Follow Evidence on Path to Accreditation

The college conducts a deep self-study
in preparation for reaccreditation, a form of quality control supported by evidence and data.

by Elaine J. Lambert, director of College Information and Community Relations.

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Look beneath the "stamp of approval" that comes with accreditation, and you will find a rigorous investigation of the academic programs and services provided by today's colleges and universities.

"Accrediting bodies throughout the U.S. are looking closely at the academic rigor and quality of colleges' and universities' educational programs," said Elizabeth L. Meyer, co-chair of Pennsylvania College of Technology's accreditation self-study team. "As the federal government (and, consequently, U.S. taxpayers) become more involved in providing financial assistance through student grants and loans, taxpayers want assurance that the money really is helping people to learn and to acquire useful skills."

Self-study + Peer review + Public awareness

Penn College is accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, an agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

The Madigan Library is one example of improvements initiated by accreditation self-studies. Photo by The Wild Studio.The institution received its first accreditation – as Williamsport Area Community College – in December 1970. Every 10 years, the college undergoes an internal review that begins the reaffirmation process, conducting an extensive self-study and hosting a visit by a team of external evaluators that seeks evidence – by examining documents and speaking directly to students, faculty and staff – that the college meets the commission's standards. Every five years, the institution reports on its progress by submitting a Periodic Review Report to the commission.

Veronica M. Muzic, who has been active in accreditation activities since the 1980s, called the process of accreditation "a form of quality control."

Muzic retired in 2006 as vice president for academic affairs and provost; she now serves as special assistant to the president for academic affairs and chairs the current instruction and outcomes study group.

"As the federal government (and, consequently, U.S. taxpayers) become more involved in providing financial assistance through student grants and loans, taxpayers want assurance that the money really is helping people to learn and to acquire useful skills."

"Being required to take a close look at what we do and how and why we do it is healthy for any organization – as well as for all humans," she suggested.

She said that when the "close look" requires facts supported by data and evidence (as it does for an accreditation self-study), there is an opportunity for organizations to find gaps in performance or uncover information that could be used to support future decision-making.

Muzic and Meyer became collaborators in self-study activity when Meyer joined the human services faculty in 1990. At that time, Muzic chaired the self-study steering committee, and Meyer served on a study group examining issues related to diversity.

Both women point to the campus library as an example of how the self-study process might influence the institution's future. The 1990-92 self-study recommended an increase in funding for library services. The next self-study, in 2000-02, called for strengthening the emphasis on information literacy collegewide.

Joseph M. Van Noy, who received a bachelor's degree in electronics and computer engineering technology in May, adjusts frequencies in the college's hands-on laboratories. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.These recommendations were fulfilled with the opening of the 104,000-square-foot, 1,000-seat Madigan Library in 2006. The 2007 Periodic Review Report demonstrated that the information literacy initiative had been successfully implemented.

Steering committee Co-Chair Tom Gregory, associate vice president for instruction, who served as co-chair for 2002 reaccreditation and 2007 Periodic Review Report activities, cites the college's internal governance system as another example of progress inspired by accreditation. At one time, the president appointed most committees on campus. Now, for nearly three decades – resulting from a recommendation in the 1980 accreditation self-study – internal governance provides opportunities for elected and appointed faculty, staff and students to serve on committees and on College Council, making recommendations and reports to the administration.

The first letter of accreditation

Letter to college President Kenneth E. Carl dated Dec. 7, 1970 – announcing initial accreditation.

"If the self-study is done thoroughly, and if an institution's leadership is open to identifying areas for improvement – as Penn College's leadership is – then the study groups' findings invariably identify changes that will improve and strengthen the institution," Meyer said. "Perhaps the most important benefit is that the self-study process makes the institution a better organization – for students to achieve their goals, for employees to find meaningful work, and for employers and communities to profit from graduates' knowledge and abilities."

While the term "self-study" might suggest an opportunity to slant evidence in the institution's favor, the commission – spurred by heightened interest from taxpayers and lawmakers – carefully scrutinizes institutional data. The team visit validates the institution's compliance with the 14 standards that form the basis for the self-study. Those standards are applied to all colleges and universities in the "Middle States" region. Gregory identified a number of "hot topics" now in focus for regional accrediting agencies, including:

  • Growth in distance learning and the integrity needed to assure quality in these unique offerings
  • Credit-hour definitions (because financial aid is awarded on the basis of the number of credit hours a student takes)
  • Transparency in communicating costs, as well as retention, graduation and placement rates, to the public
  • Ease with which students may transfer credits to and from an institution
  • Assessment of student learning outcomes
  • Use of assessment in planning and resource allocation
  • Any significant institutional changes, such as those in degree offerings, campus locations, and/or ownership

The ultimate price an institution might pay for an unfavorable review – failure to gain reaccreditation – could mean the loss of government-supported financial aid for its students. In an era when most students rely on this aid to meet college costs, this could have a severe impact on an institution's enrollment.

Amy E. Vanderwall received a bachelor's degree in nursing in May. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel.While it is uncommon for an institution to lose its bid for reaccreditation, even less severe sanctions from the commission are cause for concern. The road back into compliance with commission standards could require the institution to spend significant time and resources to initiate improvements, complete follow-up reports and host return visits.

Self-study is key to the reaccreditation process, and full participation from faculty, staff and students enhances the integrity of the self-study. Meyer said that more than 60 individuals, representing all areas of the campus, directly participated in study groups and steering committee activities for the current self-study. Many others responded to requests for information and channeled suggestions to the groups.

Five study groups identified and reported evidence of the college's ability to satisfy accreditation standards related to mission, planning and resources; institutional leadership; integrity and faculty; instruction and outcomes; and student admissions and support. A steering group, co-chaired by Meyer and Gregory and comprising leaders of the five groups, is ultimately responsible for completing the self-study report.

"Being required to take a close look at what we do and how and why we do it is healthy for any organization – as well as for all humans."

In January 2010, after an all-college meeting with the president, faculty and staff took part in exercises to identify institutional strengths and areas of concern. Small-group activities led to lively discussions that helped structure the more in-depth self-study group investigation of issues that followed.

During and after a January 2011 all-college meeting, additional feedback was collected from faculty and staff through a variety of media – including text messages, online blogs and the more traditional paperwork, conversations and meetings – to enhance the work of the study groups.

A "Design Document for Self-Study," published in April 2010 and available online at oca.pct.edu/ms, describes the process for collecting and reporting information. It includes the accrediting agency's "characteristics of excellence," as well as charges to and questions for the study groups, and sources of relevant information to be used in the review process. The commission staff reviews the document, which guides the work of the study groups, as an early step in the process.

In February, Penn College will present the self-study report, along with supporting material necessary for the visiting team to determine compliance, to the commission.

When external evaluators visit the campus in April, they will look for evidence – in electronic and paper documentation, ranging from faculty résumés to course abstracts to standard publications – to confirm what was reported in the self-study.

Steering Committee Chairs

  • Elizabeth L. Meyer faculty, applied human services
  • Tom Gregory associate vice president for instruction

Study Group Chairs

Mission, Planning and Resources
  • William J. Martin senior vice president
  • Eugene M. McAvoy dean of academic services and first year programs
Institutional Leadership
  • Gerri F. Luke faculty, business administration/management and marketing
  • Lisette N. Ormsbee director of the Madigan Library
Integrity and Faculty
  • Nancy A. Grausam faculty, education and early childhood education
  • Daniel L. Brooks faculty, architectural technology
  • Mary Jo Saxe faculty, dental hygiene
Instruction and Outcomes
  • Veronica M. Muzic special assistant to the president for academic affairs
  • Kathleen V. McNaul advisement center specialist II
Student Admissions and Support
  • Carolyn R. Strickland assistant vice president for academic services
  • Elliott Strickland Jr. chief student affairs officer

Team members – faculty and administrators from colleges and universities outside Pennsylvania – will review documentation and meet with Penn College administrators, faculty, staff and students to verify claims made in the self-study report.

John M. Anderson, president of Alfred State College, SUNY College of Technology, chairs the visiting team. He will visit campus in October to review the self-study draft and meet with campus representatives.

According to Gregory, the team visit in April will include an intense round of tours, interviews, meetings and document reviews. The team will issue a final report – typically in an open meeting – before leaving campus. A written report to the commission will follow. The final official action will occur in June, when the commission hears the team chair's summary and team's recommendation. The commission then announces its action. Reaffirmation of the accreditation is the desired outcome.

The Madigan Library provides comprehensive services in the form of study space and resources. Photo by Katelyn E. Koch.Gregory, Muzic, Meyer and other Penn College faculty and administrators – including President Davie Jane Gilmour, Senior Vice President William J. Martin, Vice President for Information Technology and Business Process Improvement Jim Cunningham and recently retired Vice President for Business Operations Robert M. Fisher – served recently on visiting Middle States accreditation teams.

"The best feature of participating in a team visit is the opportunity to get a close-up view of other institutions' inner workings," Gregory said. "Each has strengths and weaknesses that invite comparison to our own institutions, and we have the opportunity to reflect on our own processes each time we visit another organization."

Meyer said that the opportunity to do an in-depth review of what happens on other campuses leaves her with a feeling of gratitude.

"Administrative support for our majors, the congenial relationships among college employees, the leadership of the institution, our students – all compare to other institutions and come out way ahead. I really do feel fortunate to teach here," she said.

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