Accreditation Review Coming to SLU

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With a review from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools looming in April of 2012, Saint Louis University has been working to ensure its status is accredited through to the 2021-22 academic year.

The HLC evaluates universities on five criteria:  Mission and integrity, preparing for the future, student learning and effective teaching, acquisition, discovery and application of knowledge, and engagement and service.

According to Vice President for Academic Chairs and Liaison to the HLC Steve Sanchez, being evaluated on the accreditation criteria is like a student being graded in a classroom.

“Like any class that you have, you have a rubric in your class and the professor says ‘I’m going to judge your essay and I expect to see the following things in your essay,” Sanchez said. “HLC expects to see certain things in the quality of [SLU’s] work. It’s the same premise.”

Although receiving accreditation is optional, universities that wish to receive funding from the Federal government for financial aid, Pell grants, federal loans and research must be evaluated and accredited. According to Sanchez, the HLC acts on behalf of all members of higher education and the Federal government.

“The Federal Department of Education is the ultimate boss in this sense. They think colleges and schools ought to be more accountable and provide more direct evidence of their quality and the return on investment that taxpayers put into this institution,” Sanchez said.

To ensure that colleges and universities demonstrate their quality and accountability, the HLC has imposed increased rigorous criteria that call for demonstration of how the criteria are met at each particular institution, and how colleges and universities can improve.

“Of late, the whole landscape is changing,” Sanchez said. “The assessment and accreditation expectations and rigor of criteria and the number of things we need to be accountable for through accreditation up to the Department of Education is definitely increasing.”

Relative to SLU’s last accreditation in 2002, the current process requires a more evaluative approach and calls for evidence of the University meeting the criteria.

“The old criteria would have asked us to describe our organizational structure,”  Sanchez said. “This one asks us to describe, but describe and explain why this structure is effective in enabling you to meet your goals.”

According to Miriam Joseph, Pius XII Memorial Library reference librarian and steering committee chairwoman, the criteria provided by the HLC are malleable to a certain college or university’s mission.

“These criteria are rather vague and amorphous because HLC accredits more than 1,000 institutions of various types, so you can’t have your own criteria,” Joseph said. “They’re not here to look at whether or not they like your mission, but how well you live up to your mission and fulfill it.”

SLU has been preparing for the accreditation process through a rigorous self-study. The self-study has been lead by a steering committee, five sub-committees assigned to each HLC-designated criterion and a sub-committee devoted to the SLU’s Madrid campus. The committees consist of administration, faculty and students from all components of the University, encompassing the institution as a whole.

“All units across the institution are there to support our underlying mission,” Sanchez said. “This whole accreditation thing is fundamentally mission focused.”

SLU plans on releasing a working first draft of its self-study in November. The draft is a 150 to 200 page document responding to the five criteria that the University is required to meet.

Sanchez said that the self-study is meant not only to demonstrate how SLU meets the prescribed criteria, but that it also acts as a means of growth and education about the SLU community and where it needs to improve.

Sanchez said the self-study is both an summative and formative evaluation.

“Summative asks whether we won or lost, but the formative evaluation asks ‘what did you learn by playing the game?’,” Sanchez said. Upon releasing the draft, Sanchez said the SLU community is welcome to give their response and provide input toward the self-study. The document will continue to be refined until February, then it will be finalized and sent to the HLC.

The HLC will assign a committee of eight to 12 people to read SLU’s self-study and then come to campus from Apr. 23-25, 2012 to meet with faculty, staff, students, administrators and the board of trustees. The committee will also verify the reports of the self-study and offer their own recommendations.

According to Sanchez, the University will hope to hear back from the HLC regarding its accreditation status during the summer of 2012.

Students can contribute to the accreditation process by attending open fora throughout the year and provide their input on the self-study draft. Joseph said that when a team of HLC representatives come to campus, they will want to meet with groups of students. Sanchez said that students also have incentive to participate due to the investment they make in their college education.

“Whatever you’re paying to come to SLU, you should want to know what we understand our level of quality to be, how we assess ourselves, how others assess us and how we respond to those assessments,” Sanchez said.

Beyond accreditation, a self-study provides benefits to the University as a whole.

“I think it has encouraged us all to think more broadly and more inclusively about what we do and how we think about ourselves in the context of what these criteria mean to us all,” Joseph said. “And that’s developmental for all of us.”