By SAM STEPHENSON
The accreditation review team for Allegheny College of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, led by the president of Muhlenberg College, Dr. Randy Helm, presented the results of the extensive review to members of the Allegheny community on Wednesday, Feb. 20 and affirmed that the college would be reaccredited.
The MSCHE is a voluntary, non-governmental, membership association that is dedicated to quality assurance and improvement through accreditation through peer evaluation, according to its website.
“If you go back, one of the most important aspects of higher education is peer review,” President James Mullen said.
Mullen added that the peer-reviewed accreditation process is one of the great traditions of higher education and is something the college takes very seriously.
“The really great institutions embrace this because it is an opportunity to reflect on core initiatives and look in the mirror and see how you’re doing,” Mullen said.
The accreditation process involves a review and documentation of compliance of 14 standards that resemble characteristics of excellence in higher education. The standards are broken up into two categories with seven standards within them: institutional context and educational effectiveness. The individual standards are what the review team uses to evaluate the college. The standards range from Mission and Goals, Institutional Resources, Leadership and Governance, to Faculty, Educational Offerings, General Education and Assessment of Student Learning.
Colleges are accredited every 10 years with a check-in review every five. Rick Holmgren, director of the steering committee and Allegheny’s chief information officer, managed and led Allegheny’s effort in releasing a 97-page self-study of the college.
“What’s important is the value of the degree that you’re earning,” Holmgren said. “On the one hand, the learning is valuable whether you get a degree or not. But the value of the degree won’t be accepted if it’s not from an accredited institution. Number one, it makes your degree valuable, its essentially worthless without it. That’s a big deal.”
The self-study is a self-analysis of the college that looks at retention and graduation, curricular and program alignment and department and program self-study.
“The process that we go through is the self-study where we step away and we say, ‘where do we think we want to focus our particular attention?’” Mullen said. “We did a ‘selected topics’ self-study, which meant we really picked areas where we really wanted to zero in on, not that the overall operations of the college aren’t important, we have to explain what we’re doing there, but we really wanted to zero in on these special topics as well.”
Though the document might be dense and lengthy, for students, understanding the self-study will show that college is actively and internally trying to better itself.
“From a student perspective, if you were going to take a look at the actual self-study document, the recommendations that we make to ourselves I think might be the most interesting because one, we have a strategic plan that we are following, and two we have some strategies to actually get there,” said Sue Gaylor, executive vice president.
Some of these recommendations that Gaylor is talking about involve aligning the college’s marketing message with the college’s culture in order to enhance and leverage students’ identification and connection with the college. Other recommendations include enhancing first and second-year advising and establishing retention as a shared responsibility.
The review team met with different student groups on campus including ASG, a group of seniors, peer tutors and a selection of student athletes.
One of the statistics of the self-study’s retention and graduation chapter lists the most recent first-year class of Allegheny having a 64.9 percent acceptance rate.
“I actually don’t think acceptance rate is a good measure [of a strong institution],” Holmgren said. “A better measure is how many kids graduate and what is required of them to graduate.”
A statistic that Holmgren cites as being a better indication of the quality of an institution is found in the National Survey of Student Engagement. For the college’s enhanced speaking and writing skills, Allegheny students rated their learning experience and retention information well above the standard comparison group of schools. A group that according to Holmgren has schools that have much lower acceptance rates than Allegheny.
The accreditation process has the ability to drastically shapes a school’s mission if the review team sees a deficiency or someplace where a school needs improvement.
“Accreditation, as a process, has teeth,” Mullen said. “There are various things that they can say: they can commend you for what you’re doing, they can make recommendations, which often will align with the recommendations we’ve made for ourselves but they can make recommendations beyond that. They can in certain cases if they see something that they particularly focused on they can require you to take steps.”
The accreditation review team gave its presentation on Wednesday in Ford Chapel and reported that Allegheny has met all 14 standards. The board commended Allegheny college in nine of the 14 standards, specifically commending the school on dedicated faculty and students and the new Gateway program.
Along with the commendations, they also left the school with 12 non-binding suggestions, six of those in the structures and processes of the school.
The rest of the process will take several months for the school to get its official accreditation. The self-study process for Holmgren, a faculty member who has worked at Allegheny for more than 20 years in various positions including an associate professor of mathematics, affirmed the success of Allegheny College.
“One of the things that I have found in doing this kind of work and some of the other work that I do is that Allegheny is, without question, one of the best colleges in the country,” Holmgren said.