Case Study: Helping Cascadia Community College streamline NWCCU accreditation

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Washington State, Cascadia College was ranked #2 on a list of “America’s Best Community Colleges,” and offered the state’s highest transfer rate to four-year colleges. The challenge was finding a way to document their many successes for their accrediting body – the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU).

Cascadia College Logo

“With the Campus Labs platform, Hamilton’s team at Cascadia has the powerful tools they need to show evidence of learning, which is crucial in terms of accreditation — and beyond.”

In the past, the Cascadia accreditation team would set up “evidence rooms” crammed with tables covered with handbooks and other proof that students were learning, according to Susi Hamilton, Director for Institutional Effectiveness at Cascadia. Her team then used this evidence to create Microsoft® Word documents, which were shared with up to twenty people at a time, and painstakingly edited into master files.

As a result of this cumbersome process, Hamilton said that the campus had to shut down editing “weeks before” the reports were due. To make matters worse, the end result – a PDF – had links that often didn’t work. In searching for a better way to manage the accreditation process, Cascadia wanted to streamline the process, while giving everyone on campus more ways to enhance student success. “Cascadia is a campus that is wonderful at doing assessments,” said Hamilton. But many of the processes were fragmented, and not readily transparent. “It was a lot of reports living on shelves or on a drive somewhere,” added Hamilton.

After a careful review process, Hamilton and her team chose the Campus Labs platform, which featured a leading accreditation solution. The platform is designed to let campuses quickly add links directly into the file, which eliminates the need for Cascadia’s “evidence rooms,” and allows users to simply click on a link to see the related proof right on their screen. The toolset also automatically organizes and packages all the information in one central location online, so Cascadia’s accreditation team could keep making changes much later in the process, without having to compile edits from dozens of outside authors.

With the Campus Labs platform, “we didn’t have to change our processes to use the product – and that was huge to us,” said Hamilton. Instead, the Campus Labs implementation team helped Cascadia adapt the Improvement & Accountability toolset for their needs, including changing semesters to quarters, and providing templates for NWCCU accreditation that were “laid out in a way that made sense,” said Hamilton, so “it wasn’t as intimidating as sitting down to an empty white screen.”

By choosing Campus Labs, “I feel like I hired four employees – at least,” Hamilton noted. “They’re knowledgeable in assessment – and on the technical side.” In follow-up meetings, Cascadia’s accreditation team remarked on “the ease of writing compared to passing around multiple versions of the report in Word,” according to Hamilton, as well as the fact that the solution is web-based, so people “could work from anywhere there was a connection – even their iPad.”

Today, much of the data for the accreditation process comes through the toolsets for Improvement & Accountability and Student Engagement. Designed for conducting assessments and measuring student involvement, the platform allows administrators to share data among divisions and link outcomes directly to assessment measures. “Now everything connects, and it’s really starting to make sense to people,” said Hamilton. “They see those paths that say ‘learning outcomes,’ and they’ll click on links and read through for more information.”

The real value of the accreditation solution became apparent when Cascadia’s accreditation review report was due, shortly after they began using the Campus Labs platform. When the NWCCU evaluator came to visit, the only thing they asked for was one paper that they didn’t already have, simply because Cascadia had not yet finished a program review cycle (instead, they used the web-based solution to print a template for the evaluator).

Being able to give the evaluator everything they needed before they arrived on campus helped Hamilton prove to campus administrators that the Improvement & Accountability toolset made the accreditation process much more efficient, allowing her team to spend more time learning from the process, rather than simply completing each step. The Campus Labs platform was also the perfect vehicle for highlighting student success and institutional progress. Hamilton understands that accreditation evaluators “like hearing that all the pieces are connecting, and being used to make better learning experiences for the students,” which is exactly what the toolset was designed to do.

Beyond accreditation, administrators have also used the centralized platform to build operational plans, create a “documented, systematic process” for program reviews, and pull specific reports for these reviews, including recommended equipment purchases for each program. Given the proven results and robust functionality, Hamilton noted that the investment in Improvement & Accountability solution wasn’t even questioned during budget time.

Hamilton’s team at Cascadia now has the powerful tools they need to show evidence of learning, which is crucial in terms of accreditation – and beyond. Whether it’s reporting to administrators, seeking funding from state lawmakers, or preparing for their next program review, the team at Campus Labs “has provided us with a way to tell our story.”