Pittsburg State University will have an unusually high profile this weekend when thousands of representatives from colleges and universities gather in Chicago for the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association annual conference. Officials said this week that Pittsburg State will be represented in no fewer than seven presentations that will highlight the university's role as a "pioneer" in a new approach to accreditation.
The HLC accredits about 1,100 degree-granting post-secondary educational institutions in the North Central region of the U.S. In 2010, PSU was one of a handful of institutions selected by the HLC to help lead the way in a very different approach to accreditation.
"The commission was looking for institutions that were mature and stable," said PSU Provost Lynette Olson. "It really is quite an honor," Olson said.
Jan Smith, a professor of Psychology and Counseling and special assistant to the provost for HLC accreditation, said that although being a pioneering institution in change this sweeping involves considerable effort, it was something important for Pittsburg State to do.
"We liked where they were going and we wanted to be part of it," Smith said. "Also, in testing the new model, we get to have input."
Smith explained that the traditional approach to accreditation is based on an exhaustive self study followed by a site visit.
Bob Wilkinson, director of analysis, planning and assessment, said those self studies can take two to three years to complete and often run hundreds of pages. PSU completed its most recent self study in 2003, for which it received the maximum 10-year accreditation from the HLC.
The new model, which PSU is helping to pioneer, includes an "assurance" component, which is a much briefer document than the traditional self study. The new part of the accreditation process and the one that seems to get educators really excited is a component that focuses on an improvement "Pathway."
"The old approach uses a lot of resources to look backward and document what the institution has already accomplished," 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."
PSU's Pathway zeros in on student learning. One of the university's goals in the new process is to assess the general education core, which includes writing, math and communication. A second goal is to begin assessment of co-curricular learning, which is generally defined as student learning that takes place outside the classroom.
An HLC Accreditation Leadership Team is guiding the effort, Smith said, and broad-based committees across campus have done the early work. The team will host a series of brown bag sessions over the coming months to talk about specifics, including writing and math, communication, co-curricular learing and the use of e-portfolios.
"The Pathways Model is an ongoing process," Wilkinson said. "One of the things the HLC is interested in is how we sustain this over time."
At a recent meeting with faculty and staff, Provost Olson said the work goes beyond reaccreditation, which is required for any university to operate.
"It is ultimately about student learning," Olson said. "As an institution, we do care deeply about student learning. This is a rare opportunity for PSU to be a leader in a process that not only helps us improve student learning, but also has the potential to radically change university accreditation across the region."
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