Saturday, July 19, 2014

Our broken, unaccountable community colleges

Our broken, unaccountable community colleges:

For the last two years, the City College of San Francisco has operated in the shadow of imminent death. It is the city’s main community college, with 77,000 students, and in June 2012 its accreditor warned that chronic financial and organizational mismanagement threatened its future. If the problems weren’t fixed in short order, the accreditor said, it would shut down the college. A year later, the accreditor decided that City College’s remedial efforts were too little, too late, and ordered the campus to close its doors this July.

The political backlash was fierce. The faculty union lodged a formal complaint with the Department of Education against the accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, challenging its right to exist. A separate lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial this year. Politicians including the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, whose district includes part of City College, issued public condemnations. Finally, last month, with the scheduled closing date weeks away, the accreditor gave in. The college was granted two more years to improve, and most observers assume that the threat of dissolution has passed.

Most of City College’s problems, however, remain unsolved. Its brush with mortality illustrates a much larger problem in higher education. Millions of students are enrolled in colleges accountable to no one other than accreditors that lack the will and authority to govern them. Because the consequences of closing these institutions are so severe, they have become, in effect, “too big to fail.”

PS—the main argument I heard from defenders of the for-profit colleges is that “we’re not as horrible as the community colleges that serve similar students,” citing statistics that their graduation rate is, say, 15%, while the community colleges are half that (believe it or not). While there’s some truth to these awful statistics, the for-profit colleges cost 4x as much (I’m not kidding – along the lines of $32k vs. $8k), so when students fail at, say, Corinthian (as most do), they’re saddled with crippling debt that hounds them the rest of their lives (the only type of debt that’s not dischargeable in bankruptcy – outrageous, and topic for another day…).


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