By Way of Background: About Our Self-Study

Introduction: Why are we undertaking a self-study project?

The simple answer is “to maintain our Higher Learning Commission (HLC) accreditation.”  The purposeful answer is to “prove that we are advancing our mission, that we are true to our core values, and that we are achieving our strategic objectives by demonstrating how we meet the [Higher Learning] Commission’s criteria for accreditation.” (2011-12 Strategic Priorities Memo).

In the following document, we provide some background about the process, the Higher Learning Commission’s current effort to tune its criteria for accreditation and process to better serve its members, and our self-study project.

The Process of Voluntary Accreditation

The College of Wooster received its initial accreditation in 1915.  Colleges and universities in the United States are not required to be accredited; however, for prospective students, faculty, staff, as well as those who support an institution, accreditation provides assurance that the institution meets, and is expected to continue to meet, a set of criteria and requirements as defined by the accrediting organization.  In addition, the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies require an institution to be accredited to be eligible to participate in federally funded programs, most typically, federal student financial aid programs, and federal grant programs, such as those through the National Science Foundation, the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, and the National Institutes of Health.

After initial accreditation, institutions are expected to provide periodic updates to the accrediting organization.  Currently, the HLC requires Wooster to submit an “Institutional Data Update” annually and have its accreditation reaffirmed through a self-study and peer review process every ten years.   This is the last time we will do a traditional “10-year” self-study. In 2013, the HLC will implement a new accreditation process, “Pathways,” that will require more comprehensive annual data updates,  our preparing an “assurance argument” in the fourth year of the cycle that addresses the criteria for accreditation,  undertaking one or more “quality initiatives” and reporting to the HLC on the outcomes of the initiative, and then in the tenth year, preparing another “assurance argument” that will be reviewed by a visiting team similar to the current self-study process for reaffirming accreditation.

The Current HLC Process: The Program to Evaluate and Advance Quality (PEAQ)

Our self-study and reaffirmation of accreditation will follow the HLC’s current processes under its Program to Evaluate and Advance Quality (PEAQ).  The PEAQ process consists of five steps:

When PEAQ Process Step(from The HLC’s website:
Spring 2011- late Fall 2012 The organization engages in a self-study process for approximately two years and prepares a report of its findings in accordance with Commission expectations.
March/April 2013 The Commission sends a team of consultant-evaluators to conduct a comprehensive visit for continued accreditation and to write a report containing the team’s recommendation.
Summer 2013 The documents relating to the comprehensive visit are reviewed by a Readers Panel or, in some situations, a Review Committee.The Institutional Actions Committee (IAC) takes action on the Readers Panel’s recommendation. (If a Review Committee reviewed the visit, the Review Committee takes action.)The HLC’s Board of Trustees validates the IAC or Review Committee, finalizing the action.

Our Preparations for the Reaffirmation Process

Our preparations for self-study began in late fall 2010 with the appointment of the co-chairs for the self-study.  We each come to the role with differing experiences with accreditation processes, the HLC, Wooster’s accreditation history, and knowledge of the College.  So that we could design a self-study process that would serve Wooster well, demonstrate to the HLC that we have made good process since the 2002-03 visit, and meet the criteria for accreditation, we have:

  • Reviewed Wooster’s 2002-03 self-study, the visiting peer team’s report, the HLC’s recommendations, the monitoring report prepared by the College in response to the HLC’s recommendations, and the report of the focused visit which followed. Our introduction to the self-study will provide an update on recommendations noted in the 2002-03 and 2006 focused visit.
  • Reviewed the HLC’s Handbook of Accreditation to familiarize ourselves with the processes of self-study and peer review, the HLC’s expectations for an accredited institution, and the logistics of the reaffirmation process.
  • Conferred with our HLC staff liaison three times: an introductory conference call; a conference call to clarify the process and timeline, understand the implications of the HLC’s release of a major revision in its criteria for accreditation for our self-study and seek her guidance on how best to address the findings of the prior visit in the current self-study; and at the HLC Annual meeting.
  • Reviewed self-studies by other Wooster-like institutions that were completed in the last two years.
  • Visited Kenyon and Denison which recently completed self-studies and peer team visits.  We met with members of their self-study steering committees, seeking their guidance about process, composition of the steering committee, the self-study design, and effectively engaging the college community in their processes.
  • Attended the HLC Annual Meeting, participating in a two-day workshop on the PEAQ self-study process and learning about the new criteria for accreditation and new accreditation process and how both will have an impact on our self-study process.
  • Met with campus governance groups, Academic Department Chairs, and the Staff Committee to introduce the self-study.
  • Solicited volunteers and nominations of individuals to participate in the self-study, either as a member of the Steering Committee or of a Working Group.
  • From these volunteers and nominations, conferred with the President and Provost on likely members of the Steering Committee.
  • Developed a two-year budget for the self-study project and peer evaluators visit.
  • Recruited the Steering Committee; by the time of the Board meeting, the Steering Committee will have met formally three times.
  • Identified an area on campus to serve as “Self-Study Central” a place where we will have various non-electronic resources, staff support, and meeting and working areas for the working groups, Steering Committee, and co-chairs.
  • Attended summer HLC regional meetings to review and comment on a second draft of the proposed new criteria.
  • Met with members of the Steering Committee throughout the summer to begin review of the criteria and identify sources of evidence.

Unique Challenges for Our Self-Study

In March 2011, the HLC announced that it was revising the criteria for accreditation.  This came as a result of demands by the U.S. Department of Education and the HLC’s own self-study in preparation for its periodic review by the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. An “alpha” version of the new criteria was released in March.  Release of the “beta” version was to have occurred in early June 2012; it actually occurred in late July.  The final version is expected by late February 2012. Institutions scheduled for reaffirmation of accreditation visits after January 1, 2013 (Wooster) are required to either use the new criteria for their self-studies or “cross-walk” their self-studies to the new criteria.   Following our review of the new criteria, attending sessions at the recent HLC Annual Meeting and summer regional meeting, and conversations with our HLC staff liaison we have opted to proceed with our self-study following the “beta” version of the criteria. By doing this, we avoid the need to prepare a “crosswalk” document and we gain significant familiarity with the new criteria which will be the basis for our reaffirmation work in the future.

In April 2009, the HLC announced a new model for institutional continued accreditation, the “Pathways” model.  Wooster will move into the “Pathways” model immediately following the 2013 reaffirmation visit. Given this, we will be using the self-study process to position us to make the transition effortlessly.

The HLC anticipates an institution’s self-study will “fit the distinctive nature of the organization” and “ha[ve] an impact on the institution beyond the Commission visit…. ultimately connect[ing] to an organization’s ongoing visioning, budgeting, and planning processes.”[1]  Our Strategic Framework identifies the self-study process as a strategic initiative in support of our objective “to Sustain our Momentum for the Long Term” as it provides the opportunity for us to examine our efforts and progress towards our strategic objectives and begin to consider how our strategic initiatives are contributing to our progress.  The challenge this presents for us is how to weave together the HLC’s criteria for accreditation with our strategic objectives and initiatives in such a way that is clear and compelling for both the HLC and Wooster.  This will be part of our work in developing our self-study design and charges for our working groups.

Our Self-Study Plan & Organization

Our self-study plan will follow the HLC’s revised (“beta”) criteria, incorporating elements of the College’s strategic framework.  The self-study design could be considered a “comprehensive self-study with emphasis on the objectives of the College’s Strategic Framework.”

The co-chairs are responsible for oversight of the self-study process, facilitating the work of the Steering Committee and working groups, communicating and promoting the self-study with the campus community, ensuring the working groups are engaging with College governance groups and Cabinet members that have responsibilities in each of the criteria areas, and drafting the self-study document.

Steering Committee members are responsible for leading the efforts of the working groups of faculty, students, and staff that will examine, in depth, how well Wooster meets each of the criteria for accreditation.  Importantly, steering committee members are charged with taking a holistic view of the institution and the accreditation process. They will also help their teams to integrate the College’s strategic priorities into their work.

Each of the working groups will examine one of the criteria for accreditation in depth, using institutional data and information as “evidence” that Wooster meets HLC’s expectations. The working groups will be guided by a detailed set of questions related to the criteria and Wooster’s Strategic Framework.

The attached chart illustrates our self-study organization.

[1] The Higher Learning Commission, Handbook of Accreditation (version 1:03), Chapter 5, page 1.

Gary Gillund, Associate Professor of Psychology
Anne Nurse, Associate Professor of Sociology & Anthropology
Ellen Falduto, Chief Information & Planning Officer