July 21, 2014

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: A Tale of ‘Too Big to Fail’ in Higher Education: City College of San Francisco Survives.

While accreditors can issue a variety of stern warnings — more than half of California’s community colleges have received one since 2003 — the only accrediting punishment of real consequence is the death penalty. That puts accreditors in a very difficult position: allow a low-performing college to continue serving students badly, or face a political firestorm in shuttering a major public institution while throwing tens of thousands of students on to the street with no guarantee of another affordable college in which to enroll.

Accreditors are also financed and managed as membership organizations of colleges. Other colleges contribute volunteers to conduct site visits and evaluations, and college administrators are generally loath to condemn peers at other institutions publicly, particularly since their turn for review will eventually come. As a result, only the absolute worst-case colleges even approach facing meaningful sanctions. Simple mediocrity is ignored. . . .

Politicians generally take a hands-off approach to higher education. While many big-city mayors have staked their careers on turning around troubled K-12 school systems, it is rare to see a major political effort focused on fixing dysfunctional local community college. Slots on public university boards of trustees, which are ostensibly charged with protecting the public interest, are often given as political favors to donors and alumni.

Private nonprofit colleges are subject to little, if any, direct oversight, even though many of them receive a vast majority of their revenue from federal financial aid. For-profit higher education corporations have received greater scrutiny in recent years, including Corinthian Colleges, which is in the process of closing down in the face of declining enrollment and multiple government investigations into its marketing practices and job placement rates. But Corinthian’s shutdown is happening in spite of the accreditation system. All of its campuses remain accredited today. And federal regulators are far less likely to scrutinize a public institution like City College.

It’s Potemkin Villages all the way down.

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