A two-person team met with Southeast Arkansas College officials and members of the community Wednesday as part of the process for maintaining SEARK's accreditation status.

A two-person team met with Southeast Arkansas College officials and members of the community Wednesday as part of the process for maintaining SEARK’s accreditation status.

The team, part of the Academic Quality Improvement Program of the Higher Learning Commission, visited with invited members of the community Wednesday morning to get a sense of how the school is viewed by residents as part of a three-day accreditation visit to the Southeast Arkansas College campus that concludes Friday morning.

“A community college is part of the community and your presence is telling us that this college is important to you,” said Larry Sanderson, an AQIP team member from New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, N.M. “We extend a special thanks to the community members who have come out today. Community colleges must be engaged with their community.”

Sanderson provided a brief explanation of why he and his colleague Julia Smetanka of the International Academy of Design and Technology in Troy, Mich., were in Pine Bluff.

“We are peers who volunteer to go to other schools to assist in the accreditation process,” Sanderson said. “The federal government requires a peer-review system to come in and visit and then tell the commission that you are the real deal. The goal of AQIP is to get you to look at yourselves honestly. In your portfolio [report] that you submitted to the commission, you have shown that this college takes the process seriously. We will listen a lot and not talk a lot.”

Smetanka praised the college community.

“You have a lot to be proud of at this institution,” Smetanka said. “Our primary role is to make sure and validate what you have presented in your portfolio [report]. You’re doing a lot of good things and you have a lot to be proud of. Always keep your students’ minds on the goal, which is for them to graduate with pride.”

AQIP and accreditation explained

The HLC is an independent corporation and one of two commission members of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which was founded in 1895 as one of six regional institutional accreditors in the United States, according to its website. The HLC accredits, and thereby grants membership in the Commission and in the North Central Association, degree-granting post-secondary educational institutions in the North Central Region.

The HLC has five criteria for accreditation, which include: mission and integrity; preparing for the future; student learning and effective teaching; acquisition, discovery and application of knowledge; and engagement and service.

Sanderson described the AQIP accreditation cycle in his presentation.

“AQIP is a seven-year cycle,” Sanderson said. “First campuses write a portfolio, which is a 100-page document that says, ‘Here’s who we think we are and what we are doing.’ The portfolio is submitted and then a feedback report is prepared by peer groups and the campus then takes that report and works on things that are brought up and prepares another report. This is followed by the two-person campus visit. The two-person team then submits their report to the Higher Learning Commission. The findings are reviewed by a group and then AQIP says the campus is certified for another seven-year cycle.”

AQIP provides an alternative evaluation process for organizations like SEARK that are already accredited by the Higher Education Commission.

An institution in AQIP demonstrates how it meets accreditation standards through the sequence of events described by Sanderson.

Sanderson said that the same people who begin the process by reading a school’s portfolio stay with the process through completion so that the school can feel more at ease during the process.

“Julia and I were part of the original team that looked at SEARK’s portfolio a year-and-a-half ago,” Sanderson said. “We will continue with the process into the next steps.”


Sanderson said that he and Smetanka will be holding meetings with different groups at the college as part of their visit.

“We will be meeting with students tomorrow,” Sanderson said. “We have specifically asked to meet with the students without the presence of faculty members. We will also meet with faculty members without the leadership present and will meet with the leadership without anyone else present.

“No school is perfect, but what we are evaluating is whether students are learning and assessing student outcomes,” Sanderson said. “We look to see if the students are receiving a meaningful and relevant education.”