If it becomes law, a reform bill now in the state legislature will mark a milestone in the two-year effort to rein in the secretive but powerful private organization responsible for accrediting California’s 112 public community colleges. The target of Assembly Bill 1397 is the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which was recently thwarted from terminating the accreditation of the City College of San Francisco (CCSF), mostly for issues stemming from the academically high-rated school’s Great Recession-battered finances.
The political firestorm sparked by the unelected commission’s effort to effectively close CCSF turned a spotlight of publicity on the darker policy corners of the commission, revealing an almost comically rogue culture of nepotism, free-market radicalism and mandarin indifference to the lives of students and teachers. But now the commission finds itself caught in that light once more, with questions being asked about why ACCJC put its stamp of approval on the doomed Heald College business schools, despite some very bright warning flags.
The 152-year-old Heald College, which mostly operated in California, was shut down last April by the U.S. Department of Education. Before it went out of business that same month, Heald’s owner, the scandal-tainted vocational college giant Corinthian Colleges, Inc. was slapped by the DoED with a $30 million fine for misrepresenting Heald’s job-placement rates for graduates.
How, critics ask, could ACCJC blithely approve Heald and then fight a take-no-prisoners war against the 80,000-student CCSF, which has been an academic beacon in the Bay Area since 1935? Assembly Bill 1397 (the Community Colleges Fair Accreditation Act of 2015), seeks to force open the clubby ACCJC’s meetings to the public, prohibit commissioners with a conflict of interest from serving on visiting review teams and require that at least 50 percent of each accreditation team be composed of academic personnel.
If passed, however, the law will not help the 9,000 students who had been attending the 12 California campuses of for-profit Heald College when the plug was pulled.
At a June protest held outside the ACCJC’s biannual meeting in Oakland, AB 1397’s author, Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), joined accreditation reform advocates in accusing the agency of following a “double standard” in its treatment of the public CCSF and the corporate Heald. The latter school had been under ACCJC accreditation until 2012, when, after Corinthian decided to make Heald a more profitable four-year institution, the business school was transferred to a four-year accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
The ACCJC is headquartered in the Bay Area suburb of Novato, and shares a commercial building with an insurance company and a metals-trading firm. The commission is one of seven regional accrediting bodies that evaluate two-year community colleges around the nation. Accreditors are supposed to ensure that a college meets certain standards for high quality teaching and demonstrates sound management and fiscal practices. The group receives about $3 million annually from California taxpayers; according to the latest publically available IRS Form 990, ACCJC’s president, Barbara Beno, earned a combined $378,245 in total compensation in 2012.
Ting told Capital & Main that his bill will bring much-needed fairness, objectivity and transparency to an accreditation agency that has been plagued by opacity and what he called “extreme abuses of power … from the top.”
The lawmaker said those abuses were most egregious in the agency’s 2013 attempt to revoke CCSF’s accreditation, which would have locked out the school’s 80,000, mostly low-income and immigrant students, and set a record as the largest single community college closure in history.
“Before voting to terminate the accreditation,” Ting noted, “commission president Barbara Beno added 10 deficiencies to the college evaluation without notifying the college or giving it an opportunity to respond. The obvious absence of fairness undermines the credibility of the accreditation process. Different rules cannot exist for different schools.”
When contacted by Capital & Main, ACCJC spokesperson Eliza Chan denied any double standard between Heald College and CCSF, insisting, “as soon as Corinthian acquired Heald College, Heald College began withdrawing from ACCJC, so there’s no connections there.”
A San Francisco superior court judge, however, saw things differently. In a January bench verdict on a city lawsuit that had charged the commission with conflicts of interest, faulty evaluation and politically motivated decision-making, the court ruled that the commission broke the law in issuing the termination and ordered it to give the college another opportunity to keep its accreditation. ACCJC subsequently granted the school a two-year stay of execution.
Fred Glass, a spokesperson for the California Federation of Teachers, the union that represents CCSF faculty (and is a Capital & Main funder), said that not only did ACCJC ignore violations at Heald when it was under the commission’s jurisdiction, the agency also signed off on the college’s 2010 acquisition by Corinthian a full three years after then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown ordered the company to pay $6.5 million to settle a lawsuit over the exact same crimes that eventually triggered the DoED enforcement action.
At issue is the two-year period between late 2009, when Corinthian first announced its intention to acquire Heald, the college’s 2010 purchase for $395 million, and 2012, when everybody agrees that Heald had withdrawn from ACCJC and been accepted for accreditation by WASC.
“What Beno and ACCJC is trying to say at this point,” said Glass of a June 25 op-ed written by Beno and current ACCJC chair Steve Kinsella, “is that Heald was beginning to move out of accreditation from ACCJC in 2010. … They were saying, ‘Ting was wrong, we weren’t the ones that were there when accreditation was given to Heald.’ Every point they make in the op-ed is about 65 to 180 degrees away from the truth.”
By the time that Corinthian bought Heald, for-profit higher education corporations were riding high, thanks largely to a market-friendly relaxation of regulatory oversight by the George W. Bush administration. Under then-Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education Sally Stroup, small, independent trade schools were allowed to balloon into Wall Street behemoths owned by huge publicly traded companies and private equity firms.
The industry quickly racked up billions, in part through the widespread use of ethically questionable student recruiting practices, but also through a spree of accredited-college acquisitions by corporations that was increasingly being criticized as “companies buying accreditation.”
In Corinthian’s case, which at the time had no accredited schools in its portfolio, the Heald acquisition would allow it access to the more than $137 billion the federal government pays out annually in student financial aid.
In one of the more trenchant ironies of the Heald/Corinthian scandal, a 2010 Bloomberg Business article quoted Beno as defending ACCJC’s approval of the Heald purchase, saying, “”We judge the college we accredit. It would be unfair to say, ‘Heald, you’ve been bought by a parent corporation that doesn’t have as fine a track record as you do. Therefore, we’ll condemn you.'”
When asked by Capital & Main whether Corinthian’s tainted record set off any alarms within the accreditation agency at the time of the Heald purchase, or in any accreditation recommendations made to WASC, the ACCJC’s Chan admitted that ACCJC raised no concerns about Corinthian.
“ACCJC did not have the authority to interfere with the [Heald] acquisition,” Chan insisted.
The Bloomberg piece quoted Barmak Nassirian, then the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admissions Officers, as claiming that ACCJC’s attitude toward Corinthian failed to “remotely satisfy the sloppiest of due-diligence requirements.
“There is no methodical review of who has bought the college,” Nassirian commented caustically. “If the Cosa Nostra applied, you would think you’d take a look.”
William G. Tierney, associate dean at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, believes that ACCJC and WASC are probably equally culpable in rubber-stamping Heald/Corinthian.
“It’s possible, of course, that one was worse than another,” Tierney wrote in an email. “Accrediting agencies have said they are not judging quality, but [rather] if a place has met the minimal standards set forth. But that sort of statement has worn thin, which is in part why the Obama administration has tried to create a ranking of institutions.”
For his part, Glass believes that had the Ting reforms been in place in 2010, both the Heald debacle and the double standard applied to CCSF might have been averted. Ting himself remains upbeat about the bill’s chances of seeing a Senate floor vote by mid-July.
“It has taken years of work to get to this point,” Ting said. “We have built a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers from across the state [and] have never been closer to enacting these much needed reforms.”