August 24, 2010 12:00AM
Pittsburg State University finds itself on the leading edge of a trend that could revolutionize how universities across the U.S. are accredited. At its core, this new approach attempts to provide a more meaningful measure of quality improvement.
Jan Smith, a professor of Psychology and Counseling and the recently named special assistant to the provost for HLC accreditation, said the HLC recently selected PSU and 13 other colleges and universities as "pioneers" who will participate in a pilot project that dramatically changes the path to accreditation.
The HLC was looking for institutions that were mature and stable, according to PSU Provost Lynette Olson.
"It really is quite an honor," Olson said.
The traditional model, which has been in place for many decades, requires universities to conduct an institutional self-study - a labor-intensive process that takes two to three years. The process culminates in a site visit, at which evaluators from other HLC member institutions examine the evidence and prepare a report that may recommend accreditation and/or actions that the university must take to remain accredited.
"The old approach uses a lot of resources to look backward and document what the institution has already done," said PSU President Steve Scott. "One of the attractive things about this new model is that while it uses the data to document that the university has lived up to the standards set by the Higher Learning Commission, it then looks forward and directs the university's efforts toward doing meaningful work for the institution and its students."
Smith, along with Bob Wilkinson, director of analysis, planning and assessment, serve as liaisons between PSU and the HLC for the Pathways project.
The pilot program in which PSU and the other pioneers are participating involves two components. In the first, data will still be collected to demonstrate each university's compliance with the association's standards. That is called the assurance phase. As a pioneer institution in this phase, PSU will be teamed with a consultant and two institutions that have already used electronic resource rooms for the traditional process. To date, PSU is the only pioneer university to work on the assurance part.
The second component -- the one that PSU officials get excited about -- is a self-improvement "pathway" that includes projects or themes selected by each institution and approved by a peer team. A peer team will then judge each university on how they have carried out their plan.
For its self-improvement pathway, PSU has chosen to work at assessing and improving student learning.
"We chose assessing and improving student learning because these are issues that have been important to us for a long time," Wilkinson said. "This is an excellent fit with Pittsburg State University's mission and character."
Provost Olson agreed, saying that the new accreditation effort has the potential to not only improve the educational experience students receive at PSU, but to also enhance the university's reputation as an education leader.
"As an institution, we do care deeply about student learning and this is a rare opportunity to be part of a process that not only helps us improve student learning, but also has the potential to radically change university accreditation," Olson said.
Smith said that PSU's pathway to improved student learning begins with looking at the core of the general education curriculum and assessing relevant co-curricular programs including Career Services, First-Year Programs and University Counseling Services. The general education areas of writing, math and communication will receive scrutiny first, under the plan.
Broad-based groups such as a writing task force and a general education task force will do the initial work. Smith said the goal is to complete the pathway by 2013.
"There is a lot of work to do," Smith said, "But I sense genuine enthusiasm as student learning is a core value that is shared across campus."