Higher Learning Commission


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Glossary of HLC Terminology

This glossary offers definitions for words and phrases that are most commonly used in HLC’s policy, procedures and communications.

About Accreditation
About HLC
Eligibility and Candidacy
Accreditation Process
Institutional Change

Peer Review
Decision Making
Programs and Services

About Accreditation

accreditation agency – A nongovernmental body established to administer accrediting procedures.

accreditation, institutional – Accreditation that evaluates an entire educational institution and accredits it as a whole.

accreditation, national – A type of institutional accreditation primarily for religious colleges and universities, private trade and technical schools, private business colleges, and colleges focusing on health-related fields, as well as institutions offering programs primarily through distance delivery and home study.

accreditation, regional – A type of institutional accreditation provided by accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

accreditation, specialized (also called program accreditation) – Accreditation of units, schools or programs within a larger educational institution or for the sole program or area of concentration of an independent, specialized institution.

accredited status – Status that indicates an institution meets HLC’s Criteria for Accreditation.

maintaining accreditation – An institution actively participating in HLC’s accreditation processes to ensure it meets the Criteria for Accreditation.

Notice – A sanction signifying an institution is pursuing a course of action that could result in its being unable to meet one or more of the Criteria for Accreditation.

Obligations of Affiliation – The responsibilities that institutions affiliated with HLC are required to fulfill in order to maintain their affiliation.

Probation – A sanction signifying that an institution no longer meets one or more of the Criteria for Accreditation.

Public Disclosure Notice – A document HLC may post to explain to the public a particular situation at an affiliated institution.

Reaffirmation of Accreditation – An action by an HLC decision-making body confirming an institution meets all of the requirements necessary to keep its accredited status with HLC.

Show-Cause Order – An order by HLC’s Board of Trustees requiring an institution to show cause as to why its accredited status should not be removed.

Statement of Accreditation Status (SAS) – A public summary of the relationship between the institution and HLC that identifies the nature of the institution, the conditions of affiliation, and the degree levels included in accreditation.

stipulations – Limits placed on an institution’s development of new activities or programs.

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About HLC

Accreditation Liaison Officer (ALO) – An individual identified by the chief executive officer of the institution to be second in the line of communication (behind the CEO) with HLC regarding policies, practices and other accreditation matters.

Assumed Practices – A set of practices shared by institutions of higher education that is unlikely to vary by institutional mission or context. Institutions must meet the Assumed Practices to obtain accreditation with HLC.

Board of Trustees – The governing body of HLC, made up of 15 to 21 representatives from HLC member institutions and the public.

Core Components – Subcategories of each Criterion for Accreditation that are reviewed in order to determine whether an institution meets each Criterion.

Criteria for Accreditation – The framework for determining an institution’s accreditation.

Higher Learning Commission (HLC) – One of six regional accreditors in the United States, HLC accredits degree-granting institutions in a 19-state region.

Institutional Status and Requirements Report (ISR Report) – A resource available to an institution’s CEO or Accreditation Liaison Officer that includes the complete institutional history with HLC, information on the status of current and upcoming accreditation events, and information on the institution’s designated pathway and related events.

Institutional Update – An online report completed annually by affiliated institutions regarding institutional health.

staff liaison – One of HLC’s Vice Presidents for Accreditation Relations who serves as a resource for affiliated institutions.

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Eligibility and Candidacy

candidacy – Preaccreditation status offering affiliation, not membership, with HLC.

Candidate for Accreditation – An institution with the preaccredited candidacy status that has met HLC’s eligibility requirements and shows evidence that it is making progress toward meeting all the Criteria for Accreditation.

Candidacy Program – The steps an institution must take to gain candidacy with HLC.

Eligibility Filing – Documentation submitted by an institution considering affiliation with HLC that demonstrates that it meets the Eligibility Requirements.

Eligibility Process – The process by which HLC determines whether a non-affiliated institution is ready to begin the Candidacy Program.

Eligibility Requirements – A set of requirements an institution must meet before it is granted candidacy.

Initial Accreditation – An accreditation status for institutions in their first years of accreditation. Institutions in candidacy must undergo a comprehensive evaluation to ensure they meet the Assumed Practices and the Criteria for Accreditation in full to move to Initial Accreditation.

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Accreditation Process

advisory visit – In response to rapidly changing dynamics at an institution, HLC may send a team of peer reviewers to visit the institution. In collaboration with the institution, HLC determines the scope of the team’s inquiry.

Assurance Argument – A narrative in which the institution explains how it meets HLC’s Criteria for Accreditation that is linked to documents in the Evidence File.

Assurance Filing – Created and submitted by the institution, the filing includes the Assurance Argument with embedded links to documents in the Evidence File.

Assurance Review – The peer review evaluation of the Assurance Filing.

Assurance System – An online system used by institutions to provide an Assurance Argument or Systems Portfolio and evidentiary materials and used by peer reviewers to complete the Assurance Review or Comprehensive Quality Review.

comprehensive evaluation – The process used to determine whether an institution meets or continues to meet the Criteria for Accreditation. The comprehensive evaluation includes an Assurance Review or Comprehensive Quality Review, Federal Compliance review, an on-site visit, a student survey and a multi-campus visit, if necessary.   

dual credit – Courses taught to high school students for which the student receives both high school credit and college credit.

Evaluation Summary Sheet – A document created prior to each evaluation that includes contact information for the institution and peer review team members and other information pertinent to the evaluation.

Evidence File – Documents used in the Assurance Filing that support the institution’s Assurance Argument or Systems Portfolio.

Federal Compliance Requirements – HLC must enforce certain requirements as part of its recognition by the U.S. Department of Education. This includes assuring its members are meeting their Title IV program responsibilities and complying with other expectations.

financial indicators – Financial data provided by an institution through the Institutional Update that allow HLC to determine if the institution is operating with integrity in its financial functions.

focused visit – A team visit that occurs between comprehensive evaluations to examine specific aspects of an institution as a form of special monitoring.

interim report – Special monitoring that occurs between evaluations to provide updates to HLC on an institution.

multi-campus visit – A visit to a selection of an institution’s additional campuses that occurs as part of the comprehensive evaluation.

multi-location visit – Institutions with three or more off-campus additional locations undergo a visit every five years to a sampling of the institution’s additional locations.

non-financial indicators – Data provided by an institution though the Institutional Update that help HLC determine if the institution may be at risk of not meeting components of the Criteria for Accreditation.

Student Opinion Survey – An online survey conducted by HLC as part of comprehensive evaluations. The opinions and data gathered assist peer reviewers in developing questions for their meetings during the on-site visit.

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AQIP Pathway

Action Project – One of multiple, simultaneous quality improvement projects an institution on the AQIP Pathway conducts.

Action Project Update – A required report submitted by an institution on the AQIP Pathway describing the progress of one of its Action Projects.

AQIP Pathway – A pathway for maintaining accreditation with HLC based on the principles of continuous quality improvement. (AQIP stands for Academic Quality Improvement Program.)

AQIP Pathway Categories – The framework linked to the Criteria for Accreditation that institutions on the AQIP Pathway use to examine their internal processes and explore opportunities for improvement.

Comprehensive Quality Review (CQR) – As part of the comprehensive evaluation for institutions on the AQIP Pathway, the Comprehensive Quality Review shows how the institution meets the Criteria and includes a review of the institution’s most recent Systems Portfolio, Systems Appraisal and Quality Highlights Report.

principles for continuous quality improvement – The ideas on which the AQIP Pathway is premised.

Strategy Forum – An event for institutions on the AQIP Pathway to facilitate new strategies and tactics for institutional improvements.

Systems Appraisal – A peer review of the Systems Portfolio.

Systems Appraisal Feedback Report – A peer review team’s report evaluating the Systems Portfolio of an institution on the AQIP Pathway.

Systems Portfolio – A document demonstrating that an institution on the AQIP Pathway meets the Criteria for Accreditation by describing how it fulfills the related AQIP Pathway Categories.

Open Pathway

Open Pathway – A pathway for maintaining accreditation with HLC that features a 10-year reaffirmation cycle where quality assurance and quality improvement are addressed separately.

Quality Initiative – A major quality improvement effort conducted by institutions between Years 5 and 9 of the Open Pathway that addresses a current concern or aspiration specific to the institution.

Quality Initiative Proposal – A proposal submitted by an institution on the Open Pathway explaining the major improvement effort the institution will undertake as its Quality Initiative.

Quality Initiative Report – A report submitted by an institution on the Open Pathway upon completing its Quality Initiative that reflects on accomplishments, documents achievements and strategies, and defines new priorities and challenges.

Standard Pathway

Standard Pathway – A pathway for maintaining accreditation with HLC that features a 10-year reaffirmation cycle where quality assurance and quality improvement are integrated for comprehensive evaluations.

See also Programs and Services.

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Institutional Change

additional location – A place, geographically separate from any main or branch campus, where instruction takes place and students can do one or more of the following:

  • Complete 50 percent or more of the courses leading to a degree program.
  • Complete 50 percent or more of the courses leading to a Title IV eligible certificate.
  • Complete a degree program that they began at another institution even if the degree completion program provides less than 50 percent of the courses leading to a degree program.

There is no base or threshold number of students or distance from the campus necessary for a facility to qualify as an additional location under this definition.

An additional location typically does not have a full range of administrative and student services staffed by the facility's personnel. Such services may be provided from the main campus or another campus.

A facility may provide access to instruction requiring students to be present at a physical location that receives interactive TV, video or online teaching. It is considered an additional location when 50 percent or more of a distance delivery program is available through one or more of these modalities at that facility.

additional location confirmation visit – A visit to an institution’s new additional location to confirm it is operating as described in the institution’s original change request.

campus/branch campus – A location of an institution that is geographically apart and independent of the main campus. HLC considers a location of an institution to be independent of the main campus if the location has all four of the following attributes:

  • It is permanent in nature.
  • It offers courses in educational programs leading to a degree, certificate or other recognized educational credential.
  • It has its own faculty and administrative or supervisory organization.
  • It has its own budgetary and hiring authority.

campus evaluation visit – A visit to a new campus or branch after the campus has been approved by HLC and within six months of matriculation to assure the quality of the campus and its programs in meeting the needs of the institution’s constituencies and to assure the capacity to sustain that quality.

change of control – A transaction that affects, or may affect, corporate control, structure or governance at the accredited or candidate institution.

Change Panel – A panel of three or more peer reviewers that evaluates substantive change applications submitted by institutions.

Change Visit – An on-site visit by a peer review team in response to one or more substantive change applications submitted by institutions.

consortial arrangement – An arrangement in which an HLC-accredited institution develops an agreement with an institution or group of institutions—that is, the consortial party(ies)—through which the consortial party(ies) agree to provide some portion of one or more educational programs (i.e., degrees or certificates offered for academic credit) offered by the HLC-accredited institution.

Consortial Arrangement Screening Form – An online form used by institutions to initiate the process of adding or updating consortial arrangements.

contractual arrangement – An arrangement in which the institution outsources some portion of its educational programs—that is, degrees or certificates offered for academic credit (including instruction, oversight of the curriculum, assurance of the consistency in the level and quality of instruction and in expectations of student performance and/or the establishment of the academic qualifications for instructional personnel)—to:

  1. An unaccredited institution.
  2. An institution that is not accredited by an accreditor recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
  3. A corporation or other entity.

Contractual Arrangement Screening Form – An online form used by institutions to initiate the process of adding or updating contractual arrangements.

correspondence education – Education provided through one or more courses by an institution under which the institution provides instructional materials by mail or electronic transmission, including examinations on the materials, to students who are separated from the instructor.

Interaction between the instructor and the student is limited, is not regular and substantive, and is primarily initiated by the student. Correspondence courses are typically self-paced. Correspondence education is not distance education.

desk review – An evaluation conducted by an HLC official of a change requested by the institution.

distance-delivered courses – Courses in which at least 75 percent of the instruction and interaction occurs via electronic communication, correspondence or equivalent mechanisms, with the faculty and students physically separated from each other.

distance-delivered programs – Certificate or degree programs in which 50 percent or more of the required courses may be taken as distance-delivered courses.

distance education – Education that uses one or more of the technologies listed below to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously. The technologies may include:

  1. The Internet.
  2. One-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite or wireless communications devices.
  3. Audio conferencing.
  4. Video cassettes, DVDs and CD-ROMs, if the cassettes, DVDs or CD-ROMs are used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed above.

Location and Campus Update System – An online system used by institutions to update existing locations and branch campuses. Institutions in the Notification Program may also use it to request new additional locations.

Notification Program for Additional Locations – A program for qualified institutions to notify HLC prior to initiating new additional locations.

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Peer Review

exit session – A meeting between the peer review team and the CEO of the institution at the conclusion of a visit.     

Peer Corps – The group of faculty, administrators and public members from within HLC’s 19-state region who evaluate whether institutions are meeting the Criteria for Accreditation and participate in HLC decision-making bodies.

peer review team – A group of peer reviewers conducting an evaluation on behalf of HLC.

peer reviewer – A member of HLC’s Peer Corps who may also serve as a member of HLC decision-making groups.

Peer Reviewer Data Update System (PRDUS) – The online system used by the Peer Corps that provides peer reviewers an avenue to update contact information, view scheduled visits and update availability.

team chair – The lead of a peer review team who handles contacting the institution and HLC on behalf of the team.

team report – A report submitted by the peer review team to HLC documenting its findings and recommendation following an evaluation.

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Decision Making

Action Letter – Official correspondence from HLC to the institution detailing an action taken by one of HLC’s decision-making bodies regarding that institution.

adverse action – An action by HLC’s Board of Trustees that withdraws or denies accreditation (except in denial of early initial accreditation where the institution continues candidate status), withdraws or denies candidacy, or moves the institution from accredited to candidate status.

Appeals Body – A group of 10 Institutional Actions Council members appointed by the Board of Trustees.

Appeals Panel – A group of five individuals selected from the Appeals Body by HLC’s president that hears an institution’s appeal to an adverse action by the Board of Trustees.

Institutional Actions Council (IAC) – HLC’s decision-making body made up of experienced peer reviewers and representatives of the public.

institutional response – An institution’s written response to a peer review team or Institutional Actions Council recommendation.

official action – An official HLC decision made by the HLC staff, the Institutional Actions Council or HLC’s Board of Trustees.

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Programs and Services

Academies – Four-year, mentor-facilitated programs that help HLC-accredited institutions define, develop and implement comprehensive strategies for institutional improvement.

annual conference – A multi-day event featuring numerous presentations focused on accreditation and higher learning topics.

Assurance Argument Improvement Plan Feedback – In the academic year preceding the comprehensive evaluation, institutions on the Standard Pathway receive an invitation from HLC to submit an improvement plan for feedback. The institution’s staff liaison provides comments intended to clarify expectations regarding the issues to be addressed within the Assurance Argument.

Professional Development Week – A biannual HLC event featuring workshops on assessment of student learning and student success, persistence and completion.

Standard Pathway Q&A Webinars – Webinars providing the opportunity to ask questions about any topic related to the Standard Pathway, including the Assurance System, embedded improvement, monitoring, and so forth.

Standard Pathway Seminars – Seminars on addressing improvement in the Assurance Argument that provide institutions on the Standard Pathway with assistance in formulating improvement plans and feedback on plans that have been drafted.

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Academy cohort – Institutions taking part in an Academy are grouped together in cohorts that complete the Academy experience together.

Academy mentors – A group of trained individuals with expertise in either Academy topic, who facilitate team thinking throughout the Academy experience.

Academy Project – A multi-faceted project focused on initiating, implementing and evaluating change related to assessment or persistence and completion. Academy teams can undertake one or more projects while participating, but it is advisable for teams to focus on one project at a time.

Academy Roundtable – A multi-day event at which Academy teams begin building their strategic Academy Projects and goals.  

Academy team – Faculty, staff and administrators from an institution participating in the Academy who conceptualize, design and implement the institution’s Academy Project through Academy participation.

Academy team lead – A member of the Academy team who is to serve as the main point of contact for the Quality Services staff, Primary Mentor and Scholar.

Assessment Academy – A four-year program of in-person and virtual events tailored for institutions interested in developing an ongoing commitment to assessing and improving student learning.

Collaboration Network – The online process-management portal used by institutions to document progress on their Academy Project, receive feedback from their assigned Primary Mentor and Scholar, and view the Academy Projects of other institutions.

Consolidated Response – The combined feedback from an Academy team’s Primary Mentor and a Scholar to the team’s Project Update in the Collaboration Network.

Data Discovery – A mentor-led event in the Persistence and Completion Academy at which the institution studies its current data sets and the structures currently in place to assure campus-wide engagement in data analysis and planning.

Event Facilitator – A Primary Mentor selected to facilitate conversations and activities at various Academy events.

Impact Report – The Academy team’s culminating report, posted at the end of the four-year Academy term, summarizing the trends that occurred throughout the project and detailing the outcomes.

Information and Planning Workshop – A day-long event to prepare the institutional representatives heading the Academy effort to assemble and lead an effective Academy team.

Letter of Agreement – A document signed by the institution’s president and HLC’s president outlining the expectations of each party throughout the Academy experience.

Mentor Response – Response provided by the Primary Mentor regarding the progress of the Academy Team’s project as communicated in the team’s Project Update in the Collaboration Network.

Midpoint Roundtable – A multi-day event where Academy teams reflect and evaluate their progress, refine their Academy Projects, and receive in-person mentoring.

Persistence and Completion Academy – A four-year program of in-person and virtual events for institutions wishing to build an institutional capacity for the improvement of student persistence and completion.

Primary Mentor – An experienced practitioner in assessing student learning and/or persistence and completion, assigned to guide particular Academy teams for the duration of their participation in the Academy. The role of the Primary Mentor is to facilitate team thinking and a project-based approach to addressing assessment or persistence and completion. The Academy team’s Primary Mentor is responsible for completing the Primary Response to each Project Update, and in the Persistence and Completion Academy, the Primary Mentor is also responsible for conducting the Data Discovery.

Project Updates – Posts to the Collaboration Network made twice each year by Academy teams documenting the learning outcomes, accomplishments and results of their continuing work on the Academy Project.

Results Forum – A multi-day event at the end of an Academy cycle when teams evaluate the impact of their Academy Project, showcase accomplishments, share best practices, and design strategies to sustain their progress.

Scholar – A subject-matter expert on the topic of assessment of student learning and/or persistence and completion contracted by HLC to offer additional guidance to Academy teams on their Project Updates.

Senior Scholar – A subject-matter expert contracted by HLC to consult on the design of the curriculum and activities for all Academy components in addition to offering additional comments on Project Updates.

Third-Year Consultation – An Academy event in which the Primary Mentor reviews the Academy team’s progress and offers recommendations for the team’s final year in the Academy.

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Additional Resources


2017 Resource Guide