Higher learning commission visits

RANGELY I A five-member team from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), a regional accreditor for the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA), arrived at Colorado Northwestern Community College last week for a comprehensive visit that will determine the school’s future accreditation.
CNCC has been preparing its self-study, which the team used to help evaluate aspects of the school ranging from instruction to student services to finances, for more than two years.
“From an institutional standpoint, we conducted a very thorough self-study,” CNCC Dean of Instruction Judy Allred said. “We knew what our strengths and challenges were, and we were more than willing to be open and honest about those. We have a plan for addressing those and didn’t expect the team to come in and find any surprises.”
A school’s accreditation status determines whether or not it receives federal student financial aid. It also demonstrates a school’s “acceptable institutional quality” and improvement of services and instruction over time, said an overview booklet compiled by the HLC.
Allred said that the committee seemed to respond positively to changes the school has made in the last decade. Among those were CNCC’s “Vision Plus” initiative, which emphasizes the benefits of “place-based education” and promises students a unique educational experience based on the college’s small size and remote location. The school’s use of technology and equipment in instructional programs was also highlighted in the team’s exit interview, Allred said.
A main goal of the accrediting team was to examine the school’s financial viability.
“We’ve come a long way in the last two years,” Allred said. “The team was looking very closely at the school’s finances because as everybody knows, right after our accreditation in 2003, the budget fell out from under us. They did recognize that we’ve made great strides in…the size of our programs, the size of staffing, and that we’ve made great progress in rebuilding.”
Dave Smith, vice president of instruction and student services, said that while the visit and exit interview went well, the team’s official report, which the college will receive in draft form in the next four to six weeks, will say more about the school’s true standing.
“The exit meeting is informational and doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s going to be in the report,” Smith said. “They did say a lot of good things about us. As far as the outcome of the accreditation, we’ll have to wait for the report.”
Depending on an Institutional Action Committee’s confidence in CNCC, the college will take one of three accreditation paths in the future. The HLC’s Standard Pathways program requires more reporting and accountability than Open Pathways or the Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP), Smith said, which are focused more on “continuous improvement.”
CNCC’s last accreditation cycle was in 2003, when the college received full 10-year accreditation and two “focus reports,” or follow-up studies, to show progress in assessment of student learning and strategic planning.
In the future, Allred said, the college needs to show that “assessment and institutional data drive change” and that a formal strategic plan is in place.
Last week’s visit, and the preparation leading up to it, involved faculty, staff, students and administration. Approximately 60 percent of staff and faculty participated in one of five criterion committees, which compiled and drafted different sections of the document, Allred said. Students were invited to meet with HLC team members to discuss their experiences at the college.
Math instructor Garth Butcher participated in a professional development and instruction criterion committee.
“We were emailing folks, finding out what kinds of professional development they’d had, gathering concrete things…about how professional development drives their instruction,” Butcher said.
Todd Ward, director of arts and sciences, said that there was more preparation for this visit than in past accreditation cycles.
“The steering committee and Judy (Allred) arranged for preparatory meetings to help us understand where the team was coming from,” Ward said. “They made quite an effort to make sure everybody who would be participating at meetings had some example questions thrown at them…I hadn’t thought about some of the questions that came at me in practice meetings, and sure enough, (the team) asked about those things.”