Four Fundamental Themes of NCA Higher Learning Commission Criteria
The Core Components for each of these Criteria and the numerous examples of evidence appropriate to each highlight the breadth of the Criteria. Moreover, the dense texture of the new Criteria is in no small part a result of the overlapping evidence proposed for each Core Component. In short, each Criterion engages an organization in an evaluation of multiple but closely related matters that inevitably also touch on other Criteria.
In fact, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Were the Criteria and Core Components viewed and implemented as independent and only loosely related standards, their real potential might be muted. During the process of forming the new Criteria, participants tended to want clear distinctions between and among them. Some groups devoted as much time to the “title” of a Criterion as to its content, confident that a specific title would make the Criterion clearly distinct from the others. Differentiation was important to everyone. Yet despite those efforts, the new Criteria are holistic and integrated.
Several overarching and fundamental themes are evident in the new Criteria. By identifying them, the Commission:
1. Highlights primary attributes of effective and high-performing organizations valued by the Commission
2. Establishes broad benchmarks for evaluating the interpretation and application of the new Criteria
3. Indicates the interrelatedness of the Criteria
4. Suggests an organizational schema that could inform self-study processes and give structure to self-study reports
There may be other overarching themes, but the four are unmistakable, are directly related to goals of the project, and are in keeping with the Commission’s stated mission, vision, and core values.
In promulgating the new Criteria, the Commission demonstrates that it values the four themes of orientation to the future, focus on learning, connectedness (internally and externally), and distinctiveness.
1. The Future-Oriented Organization
Engages in planning. In proving that it is future-oriented, an organization will, at a minimum, document its engagement in effective strategic planning initiatives. The new Criterion Two, “Preparing for the Future” speaks most directly to the need for an organization to know itself well enough that its multiple planning efforts will result in realistic and achievable plans. The Core Components speak to planning based on effective evaluation so the organization can maintain and strengthen its quality and its educational programs, thereby enhancing its capacity to fulfill its mission in the years ahead. Such efforts are essential to the future health of the organization.
Is driven by the mission. More than ever, organizations that are most successful in maneuvering through an uncertain future are committed to a vision and capable of identifying their core values. Otherwise, the availability of too many options might cause confusion or lack of direction. Competitors’ success might lure an organization to wander away from its mission. Unanticipated financial downturns may threaten even the best strategic plans. The new Criterion One, “Mission and Integrity,” speaks to the fundamental importance of organization’s mission documents. A mission that is largely a statement or an advertising tagline and is not rooted in rich soil of vision and values can so readily be changed or broadly interpreted as to be of little use in times of rapid change. A future-oriented organization does not treat its mission so lightly.
Understands social and economic change. A future-oriented organization works diligently to understand the social and economic trends that will shape society and culture in the future. Major demographic shifts are inevitably bringing about important changes in our society. Some of the most salient are immigration, the aging of the baby-boomers, migration to urban centers, and increasing income disparity. Today, 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in postsecondary education. Many students will extend college over many years and will go to two or more institutions before completing their education. As more and more jobs require degrees or higher education certifications, the demand for access to higher learning will continue to grow. A future-oriented organization may see opportunities in these changes and will plan new programs or sites or collaborative relationships to respond to them. At a minimum, a future-oriented organization will carefully study the potential impact of the changes. The new Criterion Five, “Engagement and Service,” also calls attention to the need for a future-oriented organization to analyze its capacity to serve the needs and expectations of its constituencies experiencing change.
Focuses on the futures of constituents. A future-oriented organization also attends to the futures of its constituents. The new Criterion Four, “Acquisition, Discovery, and Application of Knowledge,” with its emphasis on promoting a life of learning is fundamentally about the future of the organization’s constituents. It asks an organization to include in its educational priorities developing the future capacity of its students to live and work in a global, diverse, and technological society, for example. A future-oriented organization also cares about the capacity of its faculty, staff, and administrators to be productive contributors to the future of the organization and its students.
Integrates new technology. A future-oriented organization understands that the information revolution spawned by new technologies will continue and will move at an even faster rate. Therefore, it seeks to understand and integrate technologies into its learning environments as well as into its support systems. New Criterion Three, “Student Learning and Effective Teaching,” draws attention to new learning environments now possible through the use of technology. The word technology appears in Core Components of other criteria as well, for it is transforming much more than just the delivery of quality education.
2. The Learning-Focused Organization
Assesses student learning. With its new Third Criterion, the Commission continues its efforts to engage the membership in effective and useful assessment of student learning. A learning-focused organization must know what it intends its students to learn and whether that learning has actually been achieved. The first Core Component embeds assessment in the Commission’s accreditation standards. The Criterion also clearly signals the Commission’s understanding that learners succeed in no small measure because of the quality of those who create their curricula and who teach and mentor them.
Supports learning. All learning-focused organizations strive to create learning environments supportive of the multiple learning styles of their students, frequently turning to new technologies to assist in these efforts. Criterion Three draws particular attention not only to the need to attend to learning environments, but also the need to attend to services and facilities that support student learning. The learning-focused organization also supports the learning of other key constituents. As the Core Components of Criterion Four make clear, the capacity of faculty, staff, and administrators to continue learning is of great concern to a learning-focused organization.
Supports scholarship. Criteria Three and Four draw attention to the fact that scholarship, in its multiple forms as defined by Ernest Boyer (Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, 1990), is the lifeblood of higher learning. Students need to understand the role and purpose of scholarship as a means of organizing and transmitting knowledge. Scholarship may involve pure or applied research engaged in by all types of students and faculties at all types of organizations. Faculties concerned about effective teaching ought to be supported in their understanding of the scholarship of teaching. Organizations that value discovery and creation of knowledge by faculty and students create environments to support research. They also integrate recognition of the accomplishments of students and faculties into the organizational culture.
Creates the capacity for lifelong learning. A learning-focused organization is concerned with connections between the curricula it provides and the lives its students will pursue after they complete their courses, certificates, or degrees. For example, Criterion Four addresses the currency and relevance of the curriculum. The fit between learning and living is of central interest to any learning-focused organization. The organization may provide a rich variety of learning options, including internships, mentored research, honors programs, and service-learning, to enhance students’ learning and to demonstrate the connection between the life of the mind and the life of work.
Strengthens organizational learning. A learning-focused organization strengthens its own capacity to learn. An organization that lacks or fails to use multiple evaluation programs to get information essential to maintaining and strengthening quality is at risk. Criterion Two signals this vital need, particularly in its call for ongoing evaluation and assessment processes that provide reliable evidence of institutional effectiveness and inform strategies for continuous improvement. Organizational learning also requires carefully listening to multiple constituencies. Both Criteria One and Five draw attention to this critically important aspect of effective organizational learning. In this regard, being learning-focused is foundational to being effectively future-oriented.
3. The Connected Organization
Serves the common good. The connected organization sees its role as serving society. Throughout these new Criteria, the Commission signals the importance of linkages between member organizations and the broader society. Criteria call on member organizations to state—in mission, vision, and values documents—the ways they mean to serve their constituents. Criterion One is clear that even the most distinctive organization still must understand that it serves the greater society.
Serves constituents. The test of every good statement of intent is actual performance. While Criteria Three and Four focus primarily on internal constituencies, Criterion Five requires an accredited organization to address the multiple connections between it and the broader society. Engagement is not a synonym for service; engagement suggests a two-way relationship through which the organization is open to learning from those it wishes to serve. Strong mutual understanding is necessary for the effectiveness of the many services that an accredited organization may choose to provide.
Creates a culture of service. A connected organization creates and supports a culture of service. A variety of programs and volunteer and community service activities may be available for engaging students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Increasingly, organizations have sought to integrate community service into the learning opportunities they provide, expecting students and faculty to define the learning that occurred through participation in mentored activities in the community. In the very way it interacts with local, regional, state, and national organizations and issues, the organization models service for its constituencies.
Collaborates. A connected organization deals effectively with seemingly competing imperatives: protecting the integrity of the organization while engaging in partnerships and collaborations that challenge some concepts of autonomy. An accredited organization must be responsible for everything that uses its name, but it also must build dependable bridges to other institutions and organizations that provide education. A connected organization understands its role in helping students create seamless learning pathways through and among these institutions and organizations. This is as true for pathways between high schools and colleges as for pathways between colleges and graduate programs. It is true for pathways from nationally accredited institutions as well as from institutions accredited by other regional associations. Increasingly, connected organizations work to diminish unnecessary educational barriers to people from other countries.
Engages in healthy internal communication. Other kind of connections are also vital to the well-being of an accredited organization. The connected organization shows that it understands that the health of connections within its community is key to its success. Effective governance and administrative structures, for example, connect multiple internal constituents in shared efforts to fulfill the organization’s mission. Criterion One calls for an institution to evaluate the health and effectiveness of these connections. Criterion Two identifies a major challenge to healthy internal connections, the alignment of all levels of planning with the organization’s mission.
4. The Distinctive Organization
Has an unambiguous mission. In these new Criteria, the Commission expands its understanding of organizational mission to also include statements of vision, values, and goals. The Commission maintains its long history of evaluating an organization against its own distinctive identity and goals. A distinctive organization, therefore, knows what it is about. It can provide the public with documents that state its mission clearly. The knowledge of the mission pervades everything the organization does. Moreover, the organization understands the essential connection between operating with integrity and keeping faith with the mission. The new Criterion One most clearly lays out the absolute importance of this foundation.
Appreciates diversity. The distinctive organization understands the complexity of the diverse society in which it is located, and it can identify how it responsibly responds to that society while honoring its unique mission. Whether diversity marks the classroom or the curriculum, whether learning about diversity is shaped by the students and faculty who fill the classrooms or by students’ off-campus experiences, the distinctive organization serves the common good by honoring the worth of all individuals. While Criterion One identifies the importance of organizational recognition of diversity, Criterion Four identifies the direct relationship between what students learn and the diverse society in which they will live and work.
Is accountable. Evaluation of actual performance is essential for an organization’s case that it is, indeed, distinctive. Therefore, a distinctive organization finds ways to document how it achieves the goals embedded in its mission that are understandable and credible to internal and external constituents. Criterion One proposes that accountability and integrity are closely interwoven. Criterion Three holds that an accredited organization’s goals for student learning are clearly stated and amenable to effective assessment. Criterion Five calls on organizations to document that constituencies value their services. The expectation is that a distinctive organization is willing to be accountable for fulfilling its unique mission.
Is self-reflective. A distinctive organization is determinedly self-reflective. That is, the organization regularly takes time to engage its constituencies in credible self-evaluation processes. While this may be accomplished through ongoing planning processes at multiple levels, evaluation processes built into shared governance, or periodic open community meetings, a distinctive organization studies itself much more frequently than only before a comprehensive accreditation visit. Criterion One links adherence to mission and protection of integrity to conscious self-reflection. Criterion Two ties the capacity to meet the future to ongoing evaluation and assessment processes. Criterion Five proposes that quality of service is directly related to an organization’s ability to learn, analyze, and evaluate capacity.
Is committed to improvement. Any organization desirous of maintaining its own distinctiveness must be committed to improvement. Criterion Two explicitly links sound evaluation to continuous improvement. In establishing the importance effective assessment and of valuing and supporting effective teaching, Criterion Three connects both to improvement of educational programs. Improvement is also embedded in many of the examples of evidence for these and other Criteria.Conclusion
As stated earlier, the Commission has several purposes in mind in identifying these themes. The themes
The Commission also acknowledges that these may not be the only themes identifiable in the Criteria. As institutions and peer reviewers go about their respective tasks in applying the new Criteria, the Commission staff would greatly value comments on the usefulness of the themes as a tool or strategy. Staff would also like to know of any other themes that emerge and could be shared with others