East Central College

With its “on notice” status behind it, East Central College officials already are planning for the school’s next accreditation-related visit in 2022.

The ECC Board of Trustees approved a new five-year strategic plan, SOAR to 2024, in August 2019. The plan featured a new mission and vision for the college, as well as a new set of values.

The development of the strategic plan was a key component of the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) removing the “on notice” sanction June 30, taking away the risk of being found in noncompliance. The commission oversees accreditation criteria for colleges and universities in the north central United States.

HLC’s next comprehensive evaluation visit is scheduled for April 18-19, 2022. It last visited in November 2019, as part of the process for removing the sanction.

Accreditation is needed for ECC to be eligible for federal funding like Pell grants and transfer credits and also serves as a mark of quality education and service within the community, Robyn Walter, ECC vice president of academic affairs, told the board of trustees at its Monday, Oct. 5, meeting.

“Obviously, it is of strategic importance for us to maintain our accreditation and continue our efforts toward full accreditation,” Walter said.

The college is working on a timeline leading up to the visit, Walter said.

“We were a little thrown off with COVID in the spring,” she said. “I think we’re back on track.”

Walter said the college does have a couple areas that it will need to continue to work on, but those will be addressed in the 2022 visit. ECC’s assessment system was among them.

“It’s too new for faculty to use, and we’re in the process of data collection,” Walter said. “So they wanted to see this a little bit more advanced.”

ECC’s co-curricular was the other area of concern.

“They felt we were on the right track with that, but again we were in the development stage,” she said. “But all other components, they felt like we met and we were right on track.”

Accreditation Process

ECC is on a 10-year accreditation cycle, or standard pathway. It was assigned that pathway because it is not eligible for the other designation, open pathway, because of the earlier sanction. The 2022 visit will be ECC’s first of two in the 10-year cycle, with the other in the final year.

A major difference is the open pathway designation doesn’t include the fourth-year on-campus visit, which ECC will have in 2022. Another focus visit, similar to the one HLC did last year, could be needed in the next few years depending on what happens in the 2022 visit.

ECC work teams are now reviewing the five criteria for accreditation, including mission, integrity and resources, planning and institutional effectiveness. The other two criteria are both under “teaching and learning.” The first of those considers whether an institution is providing “high quality education, wherever and however its offerings are delivered.”

The other teaching and learning criteria is “evaluation and improvement.” HLC said that means the institution “demonstrates responsibility for the quality of its educational programs, learning environments, and support services, and it evaluates their effectiveness for student learning through processes designed to promote continuous improvement.”

“This is a set of practices shared by all institutions of higher education,” Walter said.

Compliance with federal standards in areas like Title IV and Title IX also is considered.

Preparing for the Visit

ECC also will seek input from the community and HLC will provide a survey for students to give their opinions leading up to the visit.

“We have working groups evaluating and providing for and helping our team,” Walter said. “We look to see where we are, where we need to improve and how to document our evidence that we are meeting this criteria.”

Along with Walter, Dr. Michelle Smith, ECC’s executive director of institutional effectiveness, and Jennifer Higerd, fine and performing arts department chair, are serving as tri-chairs for the accreditation effort.

“The main role for the three of us is to provide leadership and support to the selected work teams,” Walter said.

They also communicate regularly with the board, college president, a steering committee and others on campus, Walter said.

The primary goal on the timeline currently is gathering evidence to show ECC is meeting all the criteria, Higerd said. The school plans to look at addressing any issues that come up while gathering evidence during the spring semester.

ECC will prepare its first draft of its assurance argument in summer and fall 2021.

The final draft will be due in October 2021, with a mock HLC visit using officials from another college planned the following month.

After the April 2022 visit, ECC expects to get official notice of how the visit went in July 2022.