In July 2013, the Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges reaffirmed its earlier decision to pull accreditation from the City College of San Francisco (CCSF). Citing a “lack of financial accountability as well as institutional deficiencies in the area of leadership and governance” as the “main obstacles to the college’s turnaround,” the commission allowed CCSF 12 months to prepare to cease operation. San Francisco’s city attorney and City College faculty have filed lawsuits against the commission, and in January a court granted an injunction placing the loss of accreditation on hold. The California Community College Chancellor’s Office, which oversees the state’s 72 community college districts, is working closely with City College to address the commission’s concerns and avoid the loss of accreditation. And the state legislature is considering a bill that would stabilize CCSF funding for the next two years. Meanwhile, students are responding to the controversy: City College reports a 16 percent decline in spring enrollment in 2014 compared to 2013.
The fight over CCSF’s accreditation is focused on a number of issues and concerns. But it raises important questions about how colleges should be evaluated. Many states have begun funding higher education institutions based on performance, and California officials are discussing similar performance measures. Most would agree that student outcomes are an important measure of any college’s effectiveness. Of course, good student outcomes for a college might simply reflect the strength and preparation of incoming students.
Because the California Community College Chancellor’s Office does an excellent job of providing information on student success, we have a wealth of data to examine student outcomes at CCSF. By most measures, City College fares well relative to other community colleges in the state. The share of students who complete college by earning a degree or certificate, or by transferring to a four-year college, is higher at CCSF than in the rest of the state. This advantage holds even when we limit our analysis to students who are initially unprepared for college-level work, which suggests that it is not simply the mix of students drawn to City College that drives its outcomes. (Although it is possible that CCSF’s unprepared students are closer to college level than unprepared students at other colleges.)
Of particular interest is how effectively a community college prepares students for transfer to four-year colleges or universities—this is arguably the most important mission of community colleges. Among students defined by the chancellor’s office as intending to transfer, City College has a higher success rate than most other college districts, ranking 6th out of the state’s 72 community college districts and 4th among the state’s larger districts—those with at least 2,000 students intending to transfer. The other top districts are a who’s who of the state’s most highly regarded: Foothill-De Anza, South Orange County, San Diego, Pasadena, and Santa Monica. By this important measure, City College is in very good company.
On some outcomes, City College performs below average. For example, its success rates in math remediation are significantly lower than the state average, and the share of career technical, or vocational, students who earn a certificate is slightly lower than the state average. However, City College fares well in most other measures. For example, the share of students who successfully complete remediation in English is higher than the statewide average, as is the share of students who successfully complete ESL courses.
Student outcomes are not the only way to assess a college. But they are an important measure of success. CCSF has provided thousands of students with a pathway toward meeting educational and occupational goals. That is no small feat.