The Higher Learning Commission boasts a history of over a century and was founded in 1895 as a cooperative effort across the United States. This independent corporation was tasked with accrediting degree-granting institutions of higher learning. The HLC accredits schools in 19 different states and is one of six regional institutional accreditation bodies.
When it was founded in 1895, the organization was known as the North Central Association (NCA). The organization would introduce its Criteria for Accrediting Colleges and Universities in 1912 and would begin granting official accreditation to schools in its region by 1915. Over the next few decades, the importance of the Higher Learning Commission would grow, and the United States Department of Education would eventually base its funding decisions for institutions of higher learning on the accreditation status of schools within the HLC’s purview.
In 1965, the HLC’s importance to the world of higher education was cemented when the federal government passed the Higher Education Act of 1965, which required that schools obtain accreditation to qualify for Title IV federal financial aid. Throughout the last century, the number of institutions accredited by the commission would reach more than 4,300. More than 550 of those institutions were universities and colleges.
The commission would undergo some changes in the first few decades of the 2000s when membership reached a peak of 1,000 universities and colleges in 2010. By 2014, a decision was made to dissolve the North Central Association in favor of the Higher Learning Commission label. The HLC, as it would then be known, would place its focus solely on institutions of higher learning and would no longer accredit secondary schools.
Who Runs the HLC?
A board of trustees leads the HLC, and those individuals are elected by the members of the commission. Everyone on the board is accountable to the president of the HLC. The president’s role is to ensure the commission remains cost-effective, and the trustees operate under a set of bylaws that are updated on a routine basis. The last time the bylaws were updated and approved was 2010.
Since its original adoption, the bylaws of the HLC have been updated on several occasions, with the most recent revisions occurring in June of 2021. The bylaws require that the HLC be run as a not-for-profit membership organization under the laws of the State of Illinois. The HLC cooperates with several external agencies that ensure that the HLC can operate fully to serve the common good.
One of the most important agencies that works with the HLC is the U.S. Department of Education. Another important organization is the Council for Higher Education and Accreditation (CHEA), which is a non-profit organization that works as a coordinating body for all of the accreditation commissions across the country. Through its association with CHEA, the HLC ensures degree mills aren’t granted legitimate accreditation status.
The relationship that exists between the states, the regional accreditation organization, and the federal government is known as “The Triad,” and the trustees of the HLC take their collaboration with the states and the federal government very seriously. It is only through this valuable relationship that the United States can maintain the highest standards for its institutions of higher learning.
Who Makes the Decisions on Accreditation?
The groups who make decisions on institutional accreditation are comprised of public members, as well as representatives from various institutions. The groups who accredit colleges cover a broad spectrum of different institutions of higher learning, and the commission works diligently to avoid conflicts of interest when creating these groups to maintain high standards of accreditation.
The group of professionals who work to grade institutions on their accreditation applications is known as the Peer Corps, and these professionals are volunteers who use their knowledge and experience in the accreditation process. Around 2,000 people are members of the Peer Corps, and many of the members are faculty and administrators from the colleges that are accredited by the HLC every ten years. Members are presidents, professors, deans, directors, and consultants for colleges throughout the Midwest.
One of the important groups within the accreditation cycle is the Institutional Actions Council (IAC), which is comprised of members of the Peer Corps. The IAC is the group responsible for acting on “substantive change cases” that include reaffirmation of accreditation, mid-cycle pathway reviews, interim monitoring, and biennial evaluations.
Institutions that wish to appeal a decision made by the HLC regarding accreditation will make their case to the Appeals Body, which is a group selected by the Board of Trustees. Accreditation decisions are considered final, but there is a window before decisions are finalized when an institution can appeal an adverse action. The Appeals Panel listens to the case and can change or affirm the actions already taken by the Board of Trustees.
How Does Accreditation Work?
Under a process approved by the HLC, an institution undergoes an eligibility process which helps determine whether a college or university is ready for a visit from an official evaluation team. Eligibility requirements include falling under the jurisdiction of the commission, the appropriate legal status, and the existence of an independent governing board. Once eligibility is confirmed, the Higher Learning Commission will work with that institution to work toward accredited status through visits and inspection.
Before applying for accreditation, an institution must make a decision on which path it will take to achieve accreditation. Some institutions will choose the standard eligibility process and candidacy path, but institutions that are not yet accredited may choose the Accelerated Process for Initial Accreditation process. Once an institution has achieved candidate status, it will exist as an unaccredited member of the HLC until the initial accreditation process is complete.
To begin the accreditation process, a candidate school will complete the official application for HLC membership. Representatives of the college or university will then meet with staff from the HLC, where questions will be asked about the school’s plan to achieve accreditation. The school must then submit a letter of intent to the HLC that it will seek accreditation. The institution must also demonstrate that it is in compliance with the HLC’s eligibility requirements.
The accreditation process begins with a comprehensive evaluation of the institution’s suitability for accreditation and continues with a biennial evaluation where the school must demonstrate its progress on meeting the accreditation requirements. The final phase that leads to successful accreditation is called the Comprehensive Evaluation for Initial Accreditation and Related Decision Making. The evaluation will include a federal compliance filing, an on-site visit, a student opinion survey, and a final decision from the HLC board.
What are the Criteria for Accreditation?
The criteria required of schools is comprehensive and covers several core components, ethical responsibilities, and teaching goals. In addition, accreditation criteria require the school demonstrates institutional effectiveness and a certain quality of teaching and learning. Within each of the major sections guiding accreditation, there are several indicators to suggest whether a school merits accreditation.
Some of the accreditation requirements that Higher learning Commission schools must meet include providing documentation that shows that the institution is incorporated in the HLC’s jurisdiction, as well documentation that shows that the institution is legally allowed to operate as an institution of higher learning in at least one U.S. state. The school must also share its articles of incorporation and its bylaws, as well as complete information on the school’s relationship with outside or related entities. The Higher Learning Commission’s document on eligibility candidacy contains all the information a school needs.
The accreditation process also requires that the school list its board of governors or the equivalent group at its institution. The application must include profiles of all board members, as well as specific details related to each board member’s relationship to the school. Further details required include a list of all programs offered by the institution, as well as whether any of those programs are offered for distance or correspondence enrollment.
Other details required during the accreditation process include the school’s budget for the most recent fiscal year, information on any audits performed by Certified Public Accountants, and the business plan for the next there years as defined by the school. Once the school has provided all of the necessary pieces of information to the HLC, the institution must undergo an eligibility interview. The interview must occur within one month of the Preliminary Evidence Response letter.
Maintaining Accreditation and the Reaffirmation Process
Accreditation by the HLC isn’t permanent, and a college or university must reaffirm its status as an accredited school at least every ten years. However, schools that have only been accredited once must undergo a second accreditation within four years of initial accreditation. In the event a school must take additional time to prepare for reaffirmation, an extension may be filed with the commission.
The process for reaffirmation for Higher Learning Commission schools starts with a document that shows that the institution meets the HLC’s accreditation requirements. The school must show that it has tried to achieve institutional improvement, as well as fulfill HLC’s procedural requirements for reaffirmation. There are two options that schools may choose from when undergoing the reaffirmation process. Those pathways are known as the standard pathway and the open pathway. A school may be approved for an alternative pathway with the approval of the Higher Learning Commission.
Schools that choose the open pathway route will perform several tasks over the course of the 10-year accreditation cycle. Schools will be monitored each year for compliance and will be required to submit an annual institutional update. The school must also complete an assurance review, which the HLC will examine to ensure that the school is continuing to meet the HLC’s requirements for accreditation.
Institutions that choose the standard pathway will also complete several tasks over the course of about ten years. Schools may choose the standard pathway when they require assistance from the HLC to complete the various reaccreditation tasks. During the standard pathway reaffirmation process, schools must send their Chief Academic Office and their Accreditation Liaison Officer to a seminar that will help the school develop strategies that will help the school work toward meeting the HLC’s criteria for accreditation.
Accreditation Information for Students
It’s essential that students consider the accreditation of a chosen school when searching for a college. Accreditation often means that a student’s credits will transfer successfully between schools should the student wish to attend a different school before completing a degree. Additionally, an accredited institution helps a student qualify for various professional certifications.
Graduates may also find that accreditation becomes important when they exit school and start their search for a post-college job. Employers usually want information on where a student attended school, and a student that can show that he or she attended one of the nation’s fully accredited Higher Learning Commission schools may find a job more easily than a student who attended a diploma mill or a school that hasn’t achieved accreditation.
A school that hasn’t been accredited by the HLC isn’t necessarily a bad school, but it’s important that prospective students investigate whether the school is currently working toward accreditation, has failed to obtain it, or has never applied. The HLC may withdraw its accreditation of a school when certain benchmarks aren’t met, but schools are able to obtain accreditation by reapplying after receiving a denial or demotion.
It’s important to consider that accreditation is a voluntary evaluation that schools undertake but that becoming accredited is an important step for any institution of higher learning that is interested in providing its students with the best opportunity to find rewarding work after graduation. Accreditation is also essential for any student who wants to apply for federal student loans. Federal student aid is only available to accredited institutions. When a student decides to attend a non-accredited school, he or she may need to apply for private student loans to cover the costs of attendance.
In addition to institutional accreditation, a student should also investigate whether a specific program or degree is accredited by a specialized agency. The U.S. Department of Education features an extensive list of agencies approved by the D.O.E. to grant national, regional, hybrid, and programmatic accreditation.
The HLC works with state governments and the federal government to maintain institutional standards that ensure all schools accredited under the process provide an education that conforms to the levels agreed upon in the accreditation process. Accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission helps standardize the education a student receives at any college that has successfully undergone the accreditation process.
Enrolling in one of the nation’s accredited Higher Learning schools helps ensure that a student will receive an education that meets the standards set forth for all institutions of higher learning in the region. While it is up to the student to work hard and learn as much as possible while in school, attending an accredited institution can have benefits that extend well beyond the college years. An accredited institution is one that the student can feel proud about attending.