The HLC accreditation team is coming — what you should know

Higher Learning Commission logoIt has been almost 10 years since Metropolitan Community College underwent an accreditation review. If you weren’t here in 2006, or if you just weren’t paying attention, now’s the time to catch up: A team from the Higher Learning Commission arrives in mid-November and will be here several days.

Is this a big deal? Absolutely. Are we prepared? Yes, we think so. Will the HLC team have questions for employees? Yes.

To find out more, MCC News talked to Michel Hillman, MCC’s interim vice chancellor of academic affairs, and Fran Padow, director of educational services.

Q: How long has MCC been preparing for this accreditation visit?

Hillman: We’ve been preparing for several years. We’ve established a college-wide steering committee that has representatives from each campus and every major group to advise us on how to move ahead. Meanwhile, we’ve had an improvement project which is based on assessment.

So we’ve actually been working on this for a long time, but we have to provide the most recent information to our reviewers in a very extensive website — up to 25,000 words plus attachments. It’s called the assurance website.

Q: Why “assurance”? To assure the HLC reviewers that MCC is doing a good job?

Hillman: That’s exactly it. In fact, it goes beyond the accreditors to the federal government. The accreditors really act as a quality-assurance arm of the federal government.

The federal government requires regional accreditation for, in our case, awarding federal financial aid. So if MCC were not reaccredited, we would lose our ability to award federal financial aid and that would directly affect about 50 percent of our students. So MCC would look very different if we were not an institution eligible to award federal financial aid.

Q: What are the possible outcomes here? MCC could regain accreditation, but what else could happen?

There are really three categories for each of the five HLC criteria (discussed in the assurance website). We can meet the criteria, we can meet with concerns, or we can not meet.

Q: So there are five criteria. Let’s say we don’t meet one of them. Does that mean MCC loses accreditation?

Hillman: We are an accredited institution, and we’ll be given a chance to address any deficiencies or issues. We could go on notice that there are concerns and we’d be given a chance to correct those concerns before losing accreditation.

Q: What are the five criteria that MCC has to address on the assurance website?

Padow: Criterion 1 is the mission: The institution’s mission is clear and articulated publicly, and the mission guides the institution’s operations.

Criterion 2 is integrity: ethical and responsible conduct.

Criterion 3 is teaching and learning — the quality (of education), the resources and the support, that our degrees are appropriate to our mission, that we have faculty who are well credentialed.

Criterion 4 is evaluation and improvement, that we have assessment measures, learning outcomes, ways in which we know our students are learning or not learning, the rigor of the courses, etc.

Criterion 5 is about resources, planning, institutional effectiveness. A lot of that is about strategic planning, that we tie our needs to the budget so that the budget doesn’t drive the institution in an (off-course) way.

Q: Will employees get a chance to see the assurance website before the HLC team does?

Hillman: We do plan to make it available. We’re limited to 30 people actually accessing the website directly, but we’ll take snapshots of what’s in the website, make them available to all employees, and solicit their comments. Thirty days prior to the HLC team visit starting Nov. 15, the website will be locked down — we won’t be able to make any more additions or changes. So by Oct. 14, we need to have all of our edits done because the website is automatically going to lock us out.

Q: The actual accreditation visit: Who’s coming, and what will they do while they’re here?

Hillman: We know the names of the seven-person team and who the team leader is. They have community college experience — career and/or academic backgrounds. Some of them might be working at universities now, but they’re familiar with the community college mission. They’re from the region but not direct competitors.

The whole team will come in on Sunday, Nov. 15, and will be meeting with us all day Monday and through noon on Tuesday. After that the team will work together Tuesday afternoon and into Wednesday morning to consolidate their ideas for the report about MCC.

They’ve also asked to schedule at least one (of three) campus visits on Friday, Nov. 13. They’ll be visiting Penn Valley, Business & Technology, and Longview. They think it’d be easiest for them to review the Penn Valley campus on Tuesday morning since they’ll be working out of the Administrative Center. The Longview visit might also be Tuesday morning. They’ll probably be at Business & Technology the previous Friday.

Q: There’s not always a lot of activity on campuses on Fridays. Is that a concern?

Hillman: Friday afternoons are lightly scheduled, but that was preferable to having a Saturday or Sunday visit.

Q: Will we know ahead of time who the team wants to talk to?

Hillman: The team can talk to anyone they want to — faculty, staff, administrators or students — at any MCC campus. Starting Oct. 14, the team will have access to our assurance website. They’ll review our assurances. About two weeks after that they will talk about what they see as unanswered questions or areas they want to pursue further, what could be challenges or problems.

They could add the review of another campus if they want. They could review a particular topic — for example, learning assessment. They could ask to meet with the faculty assessment committee. They could latch on to any of the federal compliance issues.

So there’s a whole range of things they could do. They’ll probably be interested in what’s happening with strategic planning since we took a little bit of a hiatus in strategic planning. We won’t know until just before the visit what their topics of interest will be. And what their topics are will determine who they end up meeting with.

Padow: We also will have open sessions for anyone in our MCC community or the larger community (to meet with the HLC team).

Hillman: Meanwhile, we’re in the process of getting a survey out to students. The results will go to the Higher Learning Commission. And the chancellor sent out a notice recently asking the public and the MCC community to comment on accreditation issues. (The deadline for comments to HLC is Oct. 9.)

Q: So if I’m someone who talks to an HLC reviewer, can I ruin the whole thing by having a dumb answer to one of their questions?

Hillman: I don’t think it comes down to one or two questions or answers. But they are expecting that, for example, everyone understands the Metropolitan Community College mission, and understands their role in supporting the mission and is able to connect dots.

Q: And there is a list of possible review team questions on the InfoExchange. Does it make sense that employees look those over?

Hillman: That’s the purpose, really. If someone were to ask me what is a strength or weakness of MCC, I would have an answer. But we don’t want to have canned answers from people. Everyone has their own perspective, and we certainly respect that. While we provided some potential questions, we didn’t provide canned answers.

Q: The assurance website mentions, for example, the recent AAUP survey of faculty, so it’s not just the positive stuff.

Hillman: I would say we’ve worked hard to be as honest as possible. Of course, we all have our own perspectives, but the site collects a lot of data, and there’s no spinning the data. I think we’ve been pretty frank in terms of identifying our challenges and some of the areas we need to work on or have been working on. We worked hard to be honest, not just be positive.

Q: What happens after the visit? When do we get the results or some indication of the team’s conclusions?

Hillman: We’ll have an idea probably 30 days after the visit, but there’s a special HLC committee that will review the report, and ultimately any action will have to go through the Higher Learning Commission itself. Nothing formal will happen for a few months, probably next spring.

Q: This accreditation review is part of a new HLC program called Open Pathway. But gone are the days when MCC goes a decade between accreditation visits, right?

Hillman: Yes. The standard was, if you received a good review, you could go 10 years and not a whole lot typically happened in those 10 years. (Under Open Pathway) we get to determine our improvement initiatives. For example, we chose assessment as an improvement initiative rather than have those dictated by the accreditor.

But with Open Pathway, rather than 10 years, we will be reviewed again in four years. Unless there are challenges or issues, that will be an electronic review, which means we won’t host a visit then. But there will be follow-up from this visit, and in four years we’ll report on progress since this review.

Q: What else should we all be thinking about?

No. 1, that this is really important. Of all the accreditation agencies we work with, this is the fundamental one. This one really does determine our future.