en­fran­chised mem­bers of the community.

But it’s such ser­vices that accred­i­tors say have cast doubt on the college’s sol­ven­cy. In a July 3 let­ter to col­lege admin­is­tra­tors, ACCJC pres­i­dent Bar­bara A. Beno said that com­mis­sion mem­bers had vot­ed to close the school in part because of its shaky fis­cal plan­ning, cit­ing the lack of finan­cial account­abil­i­ty as well as insti­tu­tion­al defi­cien­cies in the area of lead­er­ship and gov­er­nance as the main obsta­cles to the col­lege’s turn­around.” In 2012, ACCJC had placed City Col­lege on show cause” sanc­tion, the most severe of three lev­els of warn­ings reserved for insti­tu­tions found to be in sub­stan­tial non-com­pli­ance with eli­gi­bil­i­ty require­ments and stan­dards for accred­i­ta­tion. These require­ments are not reg­u­la­tions of state or local agen­cies, but instead are devel­oped by mem­bers of the accred­i­ta­tion commission. 

Pri­or to June 2012, when the com­mis­sion slapped its most severe sanc­tion on City Col­lege, the school had nev­er received a sanc­tion in its 50-year his­to­ry. The commission’s deci­sion was there­fore unex­pect­ed and out­ra­geous,” says Alisa Mess­er, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers Local 2121, which rep­re­sents City Col­lege fac­ul­ty mem­bers. Since being ordered to show cause” as to why it should retain its accred­i­ta­tion, the col­lege has cut staff and pay, rewrit­ten its mis­sion state­ment and reor­ga­nized its man­age­ment struc­ture in order to meet a list of 14 rec­om­men­da­tions made by ACCJC in 2012. But most of the rec­om­men­da­tions had lit­tle to do with edu­ca­tion­al qual­i­ty, asserts Mess­er, who is also an Eng­lish instruc­tor at the college.

Accred­i­tors Gone Wild?

At the heart of the bat­tle over City Col­lege lie ques­tions about the role that the fed­er­al­ly-rec­og­nized accred­it­ing body is play­ing in the con­tin­ued down­siz­ing of the Cal­i­for­nia Com­mu­ni­ty Col­leges, which make up the largest sys­tem of high­er edu­ca­tion in the nation. California’s com­mu­ni­ty col­leges have been sanc­tioned at a far high­er rate than oth­er sys­tems — between June 2011 and June 2012, ACCJC gen­er­at­ed 35% of the sanc­tions issued to two-year col­leges nation­wide, though it over­sees just 5% of com­mu­ni­ty col­leges — and a quar­ter of the state’s com­mu­ni­ty col­leges are cur­rent­ly on sanc­tions that could even­tu­al­ly lead to their closure. 

Accred­i­tors must be autho­rized by the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion, but crit­ics empha­size that they are pri­vate bod­ies that lack sub­stan­tial over­sight and are open to influ­ence from out­side fun­ders and pri­or­i­ties. Instead of focus­ing on the cal­iber of instruc­tion and edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams, claims for­mer Cal­i­for­nia Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers Pres­i­dent Mar­tin Hit­tel­man in a brief­ing paper (PDF), the accred­it­ing body has attempt­ed to micro-man­age the fis­cal and gov­er­nance process­es of the col­leges it accred­its through fear and intim­i­da­tion.” Since the 2008 – 2009 aca­d­e­m­ic year, state fund­ing for the Cal­i­for­nia Com­mu­ni­ty Col­leges has been cut by 12 per­cent, and enroll­ment has decreased by near­ly three mil­lion stu­dents. Hit­tel­man charges that the rec­om­men­da­tions made by the ACCJC have made hard times in the com­mu­ni­ty col­leges even hard­er,” and forced schools to deep­en the aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures already imposed by state cuts to avoid los­ing gov­ern­ment fund­ing entire­ly. (ACCJC declined to com­ment for this article.)

Among the prob­lems iden­ti­fied in ACCJC’s March 2012 eval­u­a­tion of City Col­lege, for exam­ple, is the pro­vi­sion of health­care ben­e­fits to part-time fac­ul­ty — an area that the union asserts is sub­ject to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and not under the purview of accred­i­tors. The clo­sure deci­sion rep­re­sents, in part, an attack on a pro­gres­sive fac­ul­ty union that has won one of the best con­tracts for part-time fac­ul­ty in the nation,” says Joe Berry, a labor edu­ca­tor and con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty organizer.

The eval­u­a­tion also took issue with the college’s com­mit­ment to pro­vid­ing non­cred­it class­es, which bring in less rev­enue but allow the col­lege to serve a large num­ber of non-tra­di­tion­al stu­dents. The July 2012 let­ter plac­ing City Col­lege on sanc­tion asserts that an inad­e­quate num­ber of full-time admin­is­tra­tors and lack of cen­tral­ized deci­sion-mak­ing have kept City Col­lege of San Fran­cis­co from adapt­ing to its changed and chang­ing fis­cal environment.”

Fol­low­ing a new round of state bud­get cuts, City Col­lege had a $6 mil­lion deficit in 2012. But Mess­er con­tends that new state and local bud­get mea­sures, includ­ing one passed by San Fran­cis­co vot­ers in Novem­ber 2012 that directs an addi­tion­al $15 mil­lion in rev­enue to the col­lege annu­al­ly, have already helped shore up the school’s finances. She says City Col­lege is the only com­mu­ni­ty col­lege in the state that has returned to pre-reces­sion rev­enues,” and dis­putes the state Fis­cal Cri­sis & Man­age­ment Assis­tance Team’s pro­jec­tion of a $2.5 mil­lion deficit for the 2014 – 2015 year as inflated. 

Instead, many com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers see the clo­sure of City Col­lege — a life­line to low-income res­i­dents, immi­grants, and ex-pris­on­ers in the com­mu­ni­ty — as an attempt to nar­row the mis­sion of pub­lic edu­ca­tion. ACCJC Pres­i­dent Beno pub­licly sup­port­ed the Stu­dent Suc­cess Act, a bill passed by the Cal­i­for­nia leg­is­la­ture in April 2012, meant to increase grad­u­a­tion rates at com­mu­ni­ty col­leges as part of a push for reforms known as the com­ple­tion agen­da.” But many stu­dents opposed the bill, say­ing that it would ration access to edu­ca­tion and restrict its scope by pri­or­i­tiz­ing new­er stu­dents for enroll­ment and requir­ing new stan­dard­ized tests to assess stu­dent learning.

Oppo­nents of City College’s clo­sure cite the deci­sion as evi­dence of the accred­i­tor’s cap­ture by cor­po­rate-backed edu­ca­tion reform­ers.” Last year the Lumi­na Foun­da­tion, an Indi­anapo­lis-based body estab­lished in 2001 by the pri­vate loan indus­try, award­ed ACCJC a grant to devel­op a new Degree Qual­i­fi­ca­tions Pro­file Project” that will devel­op mea­sures for assess­ing stu­dent learn­ing at com­mu­ni­ty col­leges. (A fail­ure to ade­quate­ly doc­u­ment stu­dent learn­ing out­comes” was one of the defi­cien­cies list­ed in the 2012 sanc­tion report.) The Lumi­na Foun­da­tion also fund­ed Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Stu­dent Suc­cess and Com­ple­tion Task Force, whose rec­om­men­da­tions were used to author the Stu­dent Suc­cess Act, and the foun­da­tion has backed the com­ple­tion agen­da” in oth­er states as well. 

The New For-Prof­it Offensive

Many are wary of a new move­ment to cre­ate stan­dard­ized met­rics in high­er edu­ca­tion, pushed by fun­ders such as Lumi­na. Just as the clo­sures of schools deemed under­per­form­ing have paved the way for the expan­sion of char­ter schools — even though the per­for­mance of char­ters has been decid­ed­ly mixed — labor activists warn that a new push to impose rigid stan­dards on pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties could increase the mar­ket share of for-prof­it col­leges that have often been accused of scam­ming stu­dents and tax­pay­ers alike.

Due in part to increased scruti­ny from fed­er­al reg­u­la­tors and con­sumer advo­cates, enroll­ment at for-prof­it col­leges has been in decline in recent years. A Decem­ber report from the Nation­al Stu­dent Clear­ing­house esti­mates that enroll­ment at for-prof­its fell by 7 per­cent from the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2012, com­pared with a 1.8 per­cent drop in high­er edu­ca­tion over­all. A hol­lowed-out pub­lic sys­tem could pro­vide fer­tile ground for the for-prof­it indus­try to re-group, how­ev­er, and there have been sev­er­al signs that it is doing so in California. 

Last sum­mer, the West­ern Asso­ci­a­tion of Schools and Col­leges — the region­al body of which ACCJC is a mem­ber — grant­ed per­mis­sion to the com­pa­ny Uni­ver­si­tyNow to take over Pat­ten Uni­ver­si­ty, a strug­gling non-prof­it col­lege in Oak­land, Calif. This revived the pos­si­bil­i­ty for such con­tro­ver­sial non-prof­it to for-prof­it con­ver­sions, which until then had been large­ly dis­al­lowed by accred­i­tors, as Inside High­er Edu­ca­tion report­ed in July 2012. Uni­ver­si­tyNow has also won the back­ing of the may­ors of San Fran­cis­co, Oak­land and Sacra­men­to for a new, online uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem that will allow munic­i­pal work­ers to take online cours­es at no out-of-pock­et costs, sub­si­dized through the tuition reim­burse­ment funds that cities pay their workers.

It remains to be seen whether City Col­lege — or, some spec­u­late, its tax­pay­er-fund­ed aca­d­e­m­ic build­ings — might be sold off in whole or in part to a for-prof­it col­lege. But it’s like­ly that the for-prof­it indus­try stands to ben­e­fit from City Col­lege’s clo­sure by absorb­ing its stu­dents. A report released in Decem­ber 2012 by the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment found that state bud­get cuts to com­mu­ni­ty col­leges dur­ing the past decade cor­re­late with increas­ing enroll­ment at for-prof­it schools. 

There are still sev­er­al avenues through which City Col­lege may escape clo­sure. The col­lege will remain open until July 2014, dur­ing which time the Cal­i­for­nia Com­mu­ni­ty Col­leges sys­tem plans to appeal the deci­sion. This option remains a long shot since “[the appeal process] goes direct­ly back to the same body that made this deci­sion,” says Mess­er, but the union is also look­ing into what legal options it might possess. 

In April, state and local unions filed a com­plaint with the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion call­ing for a rever­sal of the 2012 sanc­tions and accus­ing ACCJC of seri­ous con­flicts of inter­est” and dis­re­gard of the mis­sion of com­mu­ni­ty col­leges,” among oth­er alle­ga­tions. Fac­ul­ty and stu­dent activists, orga­nized into the Coali­tion to Save City Col­lege, have also launched a cam­paign to pres­sure the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion not to renew its recog­ni­tion of ACCJC when it comes up for review in the fall of 2013.

The fate of City Col­lege will like­ly have impli­ca­tions far beyond the Bay Area. In Chica­go, ground zero for cor­po­rate-backed reform poli­cies, last fal­l’s his­toric teach­ers strike cat­alyzed a move­ment to defend pub­lic edu­ca­tion. The fight to save City Col­lege is now the Chica­go of high­er edu­ca­tion,” says Joe Berry, who believes that fac­ul­ty, stu­dents and staff have a cru­cial oppor­tu­ni­ty to beat back the pri­va­ti­za­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion. But if the deci­sion to close City Col­lege stands, he warns, the race to the bot­tom will proceed.”

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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