SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - The California Federation of Teachers recently labeled the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) a "rogue college accreditation commission."
Business-oriented education reform is a familiar topic to those following trends in K-12 public education. Higher education has not been immune to similar trends, with corporate reformers laying out strategies which tend to embrace a more business-type model for colleges. Free-market think-tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are working in parallel with funders such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, increasingly gaining ground in crafting education policy.
Last year the ACCJC, the body that yanked the accreditation of CCSF this July, was one of the recipients of a $1 million Lumina Foundation grant.
Lumina and other foundations use the lofty-sounding goal of 60 percent degree attainment for students to slash programs and define classroom outcomes that it deems extraneous to that goal. This agenda is being touted as a job-creation program via the logic that a higher number of degree-holders will result in higher employment.
While it is true that college degrees often correlate with higher employment levels, there is little evidence that a higher number of degree-holders creates jobs. Legislative policies have nevertheless been pushed through in several states that would tie state funding to graduation rates.
The Lumina Foundation is second only to the Gates Foundation in bestowing grants for the purpose of business-model-based education reform. ALEC and Lumina have had close ties since the formation of the Lumina Foundation, which emerged in the dissolution of USA Group student loan corporation in 2000. At that time USA Group sold its student loan assets to the Sallie Mae student loan company, transformed its corporate giving program into the main thrust of its existence, rebranded as Lumina, and began life again with nearly a billion dollars from the Sallie Mae sale. Blogger Badger Democracy reported last year that Lumina gives ALEC $300,000 a year and was a high-level sponsor of the ALEC national conference in 2011.
ACCJC currently has 25 percent of colleges in the California community college system under some form of sanction that could threaten their accreditation. Last year a report by the Treasury Department showed a clear correlation between cuts to community colleges and a rise in enrollment in for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix. Since its loss of accreditation in July, CCSF has seen its enrollment drop by 14.9 percent, even though it still retains accreditation status through this academic school year. For-profit colleges are several orders of magnitude more costly than credits obtained at California's community colleges, which are often priced at under $50 per unit. Private for-profit colleges are also notorious for saddling students with high levels of student loans to pay for their thousands of dollars in tuition fees, with a default rate of 25 percent.
The CFT, at its convention in March, passed a resolution demanding that accreditation bodies divest from foundations that push a politically-driven business model on academia, calling such a relationship "a 'regulatory capture' of a public-mandated agency by corporate forces." This, the resolution observed, would reduce the influential accrediting agency to being nothing more than "a willing pawn in a strategic business plan driven by corporate power on a national and global scale."
Meanwhile, a participant in the ALEC/Lumina partnership is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, featured recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article highlighting the outsize influence the foundation has in changing the mission of higher education. The Gates Foundation has also been working to foster a culture of higher completion rates, with the goal of eliminating non-credit remedial classes that students may need before they can begin earning college credit.
The Chronicle reports: "At the center of that effort, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has financed studies that argue for broad-scale changes aimed at pushing more students, more quickly, toward graduation. Working alongside the Lumina Foundation through intermediaries like Complete College America and another nonprofit, Jobs for the Future, the Gates foundation has helped influence higher-education policy at the state level to a degree that may be unprecedented for a private foundation."
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the umbrella accreditation body that governs the ACCJC, was also the recipient of a grant for $1.5 million from the Gates Foundation.
Photo: Banner at a Save City College of San Francisco (CCSF) rally in Burlingame, Calif., at the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) panel hearing in June. Michelle Kern/PW