Core courses a focus in accreditation reaffirmation

Baldwin Wallace has achieved its reaccreditation.

Last semester, the school underwent an extensive evaluation by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), an independent organization that oversees the accreditation of over 1,000 colleges and universities. The evaluation, which the school completes every ten years, included an in-depth self-study by BW and culminated in a site visit last September where peer reviewers from five comparable institutions spent a day and a half on BW’s campus.

Accreditation is essential to BW, said President Robert Helmer. If the school were to lose its accreditation, not only would students be ineligible to receive federal financial aid, but credits earned at BW could be rejected by any undergraduate or graduate schools.

The final report, which BW received on Dec. 15, determined whether the school met the HLC’s five criteria for accreditation. While BW met the criteria, the HLC called attention to three areas of concern—the continuation of the assessment of the new undergraduate core, the formal review of co-curricular programs, and the creation of a graduate student culture—that will need to be addressed in an Assurance Review, a part of the reaccreditation cycle that occurs four years after the year of the site visit.

Provost Steve Stahl said that there were “no surprises” for BW in the final report. He said that each of the HLC’s areas of concern were areas that the school knew needed improvement.

“The report could not have been better for us because all of the things we think we need to work on are the things they put out there,” said Stahl.

One area of concern was the continuation of the assessment of the new core, which Stahl said was adopted about two years ago.

“I think students will have a tough time noticing the change in the core because many of the courses look the same, but the courses are now not grouped around what department they’re in, but rather learning objectives,” said Stahl.

The core now includes six Undergraduate Learning Outcomes (ULOs): communication (written and oral), critical thinking, quantitative literacy, cultural knowledge and competence, civic engagement and a sixth that demonstrates the depth of knowledge in the student’s particular major. The HLC’s concern was that each of the ULOs had not yet been assessed at the time of reaccreditation. Dr. Susan Warner Taylor, director of institutional research and assessment at BW, said that this is because the university cycles through the assessment of the 5 university-level ULOs every three years with an event called “Assessment-Palooza.”

In the first “Assessment-Palooza,” held last May, about 40 faculty members were brought together to assess the written communication ULO. During the day-long event, the faculty applied a standardized rubric to 240 samples of “student artifacts”—student papers ranging from FYE courses to senior capstone projects— in order to determine both how student writing at BW compares to its peer institutions and how student writing progressed from freshman year to senior year.

Warner Taylor said that the event was a fun way to gain valuable assessment data.

“It was a very interesting experience with the faculty,” said Warner Taylor. “They really enjoyed it.”

Another of the HLC’s areas of concern was the review of co-curricular programs. Co-curricular programs, differentiated from academic programs, are student services from a range of areas including academic advising, housing, buildings and grounds, and athletics. While BW has an extensive review process for academic programs that includes feedback from external reviewers, there currently isn’t a standard or formal review process for co-curricular programs.

Stahl said that because the school has spent the last few years adjusting the academic review process, it is the “natural evolution” to shift the focus to co-curriculars. While there has been some assessment of these programs, he wants to see a more formal review process that includes an external review of those programs.

“Everybody needs to see themselves from off-campus eyes,” said Stahl.

The third area of concern for the HLC was the creation of a graduate student culture at BW. Full-time graduate students are a relatively recent addition to the BW community, said Stahl; until about six years ago, BW’s only graduate programs were part-time. Since the graduate offerings have expanded greatly in the past few years, the HLC would like to see BW create a culture that unifies graduate students across disciplines, said Warner Taylor.

The HLC was not specific regarding what steps BW needs to take in order to create a graduate student culture. Warner Taylor said that this could include anything from a graduate-specific handbook and course catalog to a graduate student council.

“They want us to show that all of the services that we provide for our undergraduates are also available for our graduate students,” said Warner Taylor. “Whatever that might mean, we get to define.”

Stahl said that the creation of a graduate student culture is something new for BW.

“For us, it is a fundamental switch because we have always been focused primarily on the undergraduates,” said Stahl. “Now, the scale of things is such that we always will, but we have to carve out a way of doing this for our graduate students.”

Each of these areas of concerns will be addressed in the Year 4 Assurance Review, a standard part of a school’s accreditation cycle. In the HLC’s draft report, received at the end of November, the HLC originally wanted a 2-year progress report on the three concerns, but they accepted BW’s request to include them instead in the 4 year report to ensure they had the time to address these concerns using best practices.

The 4 year review itself is a relatively new component of the 10-year accreditation cycle, said Warner Taylor. It will require a similar in-depth self-study that BW completed for the 10 year review, but will not include a site visit.

“Typically, after a site visit like this, you take a deep breath and say, ‘Okay, glad that’s over. I don’t have to do that again for ten more years,’” said Warner Taylor. “But this time — and this is what HLC wants — they don’t want us to take a break from doing this kind of work. That’s why this four-year review is now part of everybody’s process.”

Stahl said BW is always looking for ways to improve whether or not the HLC is watching.

“We didn’t write the HLC report for them, we wrote it for us,” said Stahl. “Our mission is continual improvement.”