Hudson Valley receives warning on accreditation assessment

Ethan Seeley

Staff Writer

This past June, Hudson Valley received a warning from its accreditor. The official letter stated that Hudson Valley’s “accreditation may be in jeopardy,” due to its failure to meet one of the fourteen standards set by the commission for colleges and universities.

The loss of accreditation is a death blow for any college, especially one where most students receive financial aid. Without accreditation, an institution cannot receive any federal funds – no Pell grants, no federal loans, no work-study. More importantly, its diplomas become near-worthless and students cannot easily transfer to other colleges.

While loss of accreditation is extremely rare – Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Hudson Valley’s accrediting agency, has only revoked accreditation twice in the past decade – warnings are much more common. Currently, 19 out of 534 schools inspected by MSCHE have received a warning from the commission, including Alfred University and Orange County Community College in Middleburgh, N.Y.

Though Hudson Valley’s warning reads in dire terms that the college’s accreditation “may be in jeopardy,” Richard Pokrass, the director of communications at MSCHE, said that this is standard language for the commission. “There is nothing to indicate at this time that the college will not return to compliance,” he said.

The college remains accredited while on warning and will have the opportunity to improve its standing. Federal regulations give the institution a maximum of two years to fix the problem, meaning Hudson Valley must have the warning lifted by June 2016. Pokrass said that most institutions that are placed on warning typically return to compliance within 12-18 months.

In March of this year, a team from MSCHE, led by a community college president from New Jersey and accompanied by professors and deans of different departments from around the region, came to Hudson Valley. The inspection process happens once a decade.

From Mar. 2 to 4, the team went over the college’s academic courses, its finances, and its method for measuring student learning, reading hundreds of pages of documents. They interviewed faculty, staff, the board of trustees, administrators, and students. They toured the library, the new science building, the sports complex and other campus buildings, looking into every aspect of the college.

At the end of their visit the accreditors summoned the college community to hear the results. The BTC auditorium was filled to capacity. For many professors and administrators in the room, this moment was the culmination of years of work preparing for the visit. Over the previous two-and-a-half years, 150 people had worked together to write a Self-Study Report in which Hudson Valley examined its successes and difficulties.

The team’s verdict, also summed up in a 26-page report to the college president, was that despite many commendable aspects of the college, Hudson Valley did not deserve an entirely passing grade. While Hudson Valley had met 13 out of 14 of the commission standards, it was lacking in one – Institutional Assessment.

“I don’t think we were surprised,” said Vonnie Vannier, an English professor who was highly involved in preparation for the college’s accreditation visit. She co-chaired the committee that compiled the school’s 100-page Self-Study Report, so she was aware of the challenges faced in this area. The Self-Study, Vannier said, is “not a fluff piece,” but an honest look at what is going well and what can be improved. When it came to Institutional Assessment, she said, “We were close, but not close enough.”

MSCHE has 14 standards ranging from “Resource Allocation” to “Student Support Services,” but none seem to inspire as much confusion as Standard 7: “Institutional Assessment.”

After interviewing many of the people involved, the visiting team wrote, “There is a significant lack of understanding of their roles in assessing institutional effectiveness,” and added, “Assessment results are not of sufficient quality to be used with confidence.”

Since the last accreditation visit in 2004, the college has struggled to define and implement its own version of institutional assessment. Difficulties persisted despite multiple committees with changing names, outside consultants, and changes in staff. So what is institutional assessment and why do Hudson Valley and many other colleges seem to have trouble with it?

The man in charge of bringing Hudson Valley into compliance and up-to-date with this standard is Michael Green, whose title is Executive to the President for Institutional Effectiveness and Strategic Planning. According to Green, institutional assessment asks how colleges are meeting their mission and goals and how they can verify it.

As the head of the Assessment and Institutional Effectiveness Committee, Green is optimistic that their five-part plan will finally satisfy the requirements of Hudson Valley’s accreditor. “If they had come six months later we would have been fine,” he said, calling the commission’s report “a snapshot in time.”

At the time of the last accreditation report in 2004, MSCHE recommended that the college form a plan for assessment. In 2006, without a dedicated staff member to oversee the plan, the college brought in consultant James O. Nichols, who specializes in training colleges on how to do assessment.  According to the college’s self-study report, they invested “significant resources, both fiscal and personnel,” in creating this new plan. Vannier described the new system as “extremely complex.”

According to the 2014 MSCHE report, the 2006 assessment plan was never fully implemented, and for years the college did not have an accurate way of testing its student outcomes. Green was hired in 2007 to prepare for the 2009 interim report and this year’s accreditation visit. In 2012, the new 12-person Assessment and Institutional Effectiveness Committee formed a plan that it hoped would satisfy the requirements, but the plan was not fully implemented by the time the assessors arrived.

As the federal Department of Education prepares to apply a new “college scorecard,” taking into account cost, debt-load and other indicators, some college officials are concerned about government intrusion into the accreditation process and the strong emphasis on data and assessment.

“Fifteen years ago it was all about diversity, now it’s all about institutional assessment,” said Carolyn Curtis, vice-president for academic affairs for the college. She said that the Department of Education had become much more stringent in recent years as budget problems caused a “tightening of the belt in D.C.” Curtis said that the federal government is using the accreditation agencies to verify that schools are using money wisely.

In 2014 the federal government spent over $160 billion on higher education, mostly in the form of subsidized loans. The regional accreditors, of which MSCHE is one of six, are independent non-profit organizations, but they are formally recognized by the Department of Education to examine the credentials of colleges and universities.

“They are using accreditation as a form of compliance,” said Michael Green. The pattern is unlikely to change, he said, as more public dollars are spent.

Higher education may see even more of the data-driven assessment that has come to define public schools in the past decade. “There are never enough bodies to collect all the data they want from you,” said Green.

In March 2015, Hudson Valley will have to provide its accreditor with a monitoring report showing that it has improved its means of assessment. According to Michael Green, Elie Fogarty, MSCHE’s liaison to the college, visited recently and said the college is on the right track. If the commission is satisfied with Hudson Valley’s improvements, the warning will be lifted, an outcome that the administration looks forward to.

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