Accreditation team gives NWC best evaluation in more than three decades
Comparing it to “winning a gold medal at the Olympics,” Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa said a recent accreditation report gave the college its highest marks since 1984.
The report, made official last week by the independent Higher Learning Commission, “is the culmination of a ton of work,” Hicswa said.
“Working on accreditation, there are so many working pieces and parts that have to go into it. Not only to prepare the paperwork, but the things you have to do to be in compliance are really intricate,” she said. “To have it come together like this is really very special.”
Accreditation is a process of validation in which colleges, universities and other institutions of higher learning are evaluated, explains the Higher Learning Commission’s website. The standards for accreditation are set by a peer review board (in this case, the HLC) whose members include faculty from various accredited colleges and universities.
NWC received official word of its continued accreditation in late February, following a comprehensive campus visit by a HLC team last September. NWC’s next visit is expected to be scheduled in 2025.
During the college’s last comprehensive accreditation visit in 2010, three areas were flagged as being in need of improvement: shared governance, tying the budget to strategic planning and assessment of student learning. Hicswa said all three areas were found to be well in compliance in this most recent visit and “we’re very, very pleased with that.”
Shared governance, defined by Hicswa as “all employees participating in the decision-making process,” has been an issue for the college since the 1960s.
“It’s always been a thing in higher education that people have input in the process,” Hicswa explained. “Certainly we need to continue to work on communication — from me to employees and employees to me. It can always be better. But it is no longer a concern of our accreditation body, so I’m thrilled with that.”
NWC met all five criteria: mission; integrity: ethical and responsible conduct; teaching and learning: quality, resources and support; teaching and learning: evaluation and improvement; and resources, planning and institutional effectiveness. The only concern levied by the HLC team is easily addressed, Hicswa said.
“The concern was we have made some revisions to our general education requirements, and we haven’t assessed them yet because it hasn’t been through a full cycle,” she said. “They [the HLC] would like us to do a report on that once a full cycle has been completed. So in 2019, we will submit a report.”
Because of its history of shaky accreditation visits, NWC had been categorized as being on the “standard pathway,” a designation assigned to institutions demonstrating a need for improvement.
“The standard pathway requires us [NWC] to follow standard core requirements, and for each of those requirements, we have to write up what we’ve done since the last visit,” Hicswa said. “Because of the success of this visit, the HLC told us we could choose to go to a more flexible pathway. That was one of the outcomes, and that was very positive.”
Hicswa said NWC will now choose the “open” pathway, which will allow the college to focus on continuing quality assurance and improvement rather than focusing on meeting the standards requirements.
“This move [to the open pathway] will be more along the lines of how we’re leading the college toward looking at what we’re doing, assessing it and figuring out how we can improve it and do better,” she said. “We’ve met the standards they required of us, now we can go on to the next level. That was a huge outcome.”
Lest anyone wonder as to the importance of a positive accreditation visit, Hicswa explained a college needs accreditation in order to get federal financial aid and for credits to be transferrable. An institution that finds itself routinely on accreditation probation runs the risk of losing accreditation all together, something Hicswa calls the equivalent of a “death sentence.”
“Even being on probation is very serious,” she said. “When SinClair Orendorff became president of NWC [in January of 1967], the college was on probation. He was able to rectify that, and during his tenure, in 1984, they had a very good accreditation report. So it took him 20 years or so to be able to make that happen. This report now is the best the college has had since 1984.”
Excellent report notwithstanding, Hicswa said the college will continue to work at getting better instead of resting on its recent accomplishments. She praised the college’s accreditation team — including Vice President of Academic Affairs Gerry Giraud — for the hard work that went into preparing for the visit, saying they crafted a document that communicated the college’s strengths.
Hicswa has heard NWC’s report was one of the best in the 19-state region the HLC covers.
“What this report says is that we’re doing the right things for the right reasons,” she said.