EdMedia Commons Archive

City College of San Francisco: the General Motors of American Community Colleges?

Nanette Asimov is the higher education reporter for San Francisco Chronicle. She recently wrote about City College of San Francisco facing closure for her paper. The school enrolls over 90,000 students, making it the largest college in California. She kindly contextualized the news below. 

In California and probably all around the country, community colleges often operate beneath the radar of reporters — and of voters, who know little about the down-ballot elections that can put unknown campaigners and, frankly, some poorly qualified people into the trustees’ seats that run the colleges.

But community colleges are essential institutions that typically enroll more students than the better-known and better-funded state universities. They serve as a critical leg up for low-income students to join the educated middle-class.

With 90,000 full and part-time students, City College of San Francisco is the largest school in California and one of the largest in the country.

Does that make it the General Motors of American community colleges? Too big to fail?

The school has made news in recent years primarily for scandal (a chancellor and other administrators were convicted of misusing college funds) and for news of the weird (the succeeding chancellor proposed selling naming rights for classes to raise funds.) But without day-to-day coverage of this vast school, it came as a surprise to reporters, the public, and many in the college itself when the regional accrediting commission concluded in early July that City College was so poorly run and had ignored warnings for so long that it deserved to close.

City College has until March 15 to prove otherwise. It’s supposed to do that by repairing all 14 substantive problems involving its financial structure, planning procedures, goverance issues, and proper reporting of academic outcomes cited by the commission. If it can’t, the commission is expected to yank its accreditation in June, which would cost City College its public funding under California law.

Yet the college hadn’t addressed its problems in the six years since its previous accreditation evaluation, and now it has eight months to do it — and with little leadership. The contract of its interim chancellor ends in October. The trustees don’t always show up to board meetings. And, as cited in the report, just 40 administrators (actually 39, since one of them was recently fired) are running the nine campuses and 100 to 200 smaller instructional sites.  

The precarious situation raises several questions: What happens if the college is forced to close? Would another school take over, as happened in 2006 when a small community college (Compton) had its accreditation yanked? Other local colleges have troubles of their own, and it isn’t clear if any could step in. It’s possible that some sort of “special trustee” could be assigned to step in and run the show for awhile.

California’s financial woes are such that 2.6 million community college students have been trying to squeeze into shrinking numbers of classrooms since the economic crisis began a few years ago. Where would another 90,000 go if City College shut its doors?

Students, faculty, city residents and politicians don’t accept the idea of closure — yet no one wants to allow poor management to continue. And that’s what the federal accreditation law and its state regulations are designed to prevent.

So City College could lose its accreditation. But what happens between now and then is new ground. Like GM, City College will have to make substantive changes. Still, California’s community college Board of Governors may pull a rabbit out of the hat for the tens of thousands of students who depend on this vast school that, like the car company, is an institution whose vanishing would leave too big a smoldering crater in the ground.

Photo source: Flickr/rick

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.