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Liberty receives exceptional news from accrediting agency

Liberty University recently received notice from its accrediting agency, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, that its Fifth-Year Interim Report was fully accepted with “no additional reporting” requested.

Dr. Ron Godwin, Liberty’s senior vice president for Academic Affairs and provost, said requesting no additional reporting is rare for an institution. He said only one or two schools a year receive a fully accepted report. For example, in years past Liberty itself has been asked for as many as 80 additional reports.

“Often recommendations are made, so to receive the response with no further reports requested is exceptional and a blessing,” Godwin said. “We are immensely proud of the work that our deans, department heads, assessment coordinators, and their faculty contributed to achieving this great result. It was literally a university-wide effort extending over at least a year and a half, with thousands of man hours invested, and all of that resulted in the best SACS letter Liberty has ever received.”

While SACS requires an even more rigorous self-study report every 10 years, schools must also complete a report every five years, proving they have met 17 of the most demanding Principles of Accreditation, which include every aspect of the university’s operation, from academic programs to financial aid, administrative leadership, and student services — for its residential and online programs.

The response from SACS not only means Liberty is meeting the most challenging standards, but puts the school in a favorable position as it heads toward completion of its full compliance report — composed of responses to 96 standards — that must be submitted in September 2015.

Bill Wheeler, Liberty’s associate vice president for Institutional Effectiveness, said the “clean bill of health” gives Liberty faculty, staff and administration “tremendous momentum moving into the future.”

“People feel relieved, people feel empowered, and people have the confidence they need to be able to say, ‘OK we’re on the right track so let’s keep making it happen,’” he said.

The Office of Institutional Effectiveness compiled the data for the 201-page report, which also included more than 120 appendices of supplemental materials, such as organizational charts, handbooks, and catalogs containing policies and information on every academic program at the university.

The report includes everything that is evidence of student success, including course completion rates, student retention, graduation rates, and whether students are getting a job in the area in which they were trained. Information on Liberty’s programs that lead to licensing and certifications, such as counseling, nursing, and law, is also reported.

Another large requirement dealt with providing learning outcomes data, for both residential and online programs, that serves as evidence the student is achieving skills needed to succeed in a future career related to their major. This requirement was especially challenging for Liberty as its online education program has grown dramatically in the last few years, to over 80,000 students studying around the globe.

“We were able to demonstrate the comparability (between online and residential programs); that’s a huge standard that most universities fail,” Wheeler said.

The school also had to prove it had effective procedures for assessing every complaint a student could file, keeping records on all of them and proving a fair process was followed giving students full access the entire way.

Standards for the fifth-year report also included faculty credentials and proving the faculty-student ratios were appropriate.

The university’s facilities were also scrutinized, with evidence that the university had an adequate budget to not only maintain current facilities but also plan for future growth. Building plans were submitted, including Liberty’s campus transformation now under way.

“This report looked at where are we right now and how we have been improving  — the whole SACS philosophy is based on continuous improvement,” Wheeler said.

For this reason, the fifth-year SACS report must also include evidence that the school is implementing its Quality Enhancement Plan, a central component of accreditation that shows the school is forward-looking in its programs.

Schools determine their own QEP, chosen at the time of each full compliance report. Liberty chose to enhance graduate student writing with the creation of a graduate student writing center. But Liberty’s plan did not stop there.

“We did that residentially and it was very successful, so we expanded that to undergraduate and online,” said Dr. Emily Heady, dean of the College of General Studies and former director of the writing center.

Now called the University Writing Program, all Liberty students have access to resources to improve their writing, including one-on-one peer tutoring sessions.

The program recently moved into newly renovated space on the second floor of Arthur S. DeMoss Learning Center, adjacent to the ILRC (Integrated Learning Resource Center).

The University Writing Program also recently announced the opening of its newest facility, the Spanish Writing Center (SWC), to provide writing tutoring services for Liberty University en Español students. The innovative center assists Spanish-speaking graduate and undergraduate students who are writing in their native language.

Heady said while most schools Liberty’s size have a writing center, Liberty’s is unique in that it offers its own resources to online students.

Liberty University was first accredited by SACS in 1980. In 2009, Liberty received Level VI accreditation, the highest classification from SACS reserved for colleges and universities that offer four or more doctoral degrees.