The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) will visit Harding in late April 2019 for a four-year accreditation review visit, following up on the university’s improvement upon learning outcomes assessments, which were noted by the commission during reviews in 2015 and 2017.
Julie Hixson-Wallace, vice president for accreditation and institutional effectiveness, said that when the HLC visited the university for a 10-year visit in 2015, they asked the university to submit a written interim report in 2017 for review on strategic planning and budgeting, faculty and staff diversity and learning outcomes assessment.
“Because we had some items they wanted us to follow up on, 2017 came and we gave a report from there,” Hixson-Wallace said. “They said, ‘OK, when you have your 2019 visit, then you need to have an embedded report on learning outcomes assessment.’”
Previously, the university gave departments and colleges a large portion of control over defining and measuring learning outcomes, but an attempt to not micromanage the processes left the learning outcomes measurement falling short, according to Hixson-Wallace.
“I think we’ve learned over time that more direction — and more structure and being more systematic — would be more helpful,” Hixson-Wallace said. “We felt like that might place limits on people in individual areas and that they might feel like we were imposing too much upon how they wanted to do assessment. But in letting, to some extent, people have freedom to do it how they want, it splinters the process. So, we really have tried to focus more on taking some of that responsibility back to a central location.”
Learning outcomes, whether students realize it or not, Hixson-Wallace said, play a large role in the day-to-day academic experiences of students. After their visit with the HLC in 2015, they developed eight university learning outcomes, defining skills in which students should leave Harding feeling competent. The outcomes include skill sets such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and quantitative abilities.
“As a student, we would hope that you could say, ‘If I truly looked at what my critical thinking and communication and these kind of basic skills were [when I started at Harding], and then look at how they are at the end, then I have developed across those,’” Hixson-Wallace said.
In addition to developing eight university learning outcomes, the university also made personnel moves to meet the marks for the HLC. Hixson-Wallace was moved into a vice president role in 2016 — a cabinet-level position which was created to address accreditation and institutional effectiveness. In addition, a director of assessment role was created and filled by James Berry.
The university also purchased new software which allows them to more strategically and systematically track learning outcomes across the university.
Aside from the review of learning outcomes assessments, the committee will also assess the university on five additional factors as part of the routine, four-year visit: mission, integrity, ability to deliver a quality education, assessment, and strategic planning and financial health.
While the university has seen a decline in some revenues over past years with a decline in enrollment numbers, Hixson-Wallace said they do not anticipate any concerns regarding that area of the accreditation assessment.
“Harding has consistently been well above the zone that indicates a need for further review with no reason to expect any change in that status,” Hixson-Wallace said.
The Higher Learning Commission will visit campus April 22-23, 2019. The visiting committee is comprised of administrators and faculty members from other universities who serve as peer reviewers.