Loss of accreditation tied to federal push for austerity and a curriculum that feeds universities and the economy
But its critics say completion numbers are screwy: They discount students who are at affordable community colleges just to learn a single skill and students who switch schools, administrator Sanford Shugart of Valencia College in Florida wrote in an essay titled "Moving the Needle on College Completion Thoughtfully."
Funding decisions made from completion numbers affect millions of students nationwide — and CCSF has now become the biggest laboratory rat in this experiment in finding new ways to feed the modern economy.
"I think there was a general consensus that the country is in a position that, coming out of the recession, we have diminished resources," Paul Feist, spokesperson for the California Community College Chancellor's Office, told us. "Completion is important to the nation — if you talk to economic forecasters, there's a huge demand for educated workers. Completion is not a bad thing."
Like dominoes, the federal agenda and Obama's controversial Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tipped the Department of Education, followed by the ACCJC, and now City College — an activist school in an activist city and an institution that openly defied the new austerity regime.
WINNING THE BATTLE
In the ACCJC's Summer 2006 newsletter, Brice Harris — then an accreditation commissioner, now chancellor of the state community college system — described the conflict that arose when colleges rallied against completion measurements established by the federal government.
"In the current climate of increased accountability, our regional accrediting associations find that tight spot to be more like a vice," Harris wrote.
Many of the 14 demands the ACCJC made of City College trace back to the early days of Obama's administration, when local trustees resisted slashing the curriculum during the Great Recession.
"There's a logic to saying 'We don't want to put students on the street in the middle of a recession,'" said Karen Saginor, former City College academic senate president. "If you throw out the students, you can't put them in the closet for two years and bring them back when you have the money."
And they have a lot of students — more than 85,000. Like all community colleges in California, the price of entry is cheap, at $46 a unit and all welcome to attend. But since 2008, the system was hammered with budget cuts of more than $809 million, or 12 percent of its budget.
So programs were cut, including those for seniors, ex-inmates re-entering society, or young people enrolling to learn Photoshop or some other skill without committing to a four-year degree.
"As the recession hit, the Legislature instructed the community college system [to] prioritize basic skills, career technical, and transfer," Feist said. "That's to a large extent what we did. That was the reshaping of the mission of that whole system."
It's easy to cast the completion agenda as a shadowy villain in a grand dilemma, but as Feist or anyone on the federal level would note, people were already being pushed out of the system, to the tune of more than 500,000 students since the 2008-09 academic year due to the budget crisis. Course offerings have been slashed by 24 percent, according to the state chancellor's office.
But City College would only go so far. Then-Chancellor Don Q. Griffin raised the battle cry against austerity and the completion agenda at an October 2011 board meeting, his baritone voice sounding one of his fullest furies.
"It was obvious to me when I heard Bush ... and then Obama talking about the value of community colleges ... they're going to push out poor people, people of color, people who cannot afford to go anywhere else except the community college," he said.
But when it came to paying for that pushback, things got tricky.