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What the college that was 'too big to fail' says about the U.S. education system

Published: Thursday, July 24 2014 5:15 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 24 2014 2:20 p.m. MDT

When City College of San Francisco got really bad at graduating and transferring its students the accrediting agency stepped in with warnings, then threatened to shut it down, and then retreated, writes Kevin Carey in the New York Times.

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When City College of San Francisco got really bad at doing what a community college is supposed to do, its accrediting agency stepped in with warnings, then threatened to shut the 80,000-student campus down, and then retreated, writes Kevin Carey in a recent New York Times op-ed.

The job of any community college is to graduate students and/or transfer them to other colleges, but CCSF wasn't doing much of this, Carey argues. He cites Department of Education data showing that 70 percent of City College students did not graduate on time, and just 14 percent transferred elsewhere. Carey also cites a number of other areas where CCSF was lacking, including teaching methods and fiscal stability.

Carey points to the City College fiasco as illustrating a broader dysfunction in American colleges, where colleges face almost no real oversight, students can waste time and acquire debt, the federal government shovels funds, and the only real tool of accountability is the "death penalty" of shutdown, essentially "a thermonuclear bomb."

Earlier this spring, CCSF faced shutdown, when the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges scheduled July 31 as the date when it would no longer be accredited, and thus not eligible for federal funds, including student loans.

Whether the commission was itself dysfunctional is a matter of debate. The California state auditor certainly thought the accrediting commission was out to lunch, when the office issued a blistering report in June.

"This report concludes that inconsistent application of the accreditation process and a lack of transparency in that process are weakening the accreditation of California's community colleges," state Auditor Elaine M. Howle wrote, as reported in the Los Angeles Times.

Graduation and transfer rates at CCSF do not appear, however, to be more discouraging that at community colleges generally. CNN Money ranks 786 community colleges nationally, using a combined three-year graduation and transfer rate to create a uniform success scale.

Of the 99 California colleges listed, CCSF comes in at 44 percent, somewhat above the median of 40 percent. On this measure alone, it appears that CCSF has much work to do, but it hardly stands out as an isolated target. Directly across the Bay Bridge, for example, the College of Alameda stands at a lowly 24 percent on the CNN scale, fourth worst in the state.

Whatever the merits of the contending claims, the San Francisco Chronicle recently editorialized, it is time to fix the problems, and both the college and the commission share blame in the dust-up. "City College of San Francisco had enormous problems with fiscal planning and an unwieldy leadership structure that created these problems in the first place," the editors wrote.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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