YSU to follow new path toward accreditation

To maintain accreditation, Youngstown State University must take a different path, Higher Learning Commission officials say.

The HLC, the accrediting agency for the Midwest, notified the YSU provost’s office that it would now need to seek such distinction through one of two new “pathways.”

Bege Bowers, associate provost at YSU, attended a conference about the new accreditation process last week in Chicago.

While there’s some flexibility as to how YSU can seek it, maintaining accreditation is mandatory.

“We must maintain institutional accreditation for YSU to be eligible for Title IV financial aid,” Bowers said.

YSU was first accredited by the HLC in 1945. Now, it is accredited through the HLC’s program to evaluate and advance quality, which is also known as PEAQ. Before the procedural change, YSU was scheduled to go through another two-year evaluation period in 2017-2018.

A three-year transition period for institutions already accredited in the PEAQ will begin in September.

Two new options exist for YSU: the “standard pathway” and the “open pathway.” YSU qualifies for the latter, as it has been accredited for more than 10 years.

To take the open pathway, the institution must not have experienced a massive overhaul in leadership in the previous two years, be free from commission monitoring or sanctions, and not experienced a “dynamic change,” such as large flux in enrollment, or openings or closings of campus buildings or branches, the open pathway booklet states.

According to the HLC’s website, the pathways were introduced in March.

“YSU is likely to choose the open pathway,” Bowers said.

She said this was a more flexible option, but not all universities meet the criteria for it.

The open pathway calls for two comprehensive evaluations in a 10-year cycle, in years four and 10. Accreditation-seeking bodies must submit annual reports, a project report and two assurance reports to the HLC, so progress can be monitored.

Bowers said this looks like a lot of work, but it’s simply different work.

“The assurance reports are electronic and limited to 35,000 words; there will be no more long, multivolume paper self-studies,” Bowers said.

“It will provide us relief from the enormous amount of paperwork through committees and self-studies,” said Ikram Khawaja, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Institutions must issue a proposal for a quality initiative and complete it in years five through nine. A QI is a large, campuswide project, which the HLC must approve before the university undertakes it.

“The project will involve substantial campus participation, must be judged by the HLC to be of significant scope and seriousness and must in some way focus on academic matters,” Bowers said.

The QI focuses “on institutional innovation and improvement,” the booklet states. Each university evaluates its greatest needs and addresses those problems through a QI.

Bowers said increasing retention and graduation rates are likely QI’s for YSU. She said YSU might incur additional costs in the process. However, as they’re similar goals, they’ll coincide with costs associated with adhering to the 2020 strategic plan.

“Alignment with the strategic plan makes perfect sense,” Khawaja said. “But what we [choose], I’m reluctant to identify.”

Jack Fahey, vice president for student affairs, has already been spearheading retention efforts.

“We’re already working on that stuff like crazy because it’s part of the strategic plan, and it’s the stuff we’re emphasizing,” Fahey said. “It’s a perfect project to pick for the HLC.”

“Succeeding in implementing goals and initiatives in the strategic plan will require adequate resources and would do so even if we were not participating in an accreditation project,” Bowers said.

Fahey is excited about the prospects of accreditation efforts aligning with existing university initiatives.

“The pressure’s already there. It certainly does give an increased impetus,” Fahey said. “It’s a really important reminder that we all need to be focused.”

No specific project has been isolated or discussed yet, but Bowers said the vice presidents who are presiding over those specific areas of the university would oversee the efforts.