Note: The Revised Criteria for Accreditation, Assumed Practices, and other new and revised related policies adopted February 2012 became effective for all accredited institutions on January 1, 2013.
In its review of institutions, the Higher Learning Commission seeks a culture of aspiration and continual improvement rather than satisfaction of minimum requirements. It also seeks to acknowledge the great diversity of its member institutions. For these reasons it uses the term “criteria” rather than “standards.”
Prior to admission to candidacy for accreditation and again in applying for initial accreditation, an institution demonstrates that it meets the Commission’s Eligibility Requirements.
The accreditation process is governed by the Criteria for Accreditation. Within the Criteria there are Criterion Statements and Core Components that ensure institutional effectiveness. Underlying the Criteria and Core Components is a set of assumptions shared by the community of practice within higher education and made explicit in the section on Assumed Practices.
Finally, the Commission articulates Obligations of Affiliation, which are behavioral requirements for its member and candidate institutions, including the requirement that they abide by Commission policies.
The Criteria for Accreditation reflect a set of guiding values for institutional accreditation. The Commission articulates these guiding values so as to offer a better understanding of the Criteria and the intentions that underlie them. Institutions are not expected to address these values: they are offered as explanation.
The Criteria for Accreditation and Core Components
The Criteria for Accreditation are designed to seek evidence of continual improvement and aspiration on the part of member institutions rather than to define minimum qualifications. Each Criterion begins with a broad statement of Commission expectations related to the Criterion. The Core Components identify areas of particular focus within the Criterion. Some of these Core Components are further elaborated or explicated in sub-components. The sub-components are not comprehensive: they elaborate certain aspects of the Core Component that the Commission seeks to ensure are not overlooked, but they do not fully constitute the Component. Some of the Core Components do not have sub-components because such elaboration has not appeared necessary. An institution provides evidence with regard to those sub-components of the Core Components that apply to the institution. An institution has the opportunity in its documentation and a team has the option in its review to identify topics or issues related to a Core Component other than those specified in the sub-components.
In preparation for accreditation and reaffirmation of accreditation, an institution provides evidence that it meets all the Criteria and all the Core Components. The distinctiveness of an institution’s mission may condition the strategies it adopts and the evidence it provides that it meets the Criteria.
The Commission reviews the institution against the Core Components and Criteria through its evaluation processes according to the following evaluative framework.
The Core Components
The institution meets the Core Component if the Core Component:
a) is met without concerns, that is the institution meets or exceeds the expectations embodied in the Component; or
b) is met with concerns, that is the institution demonstrates the characteristics expected by the Component, but performance in relation to some aspect of the Component must be improved.
The institution does not meet the Core Component if the institution fails to meet the Component in its entirety or is so deficient in one or more aspects of the Component that the Component is judged not to be met.
The Criteria for Accreditation
The institution meets the Criterion if the Criterion:
a) is met without concerns, that is the institution meets or exceeds the expectations embodied in the Criterion; or
b) is met with concerns, that is the institution demonstrates the characteristics expected by the Criterion, but performance in relation to some Core Components of the Criterion must be improved.
The institution does not meet the Criterion if the institution fails to meet the Criterion in its entirety or is so deficient in one or more Core Components of the Criterion that the Criterion is judged not to be met.
The institution meets the Criterion only if all Core Components are met. The institution must be judged to meet all five Criteria for Accreditation to merit accreditation.
The Commission will grant or continue accreditation (with or without conditions or sanctions), deny accreditation, or withdraw accreditation based on the outcome of its review.
The Assumed Practices
Higher education functions within a community marked by shared practices among colleges and universities, practices that have developed out of shared experience, are basic to higher education in the United States, and have been tested over time. Institutional accreditation evolved within these shared practices and it relies upon the assumption that institutions follow them.
The Assumed Practices are foundational to the Criteria for Accreditation. Unlike the Criteria and Core Components, they are generally matters to be determined as facts, rather than matters requiring professional judgment, and they are unlikely to vary by institutional mission or context.
Because accredited institutions engage in these Assumed Practices as a matter of course, the Commission does not ask that an accredited institution explicitly address them in an evaluation process except where specifically required to do so to ensure continuing conformity. Such circumstances include when an institution is undergoing a Change of Control, Structure, or Organization, and when an institution is in the process of removal from probation or an order of show-cause.
When it discovers that an accredited institution is not following an Assumed Practice, the Commission initiates a review, in accordance with its policy and procedure, to determine whether the institution remains in compliance with the Criteria for Accreditation. The Commission also requires that the institution take action to bring its practice into conformity with the Assumed Practices. An accredited institution that finds through its own processes that its practice is departing from the Assumed Practices should take immediate steps to correct the deficiency; it is not required to disclose its finding to the Commission provided that it moves quickly to initiate a remedy.
An institution seeking Candidacy must explicitly demonstrate conformity with the Assumed Practices. An institution seeking initial accreditation must again explicitly demonstrate conformity with these Practices as it addresses the Criteria for Accreditation. Institutional conformity with the Assumed Practices is necessary but only partial evidence of fulfillment of the Criteria for Accreditation. Commission decisions regarding accreditation status, while considering conformity with the Assumed Practices, will ultimately be based on a finding of fulfillment of the requirements for Candidacy for an institution seeking Candidacy or the Criteria for Accreditation for an institution seeking accreditation.
Obligations of Affiliation and Commission Policies
The Institutional Obligations of Affiliation describe behavioral requirements on the part of member institutions, including the requirement to abide by Commission policies. Among those policies, the Obligations draw particular attention to the requirements for transparency as to specified outcomes of the Commission’s reviews for accreditation. While the Commission makes information about these reviews public, this information concerns the accreditation relationship of institutions; hence institutions have an obligation to accept such publication and also have an obligation to represent this information accurately. The Institutional Obligations of Affiliation are absolute and the Commission may take immediate administrative action in the event that an institution fails to meet any of them.
Commission Policies Related to the Federal Requirements for Recognition of Accrediting Agencies
The Commission has a number of policies regarding the institutions it accredits that are mandated by virtue of its recognition by the U.S. Department of Education as a qualified accreditor for the purposes of eligibility for Title IV funds. While these requirements are outside the Criteria for Accreditation, the Commission will assure compliance with the requirements outlined in the Commission’s Federal Compliance Program as part of all its comprehensive reviews.