Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Columbia College has ramped up efforts this fall to meet requirements laid out by an accreditation commission that issued a "warning" to the school in February, signaling that it needs to improve in some areas.

The warning, which means that Columbia College could lose regional accreditation if it doesn't make changes, came after an October 2011 visit by members of an accrediting committee for community colleges.

In response, Columbia is evaluating its programs to ensure students get a good education and the success of courses can be tracked. It has also developed new goals and will be getting a second visit from the accreditation commission later this month.

Accreditation is a formal stamp of approval from a third party that verifies the quality of a school's programs. Accrediting bodies, in turn, are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Community colleges that lose their regional accreditation receive no federal funding and are no longer considered valid preparation for further educational programs or jobs, though college programs such as nursing may be accredited on an individual basis.

Very few community colleges actually lose their accreditation after being issued a warning, according to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, the division of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges responsible for accreditation in California and Hawaii.

At a meeting Jan. 10 to 12 this year, the accrediting commission sanctioned 18 California institutions at varying levels. Modesto Junior College - part of the Yosemite Community College District along with Columbia College - was placed on probation as a result of its comprehensive evaluation.

Probation is one step further than a warning in the path to a loss of accreditation. The final step is the issue of a "Show Cause" sanction, which requires colleges to explain why they shouldn't lose accreditation.

After visiting Columbia College in 2011, a team from the accrediting commission issued recommendations for improvement that must be addressed.

Some, such as finding a better way to track the success of programs, had already been identified by the college within the past several years, according to Columbia College President Dennis Gervin.

The 2011 recommendations included improving academic counseling for students in distance-learning programs and assessing "student learning outcomes" in all courses.

This month, the school is issuing a draft of a follow-up report that outlined its progress. Gervin has said he sees the process in a positive light and one that will help the college improve itself.

"This keeps our attention focused," he said. "I'm really proud of what the college has done … the accreditation report lit a fire under us to keep improving."

The Columbia College Committee, which advises Gervin on college affairs and decisions, finalized a list of five schoolwide goals Oct. 5. One of the five goals is increasing student and faculty participation in college committees and activities.

Gervin said participation levels are already at "all-time highs," but they will now be quantified, and new faculty members will know that expectations for their involvement with the college are high.

Most of the college's goals, and the accrediting commission's recommendations, involve developing a centralized data log that will allow the college to track the effectiveness of courses and departments. The online tool now allows faculty members to input data themselves.

A team from the accrediting commission is revisiting Columbia College at the end of this month. It will make a decision in late January on the school's accreditation.

The decision would entail either lifting the warning or putting Columbia College on "probation," the current status of Modesto Junior College.

Pressure to maintain accreditation has created discord at Modesto Junior College, which Yosemite Community College District Chancellor Joan Smith said has already developed a reputation for its contentious staff politics.

"Get over it," she urged at a Wednesday meeting of the district's Board of Trustees. "Let's move forward."

In 2010, the online publication Inside Higher Ed reported that the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges came under fire itself from community college administrators for placing 37 percent of California's 110 two-year colleges under sanction from 2003 to 2008.

That compares to a sanctioning rate of about 6 percent in other states, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Gervin said he was impressed with Columbia College's staff efforts to ensure accreditation, adding that the school is focusing on improvement rather than the scare of receiving a "warning."

"I think we've gotten past feeling wounded," he said. "What I love is that they just get down and do it."