SACRAMENTO — All colleges, universities and vocational schools in California must be approved by the state, a procedure that has been notable for its laxity.
In addition, most of the schools have also been accredited by private agencies.
The problem for students and their parents is trying to figure out if the accreditation or approval means anything.
The better-known colleges and universities, those whose credits and degrees are easily transferred to another institution, belong to the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which covers California, Hawaii, Guam and some other Pacific islands.
WASC schools range in size from the huge University of California campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles to small private liberal arts colleges like Mills, Occidental and Pomona. All UC and California State University campuses, as well as the state's 107 two-year community colleges, are WASC-accredited.
Before being accredited, the faculty, academic quality, finances and physical facilities of an institution are scrutinized carefully.
Two-year colleges belonging to WASC are reviewed in detail every five years and four-year schools every eight years unless a problem leads to an earlier inspection.
Colleges and universities that are found deficient either academically or fiscally can be placed on probation. The list currently includes Christian Heritage College in El Cajon, Cogswell College in Cupertino, Loma Linda University in San Bernardino County and Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido.
If the problems are not solved, a college or university can be required to "show cause why they should not be removed from the accredited list," said Ralph Wolff, associate executive director of the Western Assn. The only institution now under a "show cause" sanction is United States University in San Diego, Wolff said.
Beyond the 287 colleges and universities now accredited by WASC, the process grows murky.
Many degree-granting vocational schools are accredited by the Assn. of Independent Colleges and Schools, others by the National Assn. of Trade and Technical Schools. (There are other accrediting agencies for private postsecondary schools but AICS and NATTS are the best known.)
Until the 1960s, both AICS and NATTS were professional associations. However, the federal Higher Education Act of 1964 required schools to be accredited if their students were to receive federally guaranteed loans. So the schools formed these agencies to provide accreditation.
Impartial educators generally do not believe that the standards applied for accreditation by AICS and NATTS are as rigorous as those of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges.
There also have been complaints that some schools in these organizations have abused the federal student loan program by encouraging students to enroll who have little chance for success. When these students drop out, and default on their loans, it is the students and lenders who suffer.
"Looking to see that the school is accredited is important but it's not the only important thing," said Bruce Hamlett, director of legislative affairs for the California Postsecondary Education Commission, which monitors higher education policy for the governor and the Legislature.
When considering a vocational school, prospective students and their parents should consider the dropout rate, the job placement rate, starting salaries of the school's graduates and the student loan default rate, Hamlett said. Under new federal and state laws, schools are required to give out this information.
Beyond the various kinds of accredited colleges and universities lies the misty land of the unaccredited schools, in which about 150 California institutions reside. Some of these schools offer solid programs in such subjects as computer science but others are "diploma mills" that provide degrees for little or no work.
Until this year, state approval of private postsecondary schools was handled by a unit in the state Department of Education. But another Postsecondary Education Commission study found that the process was sloppy and that no school, no matter how inadequate, ever was rejected.
Legislation sponsored by State Sen. Becky Morgan (R-Los Altos Hills) created a Council for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, which began to function this year and is supposed to check each two- and four-year private school, academic or vocational, before granting approval.
However, some of the new council members come from the very schools that have presented the worst problems--degrees of questionable merit and high dropout and student loan default rates--so it is not clear that "state approval" will mean anything more in the future than it does now.