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The Open Pathway

From the HLC Website


The Open Pathway seeks to achieve the following goals.

  • To enhance institutional value by opening the improvement aspect of accreditation so that institutions may choose Quality Initiatives to suit their current circumstances
  • To reduce the reporting burden on institutions by utilizing as much information and data as possible from existing institutional processes and collecting them in electronic form as they naturally occur over time
  • To enhance rigor by checking institutional data annually (Institutional Update) and conducting Assurance Reviews twice in the ten-year cycle
  • To integrate as much as possible all HLC processes and HLC requests for data into the reaffirmation of accreditation cycle.

Factors in Determining Participation in the Open Pathway

The Commission determines whether an institution may participate in the Open Pathway. This determination is based upon the institution’s present condition, including scheduled monitoring, and past relationship with the Commission. An institution may participate in the Open Pathway if it:

  • is accredited and has been accredited for at least ten years;
  • is not in the process of a change of control, structure or organization and has not undergone a change of control, structure, or organization within the last two years;
  • is not under Commission sanction or related action and has not been under Commission sanction or related action within the last five years;
  • does not have pending recommendations for a focused visit or extensive other monitoring and does not have a history of extensive Commission monitoring, including accreditation cycles shortened to seven or fewer years, multiple monitoring reports, and multiple focused visits extending across more than one accrediting cycle;
  • is not and has not been undergoing dynamic change (e.g., significant changes in enrollment or student body, opening or closing of multiple locations or campuses) or requiring frequent substantive change approvals since the last comprehensive evaluation;
  • is not and has not raised significant Commission concerns about circumstances or developments at the institution (e.g., ongoing leadership turnover, extensive review by a governmental agency, patterns identified in financial and non-financial indicators).

If conditions at the institution change in relation to these factors or the institution fails to make a genuine effort at its Quality Initiative, it may be moved to the Standard Pathway for the next cycle.

Assurance and Improvement in the Open Pathway

The Open Pathway separates the continued accreditation process into two components: the Assurance Review and the Quality Initiative.

  • Two Assurance Reviews take place in the ten-year cycle; one in Year 4 and one in Year 10. The Year 4 review occurs asynchronously via the Commission’s online Assurance System and without a visit. The Year 10 review also is conducted with the Assurance System but includes a visit to the campus, as noted below. No change requests may be combined with the Year 4 review; all change requests at Year 4 are evaluated separately through the Commission’s change process.
  • Between Years 5 and 9 of the ten-year cycle, the institution proposes and completes a Quality Initiative. The Assurance Reviews free the Quality Initiative to focus on institutional innovation and improvement. The institution undertakes a Quality Initiative as something it elects to suit its own purposes. Its timeframe is flexible to accommodate the amount of time necessary to complete or make substantial progress toward completion.
  • In Year 10, the institution undergoes a comprehensive evaluation.

Comprehensive Evaluation

A comprehensive evaluation takes place in Year 10 of the ten-year Open Pathway accreditation cycle.

The components of the comprehensive evaluation in the Open Pathway are these:

  • An Assurance Review
  • A review of Federal Compliance
  • An on-site visit
  • If applicable, a multi-campus review

In the comprehensive evaluation, peer reviewers determine whether the institution continues to meet the Criteria for Accreditation by analyzing the institution’s Assurance Filing; a preliminary analysis is followed by a campus visit. The purposes of the visit are to validate claims made in the institution’s Assurance Filing and to triangulate those materials with what the team finds during planned activities while on site.

All comprehensive evaluations include a review of whether the institution meets the Federal Compliance Requirements. In addition, comprehensive evaluations include visits to branch campuses as applicable.

The Quality Initiative

The Open Pathway requires an institution to designate one major improvement effort it has undertaken as its Quality Initiative for reaffirmation of accreditation. The Quality Initiative should suit the institution’s present concerns or aspirations, and takes place between years 5 and 9 of the 10-year Open Pathway Cycle.

Commission Decision-Making Process

The Commission’s decision process is described in detail in separate documentation. Year 4 Assurance Reviews do not lead to reaffirmation of accreditation, and therefore do not require Commission action unless there is a recommendation for an interim report, a sanction, or other change that affects the official accreditation relationship. Otherwise, an institution’s completion of the Year 4 Assurance Review is reported to the Commission’s Institutional Actions Council (IAC), which acts to accept the report. In Year 10, the Commission staff brings together the reports from the Year 10 Assurance Review and visit and the Quality Initiative and forwards them to the IAC for decision-making. In Year 10, the decision process includes Commission action regarding reaffirmation of accreditation and determines the institution’s future Pathway eligibility.

Once the review and decision process are complete, the institution’s Evidence File, Assurance Argument, and final team report are archived by the Commission. The institution then regains access to its Assurance System workspace so that it may begin preparing for the next event in its accreditation timeline.

Phase-In Timeline

Institutions with PEAQ comprehensive evaluations in years 2011-12 through 2014-15 will continue in the current PEAQ process. Pathway eligibility will be determined following Commission action at the conclusion of those reviews. Institutions with comprehensive evaluations scheduled after 2014-15 that are not eligible for the Open or AQIP pathways or that choose the Standard Pathway will transition into the Standard Pathway in 2012-13.

The Open Pathway: HLC Pathways for Reaffirmation of Accreditation
Higher Learning Commission