A warning to Los Angeles Mission College to correct a number of academic and administrative deficiencies didn't come as a great surprise to Daniel Campos.
The former student body president had long been frustrated with campus infighting, perceptions of cultural insensitivity and inadequate counseling and other student services.
All of these issues and others were cited recently by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges when it put the Sylmar campus on notice that it must make improvements.
"Most students in general are not aware of the impact of accrediting decisions," said Campos, who also served as student trustee for the Los Angeles Community College District. "If the college loses accreditation, I'll lose transfer credits, so I'll need to find a way to line up everything in one year in case that happens."
The warning issued to Mission is the mildest of the possible penalties. The college will remain accredited pending a follow-up report due by March 2014.
But in a raft of actions earlier this month, the panel made the rare decision to revoke accreditation from City College of San Francisco in July 2014 (the college is appealing) and issued warnings to Los Angeles Valley, Orange Coast and six other campuses. Sanctions were removed from West Los Angeles and Harbor colleges and seven other campuses.
Of California's 112 community colleges, one, College of the Sequoias in the Central Valley town of Visalia, is operating under the most serious penalty — "show cause" — meaning the college is substantially out of compliance with requirements and must correct deficiencies to remain accredited. Five other colleges are on probationary status, and 13 have been given warnings.
The Novato, Calif.-based commission is one of seven private, nonprofit regional panels authorized by the federal government to award or terminate accreditation. Commissioners, who come from the ranks of college faculty, administrators and members of the public, visit campuses in teams and grade schools on governance, financial stability, instructional programs and how well students are learning.
Accreditation is voluntary. But non-accredited colleges lose eligibility for state funding and federal financial aid and imperil the ability of students to transfer credits.
Many educators and others are questioning why so many California community colleges are struggling to maintain standards. A 2012 Cal State Sacramento research paper found that 62 institutions were on some form of sanction over the last decade and that the percentage of sanctions is increasing.
The state's budget crisis, which led many public colleges to cut staff and slash programs, is one factor, said education experts. Others say colleges are under greater pressure from federal and state authorities to improve student retention and graduation rates.
California's community college system is the largest in the nation, with 2.4 million students attending annually, far more than Cal State or the University of California. As a result, the importance of these colleges in higher education is "outsized" compared with other states, said Hans Johnson, co-director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California.
"So it's a big deal as to how they function," he said.
A task force created by Community Colleges Chancellor Brice W. Harris will study ways to smooth procedures.
"The idea is to draft a set of recommendations for both the commission and colleges," said spokesman Paul Feist. "That would suggest both parties take steps that ultimately result in fewer colleges being on sanction, while maintaining standards and quality."
Monte E. Perez, president of Mission College, said the process is more rigorous now.
Perez told the commission in June that his college had already begun addressing its 14 recommendations. He believes that's why Mission received a warning rather than being placed on probation. The college now has a system to assess the effectiveness of courses, for example. And voter-approved Proposition 30, which increases some taxes to help fund education, will allow Mission to hire more counselors, he said.
"If we don't achieve the outcomes, it could go the other way," Perez said. "San Francisco was supposed to do certain things, and the commission felt they didn't, and they lost accreditation. We've got a lot of work to do, and we're committed to getting it done."
Before Los Angeles Southwest College was placed on probation last year, students complained that they had too little input in campus decisions and about cuts in services such as those to the library, which made it hard for some students to finish term papers during finals, said Jason Serrato, a student-government leader.
After a follow-up visit in April, Southwest was removed from probation but was issued a warning to continue improvement in several areas, such as ensuring that students taking online classes receive adequate tutoring, counseling and other services.
Serrato said the campus is making headway: There's a redesigned website in which each department has its own webpage, for example, and library hours were expanded. Many students were probably unaware of the college's status, but accreditation reports and other information are now more readily available.
"The commission made recommendations, and things are looking up and improving," said Serrato, a psychology major. "But they need to spread the word even more."