Higher Learning Commission

AQIP Portfolio Wins and Try-Agains: Pounding and Heckling Parliamentary Style

Jill Carlson, Janna L. Oakes and Rebecca House Stankowski


The Higher Learning Commission’s (HLC) Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) Pathway is based firmly on principles of continuous quality improvement. Not only does a successful AQIP model lead to reaffirmation of accreditation but it also leads to the creation of a culture of quality improvement within the institution. The authors have combined their collective peer review experience to present seven keys to a successful AQIP Systems Portfolio, as well as tips for peer reviews, through examples from the Systems Portfolio presented by (fictional) Hogwash College in Pigsty, Illinois.

Tips For AQIP Portfolio Success

Tip #1: Answer the prompt directly.

Direct, concise responses are always the best strategy.  

Building Collaborations and Partnerships focuses on aligning, building, and determining the effectiveness of collaborations and partnerships to further the mission of the institution. This includes, but is not limited to, descriptions of key processes for:
--Selecting tools/methods/instruments to assess partnership effectiveness
--Evaluating the degree to which collaborations and partnerships are effective (2P5)

Hogwash College: Hogwash College regularly conducts surveys and/or group interviews with current and prospective students, advisory or governing boards, alumni, parents of current and prospective students, employers and community members. Processes for assessing and reviewing objectives and operations are aligned with the strategic plan. The Advancement Leadership Team relies on input from the Foundation Board of Directors, the Alumni Association Board of Directors, the Illinois Western Arts Society Governing Council and the Engineering Technology Advancement Committee, among others, when setting their yearly operating plans.

Review Team Response: Systematic
Surveys and group meetings with stakeholders inform yearly operating plans, which are aligned with established noninstructional objectives and the institution’s strategic plan. In response to the opportunity identified in the last HLC review, an annual perception survey was implemented to ascertain stakeholder perceptions of the college’s direction. Hogwash College has established a healthy respect for gathering and using data to inform its direction pertaining to noninstructional objectives.

Tip #2: Answer all parts of the prompt.

Several of the Core Components contain multiple parts, usually separated by commas. Be certain that your Systems Portfolio responds to every element of each Core Component.

Selecting, implementing, and maintaining specialized accreditation(s) (4A5)

Hogwash College: To ensure that its students graduate from quality programs, Hogwash College has specialized accreditation for many of its programs. Program leaders receive credit release time for data collection, writing and liaison work related to maintaining accreditation. Hogwash administration also ensures that they have the support staff, office space, and budgetary resources to complete necessary accreditation work.

Peer Reviewers’ Secret Thoughts: Please read the entire prompt.    

Review Team Response: Reacting
It is clear that the Hogwash College is dedicated to maintaining specialized accreditations, as resources are dedicated to this purpose; however, the processes used to select, implement and maintain these were not described.

Tip #3: Vague is the plague.

Avoiding direct responses to the Core Components, prolific prose or overuse of qualifying language can be suspect in a Systems Portfolio. If your institution has a weakness, acknowledge it and then share the long-term, sustainable plan you have for improvement, including any progress made to date.

What are the results for determining if current and prospective students’ needs are being met?
 --Comparison of results with internal targets and external benchmarks (2R1)

Hogwash College: Conducting comparative analyses is somewhat difficult because the college has not yet established a systematic process for benchmarking its peers in this area. In informal interviews with other state two-year college representatives, however, results indicate that Hogwash has followed the trend in partnering with business and industry to provide for their training needs.

Peer Reviewers’ Secret Thoughts: Really? This is your entire response?

Review Team Response: Reacting
Hogwash College is encouraged work on developing plans to benchmark with other colleges in the Illinois College System, or with other institutions on the AQIP Pathway, regarding performance results for Meeting Student and Other Key Stakeholder Needs.

Tip #4: Prompts beginning with “How” require a description or diagram of a process.

This is perhaps the most common and glaring oversight in System Portfolios. It is important to keep in mind that the AQIP Pathway is founded on continuous improvement cycles. For cycles to exist, repetition is essential; thus, you should be able to articulate the “how”—the process—behind your institution’s operations.

How do you recruit, hire and orient employees? (3P1)

Hogwash College: Phase One: The employee meets with the Human Resources director:

  • Sexual harassment policy and training
  • Drug-free workplace policy
  • Telephone, e-mail, and Internet systems
  • Campus dress code
  • Parking permit and issuance of keys

Phase Two: The employee meets with the Payroll Benefits manager:

  • Rate of pay and overtime if applicable
  • Explanation of payroll procedures
  • Completion of I-9 and W-4 documents
  • Explanation of employee benefits, including health insurance, flexible spending account, group life, retirement and optional benefits

Phase Three: The employee meets with the departmental director or vice chancellor:

  • Introduces new employee
  • Describes departmental mission, goals and objectives
  • Reviews job description and discusses duties and responsibilities

Review Team Response: Systematic
Hogwash College appears to have processes in place, but the Systems Portfolio does not actually document the processes. It is impossible to tell whether these processes are goal­based or whether they are aligned with each other.

Tip #5: Provide sufficient detail.

Include enough information for the peer reviewers to understand what you are doing and how you are doing it.

Awarding prior learning and transfer credits (4A2 and 4A3).

Hogwash College: Our students receive credit for prior learning after a rigorous portfolio review or test-out based on the common course outline and administered by a faculty member in the assigned field. We award credit for prior learning on a course-specific basis. Students must prove they have achieved the learning outcomes listed in the common course outline. The credit for prior learning policy stipulates each step in the process, from determining which course is available, to assigning a faculty member to work with the student, to recording a grade for the credit for prior learning. The college adheres to the guidelines established by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. The college also has a comprehensive process for ensuring that transfer credit evaluations are accurate and complete. Similar to credit for prior learning, this process is important because students deserve appropriate compensation for their learning at other colleges. The transfer student process has a streamlined series of steps for students to follow. Students can appeal credit transfer decisions. The college ensures that credits being transferred in are viable, and the college also makes sure that any of its credits that are being transferred to other institutions are equally worthy. To ensure consistency across the state system, the college’s transfer credit evaluators adhere to the system’s course transfer credit policy.

Review Team Response: Systematic
Prior Learning Credit procedures at Hogwash are aligned with CAEL guidelines. Its processes for portfolio completion and faculty review are explicit and consistent, though the portfolio did not specify whether they are evaluated periodically for improvement. The college’s evaluation of transfer credit is explicit and is established through the state community college system.

Tip #6: Be careful with data visualization.

Charts and diagrams are helpful tools for illustrating complex processes or lengthy lists; however, they are not necessary for simple processes that are easily explained in a list. For example, in the chart below, the nine steps might have been more simply and explicitly stated using a sequential list than in a whistle-shaped diagram. In another instance, the institution presented a skillfully formatted index of the Criteria and Core Component locations within the document; however, not all of the Criteria and Core Components were included. Be attentive to detail and wary of getting too creative, lest you detract from the message.


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Tip #7: Ensure clear alignment between process described, results presented and the improvements documented or planned.

When institutions present processes, data or goals that are not explicitly connected, peer reviewers tend to become confused and, therefore, skeptical.  

What are the results for developing, communicating and reviewing the institution’s mission, vision and values? (4R1)

Hogwash College: The annual operational planning process, which is aligned with the strategic plan, provides the basis for alignment of unit mission to institutional goals in all college departments. Alignment to the college’s strategic goals (see Table 23) is accomplished during the annual development/revision of the departmental goals. Administrative review and approval of departmental goals assists the college in meeting its overall mission and goals.

Review Team Response: Systematic
While the data provided bear some relation to Mission and Vision, this relationship is not clear. Further, it is not possible to determine from the data presented in Table 23 if the improvements are statistically significant gains.

In addition, the peer review team’s final report for a recent Hogwash Systems Portfolio noted for Category 2, “Data gathered via the Survey of Stakeholders and the SWOT analysis presented in the portfolio lacked analysis and clarity regarding how they are explicitly associated with the college’s efforts to meet stakeholder needs. Hogwash College conducts some evaluation of its performance in meeting key stakeholder needs, and the processes used might be sustainable and repeatable. However, no evaluation appears to be conducted on stakeholder needs, and no coordinated processes or plans are described for improvement driven by the data.”

For institutions that hire editors to review their Systems Portfolios before submission to HLC, these seven tips provide a framework for editing beyond mechanics.  

Critical tip for peer reviewers

Stay objective and neutral in your language—do not word things too strongly. In the event that a Systems Portfolio fails to meet expectations, you want the institution to have the confidence and desire to read past the strategic issues section to the remainder of the feedback you have provided them.


About the Authors

Jill Carlson is Director for Assessment and Accreditation at Santa Fe Community College in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Janna L. Oakes is Assistant Provost for Accreditation & Research at Regis University in Denver, Colorado; and Rebecca House Stankowski is Interim Assistant Vice Chancellor for Accreditation and Assessment at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, Indiana.

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NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but they do not represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

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