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Columbia Gorge Community College nears accreditation

Columbia Gorge Community College officials hope the last hurdle has been cleared to achieve independent status after five years of a rigorous self-examination process.

In about two weeks, Karen Carter, chief student services officer, said the college will receive a draft report from evaluators who spent three days at The Dalles and Hood River campuses last week.

She said the report presented by the Northwest Commission on College and Universities, based in Seattle, will then be reviewed for areas of concern or factual errors that need to be addressed.

Once that is done, Dr. Frank Toda, president of the college, Brian Greene, interim chief academic officer, Dr. Ernie Keller, a member of the board, and Carter will travel to Seattle in June to answer final questions from the panel.

The commission is comprised of educators from community colleges not within the state of Oregon.

If all goes well, said Carter, the college will be able to maintain its own transcripts and make its own decisions about curriculum issues by fall 2013.

Currently, CGCC operates under the umbrella of Portland Community College and associate degrees or certification received by students bears the name of the metro school. Student records are also stored at the parent college so accessing data involves additional steps that can result in time delays.

“I felt it was a very good visit; that we were prepared to answer the questions they asked and each group told its story of the college,” Carter said. “As a result of this process, we’ve matured as an institution because each time they’ve (evaluators) given us a recommendation, they’ve given us a pathway to achieve that recommendation.”

Carter said the fourth and final visit by the evaluation team April 22-24 included interviews with students, staff, faculty, board of education members. Also questioned were representatives from the steering committee appointed to address accreditation issues, which is co-chaired by Carter and Greene.

“The NWCCU accreditation standards have provided us with a clear road map for improving our ability to deliver critical 21st century knowledge, attitudes and skills for new 21st century challenges,” stated Dr. Frank Toda, president of the college in an April 22 press release.

“Furthermore, because of the processes inherent in the standards, we now have a common definition of quality and continuous process improvement.”

Toda said achieving accreditation will be formal recognition that the educational programs at CGCC are equivalent to other top-rated institutes across the nation.

Two years ago, CGCC earned the right by seeking accreditation to process its own financial aid applications for students instead of PCC handling that task. The college was also granted the ability to have a registrar working as a liaison with PCC so that student records could be accessed much faster.

The college has long handled its own budget issues so Carter said not a lot will change on that front.

She said a program to assist veterans with educational benefits is expected to be fully operational by fall, about the time the college hopes to step out on its own.

“It’s an exciting time to be here,” Carter said.

The CGCC board decided to pursue accreditation in 2006 and the process began about 18 months later. Since that time, administrators have been working to get policies and procedures in place to provide oversight of a fully-functioning, independent institution.

In April 2011, evaluators visited the gorge and provided a list of areas that needed improvement before a final review of CGCC operations took place.

One of the recommendations made by the commission was that CGCC perform a more in-depth assessment of earning outcomes at the course, program and degree levels and incorporate that analysis into the instructional process. The commission felt that a program needed to be put in place to evaluate the effectiveness of faculty in educating students within their chosen fields of study.

The assessment process was in place by spring 2012 and involves gathering input wherever possible from community partners. For example, students seeking careers in nursing, one of the college’s signature programs, now work with professionals in supervised internships who can gauge areas of weakness and strength. Feedback from these partners is then used to make determination about where programs need to be adjustments to increase student understanding of lessons.

Instructors are now also using different tools to measure whether students have internalized the teaching from the course and are not just relying on test scores and grades. These tools include practical application of lessons and development of a portfolio that can be appraised, as well as research projects.

The goal of faculty is to help students increase their deductive reasoning and decision-making skills, which will enable them to be more competitive in a global economy. The 127 full-time and part-time educators are now evaluated at least once every five years to determine if they are staying abreast of current learning needs. In addition, the college is looking for areas where more support can be provided to professors, or changes made to policies and procedures, that will enable them to send lifelong learners out into the world.

“It’s been a lot of work to get these processes in place and everyone at the college has pitched in to make them a success,” said Carter.

In 2010, the college was one of only two in the state to receive a $2 million U.S. Department of Education “Title III” grant to help with the accreditation process and make improvements in technology and other areas of focus.

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