The two-year college that serves 90,000 students risks becoming the first in California to lose its accreditation since 2006, triggering funding cuts that could shutter the school.
The threatened loss of accreditation for the school, which would occur in June 2013, comes as California's heralded system of public universities and colleges groans under the pressure of reduced government funding and curtailed school budgets.
The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges this week notified the 77-year-old City College that it must prove its worthiness to continue operating.
In a letter to the college's interim chancellor, Commission President Barbara Beno said an accreditation team in March found the school had failed to react to funding cuts and had reached "a financial breaking point."
The commission cited a lack of administrators as one chief concern and also criticized the college for insufficient assessments of student learning and achievement.
"The task really is to step up the quality of what they do," Beno told Reuters on Friday.
By March, she said the college must submit a plan for closing the school, in the event the commission decides to strip it of accreditation. At the same time, it must prove it has met performance standards.
"It's a severe verdict, which essentially puts the burden on City College to make substantial financial and structural changes in a very abbreviated period of time," said college spokesman Larry Kamer. "The task is quite formidable."
But, he added, "City College is not closing. We are not going to let that happen."
Interim Chancellor Pamila Fisher announced Friday that she would put together a committee of faculty, staff and students to implement the accreditation commission's recommendations.
The commission is authorized to operate by the U.S. Department of Education and oversees institutions in the West. It evaluates community and junior colleges every six years. In 2006, evaluators made eight recommendations for City College, none of which the school adequately addressed, Beno said.
This year's evaluation of City College of San Francisco criticized it for having too few administrators. The evaluator's report describes the college's 39 administrators as "overtaxed" and insufficient in number to support the college's more than 1,800 faculty members.
English teacher Alisa Messer, head of the local union representing faculty, said the lack of administrators was proof of the college's commitment to students.
"The real problem is the state's de-funding of public education and its disinvestment in our community-college system," she said. "There's no question that everyone is going to work to keep the college open."
The college had suffered five years of funding cuts, Messer said, including $17 million last year alone.
City College began operating in San Francisco with about 1,100 students in 1935. It has nine primary campuses, nearly 200 neighborhood sites and offers vocational training in nursing, culinary arts and aircraft mechanics.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Andrew Stern and Lisa Shumaker)