Open Pathway Overview
North Iowa Area community College is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) through the Open Pathway is one of two options institutions have for maintaining their accreditation with HLC. It follows a 10-year cycle and is focused on quality assurance and institutional improvement. The Open Pathway is unique in that its improvement component, the Quality Initiative, affords institutions the opportunity to pursue improvement projects that meet their current needs and aspirations.
Criteria for Accreditation
The Criteria for Accreditation are the standards of quality by which HLC determines whether an institution merits accreditation or reaffirmation of accreditation. They are as follows:
The institution’s mission is clear and articulated publicly; it guides the institution’s operations.
1.A. The institution’s mission is articulated publicly and operationalized throughout the institution.
- The mission was developed through a process suited to the context of the institution.
- The mission and related statements are current and reference the institution’s emphasis on the various aspects of its mission, such as instruction, scholarship, research, application of research, creative works, clinical service, public service, economic development and religious or cultural purpose.
- The mission and related statements identify the nature, scope and intended constituents of the higher education offerings and services the institution provides.
- The institution’s academic offerings, student support services and enrollment profile are consistent with its stated mission.
- The institution clearly articulates its mission through public information, such as statements of purpose, vision, values, goals, plans or institutional priorities.
1.B. The institution’s mission demonstrates commitment to the public good.
- The institution’s actions and decisions demonstrate that its educational role is to serve the public, not solely the institution or any superordinate entity.
- The institution’s educational responsibilities take primacy over other purposes, such as generating financial returns for investors, contributing to a related or parent organization, or supporting external interests.
- The institution engages with its external constituencies and responds to their needs as its mission and capacity allow.
1.C. The institution provides opportunities for civic engagement in a diverse, multicultural society and globally connected world, as appropriate within its mission and for the constituencies it serves.
- The institution encourages curricular or cocurricular activities that prepare students for informed citizenship and workplace success.
- The institution’s processes and activities demonstrate inclusive and equitable treatment of diverse populations.
- The institution fosters a climate of respect among all students, faculty, staff and administrators from a range of diverse backgrounds, ideas and perspectives.
The institution acts with integrity; its conduct is ethical and responsible.
2.A. The institution establishes and follows policies and processes to ensure fair and ethical behavior on the part of its governing board, administration, faculty and staff.
- The institution develops and the governing board adopts the mission.
- The institution operates with integrity in its financial, academic, human resources and auxiliary functions.
2.B. The institution presents itself clearly and completely to its students and to the public.
- The institution ensures the accuracy of any representations it makes regarding academic offerings, requirements, faculty and staff, costs to students, governance structure and accreditation relationships.
- The institution ensures evidence is available to support any claims it makes regarding its contributions to the educational experience through research, community engagement, experiential learning, religious or spiritual purpose and economic development.
2.C. The governing board of the institution is autonomous to make decisions in the best interest of the institution in compliance with board policies and to ensure the institution’s integrity.
- The governing board is trained and knowledgeable so that it makes informed decisions with respect to the institution’s financial and academic policies and practices; the board meets its legal and fiduciary responsibilities.
- The governing board’s deliberations reflect priorities to preserve and enhance the institution.
- The governing board reviews the reasonable and relevant interests of the institution’s internal and external constituencies during its decision-making deliberations.
- The governing board preserves its independence from undue influence on the part of donors, elected officials, ownership interests or other external parties.
- The governing board delegates day-to-day management of the institution to the institution’s administration and expects the institution’s faculty to oversee academic matters.
2.D. The institution is committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression in the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.
2.E. The institution’s policies and procedures call for responsible acquisition, discovery and application of knowledge by its faculty, staff and students.
- Institutions supporting basic and applied research maintain professional standards and provide oversight ensuring regulatory compliance, ethical behavior and fiscal accountability.
- The institution provides effective support services to ensure the integrity of research and scholarly practice conducted by its faculty, staff and students.
- The institution provides students guidance in the ethics of research and use of information resources.
- The institution enforces policies on academic honesty and integrity.
The institution provides quality education, wherever and however its offerings are delivered.
3.A. The rigor of the institution’s academic offerings is appropriate to higher education.
- Courses and programs are current and require levels of student performance appropriate to the credential awarded.
- The institution articulates and differentiates learning goals for its undergraduate, graduate, post-baccalaureate, post-graduate and certificate programs.
- The institution’s program quality and learning goals are consistent across all modes of delivery and all locations (on the main campus, at additional locations, by distance delivery, as dual credit, through contractual or consortial arrangements, or any other modality).
3.B. The institution offers programs that engage students in collecting, analyzing and communicating information; in mastering modes of intellectual inquiry or creative work; and in developing skills adaptable to changing environments.
- The general education program is appropriate to the mission, educational offerings and degree levels of the institution. The institution articulates the purposes, content and intended learning outcomes of its undergraduate general education requirements.
- The program of general education is grounded in a philosophy or framework developed by the institution or adopted from an established framework. It imparts broad knowledge and intellectual concepts to students and develops skills and attitudes that the institution believes every college-educated person should possess.
- The education offered by the institution recognizes the human and cultural diversity and provides students with growth opportunities and lifelong skills to live and work in a multicultural world.
- The faculty and students contribute to scholarship, creative work and the discovery of knowledge to the extent appropriate to their offerings and the institution’s mission.
3.C. The institution has the faculty and staff needed for effective, high-quality programs and student services.
- The institution strives to ensure that the overall composition of its faculty and staff reflects human diversity as appropriate within its mission and for the constituencies it serves.
- The institution has sufficient numbers and continuity of faculty members to carry out both the classroom and the non-classroom roles of faculty, including oversight of the curriculum and expectations for student performance, assessment of student learning, and establishment of academic credentials for instructional staff.
- All instructors are appropriately qualified, including those in dual credit, contractual and consortial offerings.
- Instructors are evaluated regularly in accordance with established institutional policies and procedures.
- The institution has processes and resources for assuring that instructors are current in their disciplines and adept in their teaching roles; it supports their professional development.
- Instructors are accessible for student inquiry.
- Staff members providing student support services, such as tutoring, financial aid advising, academic advising and cocurricular activities, are appropriately qualified, trained and supported in their professional development.
3.D. The institution provides support for student learning and resources for effective teaching.
- The institution provides student support services suited to the needs of its student populations.
- The institution provides for learning support and preparatory instruction to address the academic needs of its students. It has a process for directing entering students to courses and programs for which the students are adequately prepared.
- The institution provides academic advising suited to its offerings and the needs of its students.
- The institution provides to students and instructors the infrastructure and resources necessary to support effective teaching and learning (technological infrastructure, scientific laboratories, libraries, performance spaces, clinical practice sites and museum collections, as appropriate to the institution’s offerings).
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.
4.A. The institution ensures the quality of its educational offerings.
- The institution maintains a practice of regular program reviews and acts upon the findings.
- The institution evaluates all the credit that it transcripts, including what it awards for experiential learning or other forms of prior learning, or relies on the evaluation of responsible third parties.
- The institution has policies that ensure the quality of the credit it accepts in transfer.
- The institution maintains and exercises authority over the prerequisites for courses, rigor of courses, expectations for student learning, access to learning resources, and faculty qualifications for all its programs, including dual credit programs. It ensures that its dual credit courses or programs for high school students are equivalent in learning outcomes and levels of achievement to its higher education curriculum.
- The institution maintains specialized accreditation for its programs as appropriate to its educational purposes.
- The institution evaluates the success of its graduates. The institution ensures that the credentials it represents as preparation for advanced study or employment accomplish these purposes. For all programs, the institution looks to indicators it deems appropriate to its mission.
4.B. The institution engages in ongoing assessment of student learning as part of its commitment to the educational outcomes of its students.
- The institution has effective processes for assessment of student learning and for achievement of learning goals in academic and cocurricular offerings.
- The institution uses the information gained from assessment to improve student learning.
- The institution’s processes and methodologies to assess student learning reflect good practice, including the substantial participation of faculty, instructional and other relevant staff members.
4.C. The institution pursues educational improvement through goals and strategies that improve retention, persistence and completion rates in its degree and certificate programs.
- The institution has defined goals for student retention, persistence and completion that are ambitious, attainable and appropriate to its mission, student populations and educational offerings.
- The institution collects and analyzes information on student retention, persistence and completion of its programs.
- The institution uses information on student retention, persistence and completion of programs to make improvements as warranted by the data.
- The institution’s processes and methodologies for collecting and analyzing information on student retention, persistence and completion of programs reflect good practice. (Institutions are not required to use IPEDS definitions in their determination of persistence or completion rates. Institutions are encouraged to choose measures that are suitable to their student populations, but institutions are accountable for the validity of their measures.)
The institution’s resources, structures, and processes are sufficient to fulfill its mission, improve the quality of its educational offerings, and respond to future challenges and opportunities.
5.A. Through its administrative structures and collaborative processes, the institution’s leadership demonstrates that it is effective and enables the institution to fulfill its mission.
- Shared governance at the institution engages its internal constituencies—including its governing board, administration, faculty, staff and students—through planning, policies and procedures.
- The institution’s administration uses data to reach informed decisions in the best interests of the institution and its constituents.
- The institution’s administration ensures that faculty and, when appropriate, staff and students are involved in setting academic requirements, policy and processes through effective collaborative structures.
5.B. The institution’s resource base supports its educational offerings and its plans for maintaining and strengthening their quality in the future.
- The institution has qualified and trained operational staff and infrastructure sufficient to support its operations wherever and however programs are delivered.
- The goals incorporated into the mission and any related statements are realistic in light of the institution’s organization, resources and opportunities.
- The institution has a well-developed process in place for budgeting and for monitoring its finances.
- The institution’s fiscal allocations ensure that its educational purposes are achieved.
5.C. The institution engages in systematic and integrated planning and improvement.
- The institution allocates its resources in alignment with its mission and priorities, including, as applicable, its comprehensive research enterprise, associated institutes and affiliated centers.
- The institution links its processes for assessment of student learning, evaluation of operations, planning and budgeting.
- The planning process encompasses the institution as a whole and considers the perspectives of internal and external constituent groups.
- The institution plans on the basis of a sound understanding of its current capacity, including fluctuations in the institution’s sources of revenue and enrollment.
- Institutional planning anticipates evolving external factors, such as technology advancements, demographic shifts, globalization, the economy and state support.
- The institution implements its plans to systematically improve its operations and student outcomes.
Guiding Values of Accreditation
For the purpose of accreditation, the Higher Learning Commission regards the teaching mission of any institution as primary.
A focus on student learning encompasses every aspect of students’ experience at an institution: how they are recruited and admitted; costs they are charged and how they are supported by financial aid; how well they are informed and guided before and through their work at the institution; the breadth, depth, currency and relevance of the learning they are offered; their education through cocurricular offerings; the effectiveness of their programs; and what happens to them after they leave the institution.
Every educational institution serves a public purpose. Public or state-supported institutions make that assumption readily. Not-for-profit institutions receive their tax-exempt status on the basis of an assumption that they serve a public purpose. And although it may appear that a for-profit institution does not require a public purpose, because education is a public good its provision serves a public purpose and entails societal obligations.
A contemporary education must recognize contemporary circumstances: the diversity of U.S. society, the diversity of the world in which students live, and the centrality of technology and the global dynamic to life in the 21st century. More than ever, students should be prepared for lifelong learning and for the likelihood that no job or occupation will last a lifetime. Even for the most technical qualification, students need the civic learning and broader intellectual capabilities that underlie success in the workforce
Continuous improvement is the alternative to stagnation. Minimum standards are necessary but far from sufficient to achieve acceptable quality in higher education, and the strongest institutions will stay strong through ongoing aspiration.
A process of assessment is essential to continuous improvement, and therefore a commitment to assessment should be deeply embedded in an institution’s activities. Assessment applies not only to student learning and educational outcomes but to an institution’s approach to improvement of institutional effectiveness.
Innovation is an aspect of improvement and essential in a time of rapid change and challenge; through its Criteria and processes HLC seeks to support innovation for improvement in all facets of institutional practice.
Assessment and the processes an institution learns from should be well grounded in evidence. Statements of belief and intention have important roles in an institution’s presentation of itself, but for the quality assurance function of accreditation, evidence is critical. Institutions should be able to select evidence based on their particular purposes and circumstances. At the same time, many of the Assumed Practices within the Criteria require certain specified evidence.
HLC understands integrity broadly, including wholeness and coherence at one end of the spectrum and ethical behavior at the other. Integrity means doing what the mission calls for and not doing what it does not call for; governance systems that are freely, independently and rigorously focused on the welfare of the institution and its students; scrupulous avoidance of misleading statements or practices; full disclosure of information to students before students make any commitment to the institution, even a commitment to receive more information; and clear, explicit requirements for ethical practice by all members of the institutional community in all its activities.
The well-being of an institution requires that its governing board place that well-being above the interests of its own members and the interests of any other entity. Because HLC accredits the educational institution itself, and not the state system, religious organization, corporation, medical center or other entity that may own it, it holds the governing board of an institution accountable for the key aspects of the institution’s operations. The governing board must have the independent authority for such accountability and must also hold itself independent of undue influence from individuals, be they donors, elected officials, supporters of athletics, shareholders, or others with personal or political interests.
Governance of a quality institution of higher education will include a significant role for faculty, in particular with regard to currency and sufficiency of the curriculum, expectations for student performance, qualifications of the instructional staff, and adequacy of resources for instructional support.
HLC does not privilege wealth. Students do expect, however, that an institution will be in operation for the duration of their degree programs. Therefore, HLC is obliged to seek information regarding an institution’s sustainability and, to that end, wise management of its resources. HLC also watches for signs that an institution’s financial challenges are eroding the quality of its programs to the point of endangering the institution’s ability to meet the Criteria. Careful mid- and long-range planning must undergird an institution’s budgetary and financial decisions.
HLC understands and values deeply the diversity of its institutions, which begins from the diversity of their missions. Accordingly, mission in some degree governs each of the Criteria. HLC holds many expectations for all institutions regardless of mission, but it expects that differences in mission will shape wide differences in how the expectations are addressed and met.
Peer review is the defining characteristic of accreditation and essential for a judgment-based process in a highly complex field. But self-regulation can be met with public skepticism. Therefore, peer review for accreditation must (1) be collegial, in the sense of absolute openness in the relationship between an institution and the peer reviewers assigned to it as well as between the institution and HLC; (2) be firm in maintaining high standards, not mistaking leniency for kindness or inclusiveness; and (3) be cognizant of the dual role of peer reviewers in both assuring and advancing institutional quality.