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Institutions of higher education in the U.S. seek accreditation through two types of accreditation agencies, institutional and specialized. Institutional accreditation agencies are classified as regional and national.
There are six regions of the U.S. in which the regional agencies operate. Regional
accreditation validates the quality of an institution as a whole and evaluates multiple
aspects of an institution ranging from its academic offerings, governance and administration,
mission, finances, and resources.
The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) is UW’s regional accreditation agency. It accredits degree-granting institutions of higher education across 19 states in the North Central region of the United States. Institutions that HLC accredits are evaluated against HLC’s Criteria for Accreditation, a set of standards that institutions must meet to receive and/or maintain accredited status. Accreditation from HLC allows UW to offer academic programs that are eligible for Title IV funding – that is, federal financial aid. This means our regional accreditation is absolutely critical to our ability to offer robust, rigorous academic programs to students.
HLC’s Criteria for Accreditation reflect a set of guiding values. The accreditation process is based on a system of peer review. Approximately 1,300 educators from institutions of higher education serve as peer reviewers conducting accreditation evaluations for other institutions. Peer reviewers also serve on committees that make up the decision-making bodies of the accreditation process.
UW’s accreditation by the HLC dates back to 1915. Our last re-accreditation visit was in 2009, when we were accredited for 10 years. Upon completion of that re-accreditation cycle, UW was admitted by HLC to the Open Pathway to re-accreditation, featuring a 10-year reaffirmation cycle where quality assurance and quality improvement are both addressed. This requires UW to provide to HLC with annual updates on institutional programs, locations, and finances, a major quality improvement project effort (QIP) conducted midway through our re-accreditation cycle addressing an bold goal, and a comprehensive quality assurance report supported by direct evidence, called the Assurance Argument, at the end of our accreditation cycle, supporting the peer review visit. The full cycle for the Open Pathway allows us to treat accreditation not as a one-time event, but an opportunity to assure institutional quality for our students on an on-going basis, and to continuously improve in alignment with our strategic plan and land-grant mission.
In 2015, UW submitted our QIP proposal to HLC. Our QIP proposal focused upon the implementation of our First Year Seminar (FYS), which was at that time newly-formulated as part of our new general education University Studies Program. Our QIP proposal was the establishment and implementation of the FYS. This included developing and offering enough FYS sections, within one year, that met the learning outcomes approved by the Faculty Senate; gathering data on the implementation of the FYS from faculty and students; and analyzing the project’s implementation, making adjustments to emerging problems and providing for FYS-system corrections in real time. Our project report was submitted to HLC in January of 2017, and accepted and approved by HLC in March of 2017.
Now, we’ve arrived at the time when we need to be planning and preparing for the final stage of our 10-year Open Pathway – the comprehensive site visit, supported by the Assurance Argument and evidence.
Description of UW’s HLC Assurance Argument and Federal Compliance Filing Preparation
The Assurance Argument, which UW will have completed in draft form by July of 2019, is a chance for UW to tell our story – the HLC wants us to tell them honestly and frankly what we are doing well and should be proud of, and what we may need to improve upon with respect to accreditation criteria. The format of the Assurance Argument is defined by HLC:
“In the Assurance Argument, the institution demonstrates how it meets each Criterion and Core Component. For each Criterion, the institution offers:
The Assurance Argument will link to materials the institution uploads to its Evidence File to further support its narrative for each Criterion and Core Component.”
To prepare to write this Assurance Argument, we must first gather our Evidence File. The HLC Ops Working Group, a small UW task force, will be reaching out to departments, colleges, non-academic and academic units - the entire UW community – to gather evidence for our Evidence File. The campuses in Laramie and Casper, as well as our statewide UW staff and faculty, can expect the Ops Working Group to be contacting them multiple times in AY 2018-19 with several requests for evidence, announcements of activities that will solicit evidence, and contests to try to inspire the UW community to participate.
The Federal Compliance Filing is less free-form, more data driven. Multiple parts of campus can expect to hear from the Federal Compliance Report Working Group in AY 2018-19 and beyond as they solicit data and other evidence for the filing.
Description of HLC Peer Review Team Visit:
In November of 2019, the UW campus will host a peer review team as part of our HLC reaccreditation process. The peer reviewers, who are faculty and administrators at other universities and trained by HLC, will visit Wyoming around November 16-20 (dates will be confirmed later). The peer review team will meet with several groups of faculty, students, staff, alumni, Trustees, and other stakeholders. They will visit both the Laramie and Casper campuses, and about a month prior to their arrival, we will provide them with a 35,000 word report called the Assurance Argument, supported by an Evidence File, as well as a separate Federal Compliance Filing. The Assurance Argument makes available in our Evidence File, and references throughout the Argument, direct evidence of how we meet HLC Accreditation Criteria and each subcomponent (“Core Component”) of the criteria. The Federal Compliance Filing is a data-driven report specifically designed to answer criteria mandated by the U.S. Department of Education and other relevant federal agencies as well as numerous federal laws.
The peer review team is not a group of auditors. They are, like us, people who work in higher education and care deeply about student success and the creative, scholarly work our faculty do. Just as your scholarly work is peer reviewed for quality, the peer reviewers are here to learn about us. They are extensively trained in the HLC criteria and federal compliance requirements, but their full time jobs are as academics or administrators. Don’t be afraid of them!
The peer reviewers will ask us a lot of questions – not just administrators, and not just Academic Affairs, but EVERYONE. They will ask all of us questions about our mission, how we meet the HLC criteria, and our evidence. They will want to see – upfront and while they are here – a lot of evidence that we live our mission, and that our mission aligns with the criteria. We will prepare the campus to be good hosts, and to share all the information the peer reviewers need.