Notes from the President

Chris Gray, Ph.D. Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania 

In late January, EC3 was notified by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) that we have met the necessary standards to officially apply for accreditation! This is a great step for our college and our region as accreditation will allow our students to access federal student aid and serve as a formal stamp that EC3 meets the rigorous standards required of high-quality educational institutions. I’ve written about the accreditation process here before, and I admit that accreditation is not necessarily a riveting subject.  Nonetheless, it’s important to EC3, and it is worth reviewing the process.  

Before I share EC3’s particular accreditation journey, let me briefly remind you of how accreditation works. After World War II, our soldiers returned en masse to find that many of the jobs they had before they left to defend our freedoms no longer existed. To resolve this, the federal government created the GI Bill and invested significant funds in post-secondary education. With the influx of federal dollars, diploma mills popped up and offered expensive and often low-quality training to our veterans. In a response designed to combat this predatory behavior, the US Department of Education created a process of regional accreditation and charged the regional accreditors with upholding standards set at the federal level. There are seven regional accrediting bodies across the United States. The regional accreditors acted within specific geographical boundaries until recently when the accreditors were authorized to accredit any institution. However, the Pennsylvania School Code (our governing legislative authority) requires Pennsylvania community colleges to secure MSCHE accreditation. And that leads us to EC3’s journey. 

In short, institutions applying for MSCHE accreditation are considered Pre-Applicants, Applicants, or Candidates. Each phase requires a written report and an on-campus visit. The written report outlines the processes and procedures the college uses to meet the standards of accreditation and federal compliance. The standards outline nearly 100 expectations. Some are very broad, such as ensuring a climate of commitment to academic freedom; and some are very specific, such as ensuring there is a financial and budgeting planning process. Some of the expectations actually incorporate multiple processes, so that number actually multiplies to include hundreds of processes. For each process, EC3 needs to show where the policy exists, what the procedure for deploying the process is, who the process owner is, how the process is assessed, and how the institution integrates learning from that process.

If you are thinking this seems incredibly complex and thorough, I’d agree. However, higher education is culturally overly bureaucratic and slow to action, AND these well-designed processes are critical to ensure that we serve our students well while acting as good stewards of the federal dollars. In other words, it’s onerous but important. 

When each written report is submitted, it is reviewed by a team of peer evaluators. These are professors, administrators, and educational professionals from across MSCHE membership who receive specialized, ongoing training to ensure that all institutions meet the rigorous standards in place. The team of peer evaluators then prepares a written report to the Commission (the C in MSCHE), who then reviews the report and takes formal action. 

Similarly, on-campus visits involve a team of peer evaluators spending a few days on campus visiting with students, staff, faculty, and, often, the governing board and key college partners as well. The primary purpose of the visit is to verify that what was described in the written report is actually happening in reality. Visiting teams verify processes and provide evidence of those processes. A good analogy may be thinking of evidence that could be admissible in a court proceeding. MSCHE evaluators have an obligation to get actual evidence, not rely on reports or hearsay. Our written report is hearsay; the evaluators heard us say what we do but haven’t actually seen what we do. To provide evidence, we share items like meeting minutes, written reports, audits, and direct testimony to the evaluator. Ultimately, the boots on the ground during the campus visit ensure that what institutions are saying is real. 

So, where is EC3 in this process? We’ve just passed out of the Pre-Applicant phase and are allowed to enter the Applicant phase. As such, we are in the process of preparing the written report for the Applicant phase. Specifically, this is called the Accreditation Readiness Report (ARR), which will essentially be a large document describing all of our processes with multiple links to supporting evidentiary documents. In academic terms, it’s a 200-300 page paper! We feel like we have an early draft of this report ready and are working with a liaison from MSCHE to edit and improve our content. We are hoping to submit that ARR this spring. This is a giant hurdle, and it is arguably the hardest phase of the process. While I optimistically hope that MSCHE accepts our ARR and schedules the visit portion of our Applicant phase, I expect that they may give us revision-based feedback and ask for more information or allow more time to provide longitudinal data as evidence, after which they will ask for a resubmission. That said, I’m confident that we will receive approval of the ARR within the year. As soon as that occurs, we will seek to schedule the on-campus visit by the peer evaluator team. Usually, each phase and submission involves a three to six-month turnaround because, remember, higher education moves at the pace of frozen molasses.  I’m nonetheless anxious for us to move forward, but I understand that time and patience are required for each step of this important process.  

Within the next few years, we will be considered Candidates for accreditation, and this is a huge step. Once we are Candidates, we will be eligible to apply for federal financial aid, which will ensure that Erie County students have the financial support they need to pursue their educational paths. Once we’re Candidates, we will still have a written and visit phase that will occur; then, once we are accredited, we repeat the equivalent of the Applicant phase every eight years to ensure that we remain in compliance. 

This is technical and detailed as I promised/warned above, but I am so thrilled that we are making progress.  Likewise, I am immensely proud of the work our team has done to move us into the Applicant phase. Much of that work has been done behind the scenes, but it’s definitely not invisible.  It’s the work on which this next phase depends.   

I hope that this overview of the next phase of the accreditation process leaves you as excited for EC3’s future as I am.  As ever, we will continue to share our accreditation journey as we continue to build the community’s college.  It’s an exciting time, indeed!