Now the wait begins.
Five accreditors from the Higher Learning Commission visited campus Monday through Wednesday, as a part of the college’s comprehensive evaluation for reaccreditation. The college will receive the results in the next few weeks.
Accreditation is a certification from a regional group of member colleges, such as the HLC, that says an institution of higher education meets its criteria and federal requirements. Attendance to an accredited institution is often required to attend graduate programs, participate in NCAA athletics, and receive federal financial aid.
Fortunately, Hillsdale’s accreditation is pretty safe, said George Allen, director of institutional research.
“An institution has to be in dreadful shape to lose accreditation,” Allen said. “Worst case scenario here is they say: ‘You’re not doing XYZ to our satisfaction, so you have to get into gear for these, and here are your extra reporting requirements on those subjects.’”
Hillsdale entered its final year of its 10-year Open Pathway accreditation cycle in January.
In December, the school submitted its Assurance Argument, an online explanation of how Hillsdale meets its goals and the HLC’s criteria.
The accreditors toured campus and met with faculty, staff, and college leadership to discuss the five criteria it needs to meet pertaining to the college’s mission, integrity, academic quality, academic evaluation, and effectiveness. They also held three open forums in which faculty, staff, and students provided feedback on Hillsdale’s ability to meet the requirements.
“We’ve enjoyed our time on campus,” Sandy Cassady, the accrediting team leader and the dean of the College of Health and Human Services at St. Ambrose University in Iowa, said at the forum. “We’ve had some good, candid conversations.”
Junior Calvin Kinney attended a forum on Monday at the request of Dean of Men Aaron Petersen because he is a resident assistant.
“I thought it was good that they listened to a student’s perspective,” Kinney said, adding, “Accreditation is reassurance to the student body that Hillsdale is living up to what it says it is doing.”
It is the first time Hillsdale is completing the Assurance Argument, after the HLC moved Hillsdale to the new Open Pathway about four years ago.
The new pathway requires Hillsdale to complete more paperwork required by the U.S. Education Department, despite Hillsdale not taking federal funds.
According to Allen, it shows the trend in changes to accreditation. In the 1960s, the function of accrediting institutions changed when the Education Department made them the gatekeepers of federal financial aid. Since then, regulation and scrutiny of the accrediting bodies has increased.
From that, the Education Department can influence the direction of higher education, said Mark Maier, assistant to the provost.
The increased regulation also means more demands from colleges, even those that do not receive government money such as Hillsdale, Allen said.
Also new are requirements in year four and year five to nine of the accreditation cycle. In 2022, Hillsdale will need to update its Assurance Argument. Starting in 2023, Hillsdale will submit a Qualitivity Initiative proposal on which it will provide a report by 2027. Common initiatives focus on student success, the incorporation of technology, and growing campus culture.
“Now it’s supposed to be this continuous relationship where there’s always something going on,” Allen said.
While this means more paperwork for the college, which resulted in the creation of Allen’s position, the final-year comprehensive review has lessened in extent.
Before switching pathways, Hillsdale had to have a whole room of file evidence that visiting accreditors would read to back up its self-study. The self-study was a large book the college had to write explaining the college’s goals and programs. The Assurance Argument has replaced it on the Open Pathway.
Now, all evidence is uploaded online to Dropbox and is less exhaustive, according to Allen. Instead, the materials are supposed to be representative examples of the defense Hillsdale presents in the argument. Additionally, the accreditors’ visit was shorter: they had meetings for a day and a half instead of two and a half days.
Accreditation has also moved toward demanding more statistical information.
Some of this, however, is good for Hillsdale, Allen said, as it has exposed gaps in transparency and data recording. The HLC requires the college to publish its student outcome rates publicly. Allen worked with the career services office and the college’s website managers to publish that online.
“That is great for the institution, because those numbers are great for Hillsdale,” Allen said. “In this case, it’s given us a decent idea that will tie into marketing for the school.”
After the accreditors who visited campus this week submit their report and recommendations to the HLC, the commission will review the findings and can edit any of the suggestions. Allen said the accreditors told him that happens about 13 percent of the time.
President Larry Arnn will be the first to see the report and then will decide on what happens with the report from the HLC. Last time, the commission provided some recommendations to the college and asked for interim reports on its general education assessment, program assessment, and the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship.
The accrediting team may request more documents before submitting its report on Hillsdale to the HLC. Mostly, though, the college just anticipates its results.
“We’ll find out if they found what we presented satisfactory,” Allen said. “At this point, we’re really just waiting for the recommendations of the team.”