Hillsdale College has offi­cially been reac­credited for another 10 years. Nicole Ault | Col­legian

After months of gath­ering doc­u­ments and wran­gling Hillsdale College’s identity into online essay forms, Hillsdale College faculty and staff reaped their reward: The Higher Learning Com­mission, a private regional accreditor, reaf­firmed the college’s accred­i­tation for 10 years in May 2018. The reac­cred­i­tation upholds Hillsdale’s status as a “legit­imate insti­tution whose edu­cation is serious and note­worthy,” said Hillsdale College Provost David Whalen.

“We’re very glad and relieved that we got a good accred­i­tation report and a full 10-year term extension, so we won’t have to worry about that again for a while,” said Hillsdale College Pres­ident Larry Arnn. “The people who came for this accred­i­tation visit were delightful, and we’re grateful to them, and they gave us an excellent report, which is justice, but also good to see.”

Besides affirming the school’s edu­ca­tional legit­imacy, accred­i­tation means Hillsdale grad­uates are eli­gible for graduate and pro­fes­sional schools, and it pleases parents of prospective stu­dents who seek an accredited insti­tution, Whalen said.

It also is important sym­bol­i­cally, he added, as “an example of a robust inde­pendent civil insti­tution, pri­vately orga­nized, that bespeaks the integrity and health of post­sec­ondary learning in the United States.”

But the process has changed since the early days of accred­i­tation and even since Hillsdale’s pre­vious reaf­fir­mation in 2007 – 2008.

For the latest reac­cred­i­tation process, a com­mittee of Hillsdale’s faculty and staff pulled together an assurance argument, a 30,000-word set of essays responding to five “core com­ponent” cri­teria required by the HLC. After months of culling data and doc­u­men­tation and editing, the college sub­mitted the essays in December 2017 in online box forms cor­re­sponding to each core com­ponent: the college’s mission, ethical conduct, quality of edu­cation, improvement of edu­cation, and plans for future effec­tiveness.

The method was more clinical than that of 2007, when the college sub­mitted a book with color pho­tographs and a more nar­rative style called a “self study,” said George Allen, Hilllsdale’s director of insti­tu­tional research.

The HLC’s peer reviewers did get a deeper view of Hillsdale in January 2018 when they visited campus after reading the assurance argument. During their visit, they met with admin­is­tration, faculty, and stu­dents, spot checked files, and held open hearings where faculty, stu­dents, and staff could comment on various aspects of the college, Allen said.

The college then waited till May to receive official noti­fi­cation that the HLC had reaf­firmed its accred­i­tation.

In con­trast with pre­vious methods, Arnn said the new one offers “less room for you to put your case together.” But Hillsdale’s provost office, deans, and department heads pulled it off, Arnn said: “We imported the entire fun­da­mental argu­ments of Hillsdale College into our accred­i­tation report, and we’re all pretty good at that around here.”

About a century ago, accreditation’s “purpose was for col­leges to join together in a league and evaluate each other and report on each other’s service to the mission of each insti­tution,” Arnn said. “So they’re to come in and find out are you doing what you say you do. It was all keyed off what your mission is.”

With the cre­ation of the U.S. Department of Edu­cation in 1979, accred­itors, which are private orga­ni­za­tions, have “grad­ually become reg­u­latory bodies because of the force of gov­ernment behind them,” he said.

The Department of Edu­cation now uses accred­i­tation as the gate­keeper for offering federal financial aid, meaning accred­itors not only hold schools to their own stan­dards but to the stan­dards of the gov­ernment as well, Allen said.

“It’s very unfair,” Arnn said, that Hillsdale must submit to these federal reg­u­la­tions through accred­itors though it refuses to accept federal funds.

Addi­tional federal reg­u­la­tions — which have grown over the past two decades — have not affected practice or policy at Hillsdale College, Allen said. Mainly, they’ve just caused a headache, com­piling addi­tional forms and paperwork.

For a while, Hillsdale was largely exempt from federal reg­u­la­tions because it doesn’t take federal funds, but in recent years, the Department of Edu­cation has borne down on accred­itors, threat­ening their status if they don’t hold all schools to certain reg­u­la­tions — like meeting a spe­cific def­i­n­ition of a credit hour and having a par­ticular student-grievance reporting pro­cedure, Whalen said.

Arnn said accred­i­tation ought to look more like what it did in the old days, when col­leges eval­uated each other without the influence of gov­ernment reg­u­lation.

“I think if you returned it to what it was, it would be vibrant again. Col­leges are nat­u­rally inter­ested in each other,” he said. “And you know, the old practice still mostly fol­lowed is they picked people from col­leges like yours and so they know a lot and they see a lot and they bring a lot of ideas. Why is this third party that’s not in the college business laying down cri­teria?”

Some change may be in the making: The Department of Edu­cation ini­tiated a rule­making process this year proposing to amend reg­u­la­tions on accred­itors. But reg­u­la­tions are harder to abolish than create, Whalen said.

For now, Hillsdale College has more paperwork on its hands. The HLC requested an interim report, due Oct. 1, with a policy plan for Hillsdale’s doc­u­men­tation of faculty cre­den­tials. During its visit, the HLC dis­covered that some Hillsdale faculty files did not include tran­scripts — an issue Arnn said would probably not prove prob­lematic due to the stringent require­ments for hiring at Hillsdale.

Hillsdale also has to prepare for the next round of accred­i­tation by updating its assurance argument for further review by August 2021.

Though mostly cre­ating com­pliance costs now, further reg­u­la­tions that affect insti­tu­tional  practice could pose a danger to the college, Arnn said.

“It would take a long time for them to mess the college up, probably,” he said. “But the college is ambi­tious to last a long time. And so if some­thing happens that would mess it up even­tually, that’s tragic.”