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MARCH 19, 2014

Accreditation organization satisfied with Three Rivers' progress in planning and assessment

The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), a regional accreditation organization, announced that Three Rivers College has successfully eliminated its weaknesses in strategic planning and student outcomes assessment in a letter sent to the college. According to the HLC, the college has removed previously determined weaknesses that threatened its accreditation status.

"We're extremely pleased the Higher Learning Commission is satisfied with our progress, as accreditation is vital to the quality of education we deliver," said Dr. Devin Stephenson, President of Three Rivers College. "It also represents the culmination of five years of work, learning, and planning that has made Three Rivers one of the strongest higher education institutions in the state."

The Higher Learning Commission first recommended an overhaul to Three Rivers' strategic planning and assessment systems in 1998, following a reaffirmation of accreditation visit. The HLC put greater emphasis on the requirements after their next visit in 2008 revealed no change in the college's assessment, planning, and budgeting processes.

When HLC's team returned in November 2013 for a follow-up visit, they came back to what team members described as a changed institution. Following the retirement of college President Dr. John Cooper and much of the institution's executive leadership team, Three Rivers hired Stephenson with an institutional reorganization in mind, one that would specifically address the Higher Learning Commission's concerns.

When Stephenson's tenure began in 2009, the college began significantly changing its organizational structure, and brought college and community leaders together to create a five-year strategic plan for Three Rivers called "Vision 2015." The college also merged its planning and budgeting processes, moving to a zero-base budgeting model where all expenditures are now based on data-driven, strategic planning priorities. Dr. Maribeth Payne was hired as Director of Continuous Improvement to oversee the strategic planning process for the college. She provides direction in the management of the college's digital planning platform, Strategic Planning On Line.

"Before, planning happened in a vacuum, with each department making decisions based upon its own priorities from year to year," said Stephenson. "Now everything we do aligns with our institutional goals and strategic themes. The assessment of each department's annual plan drives input into the subsequent year's plan. Each step builds on the one before it."

To make its case to the HLC team, Three Rivers provided extensive documentation of improvements in a 25-page narrative detailing the journey to full strategic planning, backed up by 900 pages of reports and planning documents. The rigorous record-keeping was enough to impress even the experts of the HLC team.

"Solid leadership, pervasive understanding by faculty and staff of the importance of planning and assessment across the college convinced the team that Three Rivers is clearly on the path of incorporating a true plan of action for the college," said the assessment team in its report following the November 2013 visit.

While the immediate demand for planning is satisfied, Stephenson is far from finished. With the end of the college's first five-year planning cycle approaching, Three Rivers' president is already looking ahead to "Vision 2020."

"The Higher Learning Commission's enthusiasm is gratifying, but I'm not satisfied with just the baseline requirements," said Stephenson. "I want to make sure that Three Rivers has the foundations to carry on not just for the next five or 10 years, but the next 50."
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