Accreditation: The students’ role

I suspect that an email that arrived in students’ inboxes on Monday likely elicited a yawn and an instinctive move to click the “trash” button. That email alerted students to an external review happening this semester: The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), one of several regional accreditation agencies, is conducting its 10-year review of Macalester. The email — sent to you by Macalester on behalf of the HLC — asked you to answer a survey about your experiences at Mac.

Yes, another survey. You get a lot of them. But this one is particularly important, and I want to ask you to respond to it in the next few days.

What is accreditation and why does it matter?

Accreditation is the most comprehensive review that higher education institutions receive concerning how they operate, promote student learning and advance the public good. At its heart, accreditation is about making sure that Macalester serves its students well. So much so that the Federal Government ties accreditation to financial aid: only accredited colleges and universities can receive federal financial aid from students.

Based on documentation and a site visit, the HLC evaluates how Macalester is doing on the issues common to all colleges and universities: mission, institutional integrity, support for learning, assessment and efforts to improve the education we offer, and the adequacy of resources and planning. That isn’t everything, but it’s a lot. Being unhappy with a course you took last year isn’t an accreditation issue, but the quality of oversight — think, department chairs and the Provost — regarding courses is. Having a bad place on the sophomore room draw is not; the administration’s responsiveness to student concerns is. Accreditation is an opportunity to hear feedback from peers about what we’re doing well and what we could improve.

In November, a team of HLC peer reviewers will visit campus for two days. The reviewers will ask to meet with people from across campus: administration, faculty, staff and students. What’s more, in theory they could even stop you on the sidewalk as you walk to class: “Do you know what the college’s mission is? Do you feel that your voice is heard on campus? Is your learning being adequately supported by the institution?”

The chances that you will meet the accreditors, much less face a random interrogation as you head to class on a frosty morning, are very low.

But you can affirmatively choose to participate in the process, and I hope you do. If you haven’t responded to the survey that was emailed on Monday, please do. The link will expire after Monday (Sept. 16), so don’t delay. Second, later this month, all members of campus will have the opportunity to read Macalester’s “accreditation argument” responding to the dozens of criteria and sub-criteria — the “prompt” of sorts for our essay assignment. It might not make for scintillating reading, but if you’re interested, I will welcome your feedback.

Having waded through the college’s policies and procedures regarding all corners of campus, I believe Macalester is very well-positioned for our HLC review. Like any college, we are always facing issues to work on, but I know of few colleges that have a better culture of listening to one another, welcoming conversations and addressing concerns.

But that’s my view. Now is the time for the HLC to hear your voice.