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.”