Columbia to continue with renewed accreditation

By Brandon Smith

Columbia’s status as an accredited institution of higher learning was unconditionally continued for the next 10 years as of Sept. 14 by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

The decision was widely expected by the Columbia administration. The HLC review group’s report frequently praised the college and didn’t publicly cite areas in which the college needed to improve, like it did in 1999.

“The real success story is what the college has accomplished over the last 10 years,” said Anne Foley, associate provost of Administration, who oversaw the two-year self-study the college provided to the HLC, a multi-state review group of collegiate professors and administrators.

“There’s an awful lot of people all over the campus who get credit for the fact that we’re a much better place now than we were 10 years ago,” Foley said.

The HLC’s report was riddled with quotes like, “The number and quality of [Columbia’s] outreach efforts, its partnerships with educational, arts, and community groups, its ubiquitous physical presence among old but revitalized buildings in the area, the service attitude of its faculty and students, and many other manifestations of engagement indicate that Columbia College Chicago has achieved an unusually high level of integration and involvement with the community, the city, the United States and even the world.”

According to Foley, the once-a-decade process of evaluating a college’s accreditation is meant for two things: to ensure an institution is meeting common standards for higher education and to facilitate improvement via talks with members of the HLC.

The HLC is special in the fact that the federal government recognizes it as an authority that can, in essence, certify that colleges are doing their jobs. It can withhold accreditation if some key component of education or administration is egregiously in error. But mostly, it extends the stamp of approval, Foley said, with either public stipulations or private suggestions about how to better the college. Columbia only had private suggestions this time around.

At Foley’s direction, Columbia’s Office of Research, Evaluation and Planning enlisted the help of faculty, staff and a few students to study the school prior to the accreditation process. This self-study has taken place at least three times prior to the 2008 study, Foley said.

This time, the office and the broader study team worked about 18 months, producing a 210-page report for the HLC. But Foley said the work benefited Columbia internally, and will continue to help with many years of planning.

If the self-study could be said to have a single theme, it is this: maintaining educational standards amid the rapid growth of the student body. The HLC report also focused on how Columbia has weathered its growth. In 10 years’ time, the student body ballooned from around 8,800 to around 12,000, according to the self-study.

According to several faculty and administrators,  as Columbia has grown,  so has its brand recognition around the country. Or possibly, student body growth and brand recognition go hand in hand, since arbitrary caps on admission (forcing things like selectivity based on merit) have not been a part of Columbia’s recent history. The report from the HLC framed Columbia’s admissions policy as one that encourages diversity.

“The determination to maintain generous admissions to attract a diverse student body in a multicultural society is evident in the various types of diversity …  in the demographics and interests of the students,” the report states. “[Columbia] recognizes in its policies and its programming that generous admissions place special responsibility on the college to provide developmental and remedial assistance to students who might not otherwise persist in their quest for a degree.”

Columbia is different than it was 10 years ago in other ways. For students in the late 1990s, each department had its own personality, said Michelle Passarelli, assistant director of Alumni Relations. Passarelli graduated from Columbia in 1999 with a degree in marketing communications, advertising and copywriting.

“The experience now is a more Columbia experience,” Passarelli said. “Back then, it was more departmental.”

The departments almost had their own brands in the 1990s, according to Mary Forde, assistant vice president of Creative and Print Services. The thought was that the departments shouldn’t compete with with each other in the job marketplace, she said.

Passarelli said that at Columbia today, “there’s definitely more right-hand talking to the left hand on campus.” For students, this means better opportunities to get involved outside one’s major, and even just “to learn what’s going on outside their own department,” Passarelli said.

Also, the South Loop neighborhood has changed dramatically.

There didn’t used to be the “campus feeling” there is now,  Passarelli said,  referring to the beautification of the sidewalks and the flower boxes along Wabash and Michigan avenues.  When she was a student, there was “a lot of … looking over your shoulder when you go from point A to point B.”

George Bailey, professor of English at Columbia, used the word “gentrification,” which describes a neighborhood transformed by the arrival of more affluent residents, sometimes forcing poorer residents away as cost of living and taxes rise.

The price of real estate certainly has gone up. According to the real estate Web site, the price to purchase a square foot of living space in the Near South Side neighborhood has risen from the mid-to-high $100s to the mid-to-high $200s in the past 10 years.

Passarelli said the campus today feels more collegiate than when she was an undergraduate student.  At that time, “it was just a bunch of buildings in the South Loop,” she said. “Even Grant Park was not what it is right now.”

Bailey has seen the school grow by leaps and bounds. When he received his bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 1974, less than 2,000 students attended classes in “rented warehouse space,” according to Columbia’s Web site.

Bailey said the college is slowly becoming more traditional as it grows, but even then,  “I think that we’ve gotten a lot of new faculty in with fresh ideas. That’s good.” Bailey said these people have brought “new ways of thinking about accountability. We’ve always been interested in. Do student outcomes match up with what our syllabi proclaim? Are we doing what we say we’re doing?”

“The piece of paper, the diploma, the degree … has a lot more value, I think,” Bailey said. “I think in 1999, Columbia’s degree had a lot more value than when I graduated and I think it has a lot more value now than it had in 1999. We just keep evolving.”

But among other things, one prominent attribute of the school has seemed to remain constant.

“One of the selling points of the college is that faculty teach what they do,” Bailey said. “So in 1999, that was still happening. That was still one of the active ingredients in this institution. That’s why students came here. This place is pretty miraculous. It’s grown quickly because it’s a good product.”