Higher Learning Com­mission, Hillsdale Col­lege’s accred­iting insti­tution, has made changes to its require­ments to accredit insti­tu­tions. Wiki­media Commons | Courtesy

It is worse than it was, but not bad yet.
That seemed to be admin­is­trators’ con­clusion regarding recent changes made by the Higher Learning Com­mission to its accred­i­tation process. In response to Department of Edu­cation man­dates and in a culture of stan­dardized tests and quan­tifiable results, the HLC has aban­doned self-studies — essen­tially books written by schools describing their insti­tu­tions sub­mitted every ten years before a review visit — for a com­bi­nation of processes the HLC calls “Open Pathway.”
“The self-study as we have known it is fin­ished,” Provost David Whalen said. “What they did is they replaced the accred­i­tation process with a couple of accred­i­tation processes having dif­ferent degrees of fre­quency and intrusiveness.”
In prin­ciple, Open Pathway is still a 10-year process. Within that decade, insti­tu­tions must propose two “Quality Ini­tia­tives,” which much be approved by the HLC, exe­cuted, and then assessed. There are also self-reporting ele­ments in years four and seven.
Schools still submit a kind of self-study, but what once was a com­posed book has become an online series of “Assurance Argu­ments” sup­porting “Core Com­po­nents” and “Sub-Com­po­nents” to demon­strate ful­fillment of five “Cri­teria for Accred­i­tation” the HLC has set forth.
“It used to be the sort of thing that one office could keep an eye on,” Assistant to the Provost Mark Maier said. “Once a decade, it would involve the rest of campus, and then no one else would have to think about it for another eight years. Now it involves a lot more people and the reporting is more regular.”
Hillsdale’s reac­cred­i­tation is set for the 2017 – 2018 aca­demic year. Some 20 com­mittees are pro­ducing topic reports with the HLC cri­teria and com­po­nents in mind. Those topic reports will be assembled and delivered to cri­teria authors, who will take all the reports and distill them into Assurance Arguments.
Once data has been entered and Pres­ident Larry Arnn has signed off, the college will upload its com­plete report. A com­mittee of peers from other HLC insti­tu­tions will evaluate the report, and visit campus early in 2018 to review and spot check.
“The Higher Learning Com­mission is attempting to make things less bur­densome than writing a book,” Whalen said. “In fact, for a smaller insti­tution like us, it’s probably about the same, maybe even a little more.”
Whalen said the emphasis has shifted to metrics based on facts and data.
“It’s not the case that most of this type of reporting isn’t being done already inter­nally,” Maier said. “But it just adds a little bit more pressure on the insti­tution according to these strict dead­lines that are imposed on us.”
The college is over­hauling its General Edu­cation Assessment process — a move which admin­is­trators already intended but which also ful­fills spec­i­fi­ca­tions as a Quality Ini­tiative in the reac­cred­i­tation process.
Assistant Pro­fessor of Psy­chology Colin Barnes is on the com­mittee over­seeing that ini­tiative and has, along with Maier, gone to meetings with the HLC over the last few years. He said he thinks the Higher Learning Commission’s changes are moti­vated by federal inter­ference and a growing obsession among edu­cators with things being mea­sured and a proof of improvement and change.
“There were several of the higher ups in the Higher Learning Com­mission who made pre­sen­ta­tions, and there were certain things that they said, tone of voice, ges­tic­u­la­tions, and so forth that con­veyed to me that these were require­ments because they were getting pressure from the outside,” Barnes said.
The HLC was clear with Maier about some of the Edu­cation Department’s roles in changes.
“They said the federal com­pliance piece is just going to con­tinue to grow year in and year out,” Maier said. “It’s largely moti­vated by the Department of Edu­cation wanting to make sure these insti­tu­tions of higher learning are being good stewards of federal money and are more or less pro­viding what they say they are pro­viding to the stu­dents. Obvi­ously, we don’t use the money, but we’re kind of lumped in with everyone else.”
Although the Edu­cation Department doesn’t seem to be using accred­iting agencies to target inde­pendent insti­tu­tions, Whalen said it has turned accred­iting agencies into federal enforcers and dis­con­nected some federal reg­u­la­tions from the reception of federal funds.
“Because the accred­i­tation agencies have been made the gate­keepers for federal funding, the Department of Edu­cation can and does dictate matters of policy to them,” Whalen said. “So there are things that we are having to do now to maintain our accred­i­tation that even our accred­i­tation gov­erning body does not find all that serious or valuable but are imposed by the Department of Education.”
Whalen said the HLC opposes such reg­u­la­tions and sees it as a misuse and mis­un­der­standing of accred­i­tation by the Edu­cation Department. Maier pointed out that the college has a good rela­tionship with the HLC going back to 1915.
“In some respects, we are kind of a typical small, liberal arts college to them,” Maier said. “I don’t think they’re approaching us with a target. That could change, but I don’t think there’s a war coming.”
Whalen said the changes have intro­duced a layer of com­plexity which the college has not had hitherto; where this will lead in the future is unknown for now. As of yet, no sub­stantial changes have been made at Hillsdale.
“We’ve always run a tight ship, but now we need to not only run a tight ship but prove we have run a tight ship,” Whalen said.