HLC Accreditation: 2017 Comprehensive Review


Dr. Stefani Hicswa

Dear Higher Learning Commission Review Team,

From its 1946 inception as the University of Wyoming Northwest Center, Northwest College has evolved to an institution of academic strength, serving its students, district taxpayers, and three-county service area with a broad array of transfer and technical programs. The college has shown resolve in facing higher education’s traditional challenges as well as Wyoming’s energy-related boom and bust periods that at times have created unstable revenue for the college.

 NWC’s distinguishing characteristics include the following impressive attributes:

  • Long-held reputation for exceptional academic quality
  • Large transfer student population (highest percentage in the state)
  • Multiple co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities, including international travel
  • Large international student population (highest percentage among Wyoming colleges)
  • Private foundation with assets of nearly $38 million

We have worked diligently to follow-up on the findings addressed in our April 2013 Focused Visit since I became president in July 2013 (see commentary below). I am proud of the progress we have made in assessment of learning outcomes, planning, and governance. Improvements laid the groundwork for success and positive trajectory throughout many areas of campus.

Student success initiatives have led to NWC’s highest completion rate on record at 37% and to a tie for the highest retention rate of any Wyoming community college at 62%. Northwest was the first community college in the state to complete the initial tier of transfer agreements with the University of Wyoming, allowing students to transfer at the junior level. The College’s physical campus expanded with completion of the Yellowstone Building, our largest instructional facility, and plans are underway to address additional facility needs. We proactively and strategically reduced our FY17 budget by about 15% to address revenue loss after energy prices fell sharply. A Strategic Enrollment Management plan was initiated in response to enrollment decreases, and a new Mission Statement and strategic plan (Vision 2020) were created through a process involving the campus community and external stakeholders.

I am proud of the College’s many accomplishments and commitment to helping students succeed. Our Assurance Argument is thorough, meticulously supported with evidence files, and confidently addresses HLC concerns from our last comprehensive review. After years of focused work, I believe we are ready to progress to the Open Pathway. Therefore, I respectfully request that Northwest College be removed from the Standard Pathway and advanced to the Open Pathway. I very much look forward to your visit in September.

Stefani Hicswa, Ph.D.

Commentary on recent findings and subsequent actions 

The 2010 comprehensive review, conducted under the now defunct PEAC model, resulted in continued monitoring on 3 areas of focus: assessment of student learning; governance and administration; and planning and budgeting process. In 2013, an HLC focused visit team found that these areas had been adequately addressed by the college (Buttry, Johnston-Ortiz and Tammone, 2013), but expressed continued concerns in all three focus areas. All three areas are addressed below.

 Assessment of student learning

Narrative for Criterion 4.B. of the assurance argument describes the changes in assessment of student learning since the 2013 focused visit. Changes began with the establishment of the Central Assessment Team (CAT) which initiated and maintained a system of ongoing assessment across all programs with annual reporting to the CAT. The assessment system includes review of assessment reports and critical feedback to programs, and evaluation in terms of findings and follow up action.  Northwest College (NWC) endeavors to continuously improve assessment of student learning outcomes, and therefore the process continues to evolve around the foundation and principles endorsed by the Central Assessment Team in 2013.

The 2013 focused visit team acknowledged progress in regard to assessment of student learning, but observed that NWC did not completely meet the expectation that the institutions “should demonstrate a clear mechanism on how assessment results are feeding into planning and into budget development as well as into curricular change.” Criterion 4.B. of the assurance argument describes analysis mechanisms that facilitate the use of assessment results in planning and budget development, and examples of how assessment of student learning outcomes have been used in making decisions.

Governance and Administration

The 2013 focused visit team expressed concerns about “the continuing lack of trust between faculty and administration,” and reported that “some faculty expressed the view that . . . many faculty have no faith that administration will adhere to the policies expressed in [the Shared Governance Handbook].” However, it is important to note that the sentiment expressed by “some faculty” does not necessarily represent the views of “many faculty”. In fact, there was/is no evidence presented to support this assertion. With the exception of the Vice President for College Relations, all administrators and deans in place during the 2010 comprehensive visit, and all but the Vice President for Academic Affairs from the time of the 2013 focused visit, have since left NWC.  In that same time period, 30 long term faculty members retired, and most of those were replaced by new hires. As a result, the culture of NWC has shifted as new members joined the community. Some employees may harbor lingering distrust based on experience with former administrators, however there is no evidence that this distrust is currently warranted. To the contrary, evidence that most employees are satisfied with administration and other aspects of college culture is found in response to two college work culture surveys, the Great Colleges to Work For survey and the PACE survey. The Great Colleges survey was administered in 2012 and 2014 and responses showed significant increase in satisfaction from 2012 to 2014. The PACE survey (2016) results, when compared with a norm reference group of colleges, showed that NWC staff perception of college environment is generally consistent with the norm.

Faculty and staff have many opportunities for meaningful participation in the “consult, decide and inform” structure of NWC shared governance.  A fundamental element of the shared governance structure is the comprehensive vetting process for hiring administrative officers of the college.  All administrative officers (except for the Vice President for College Relations) are new since the 2010 comprehensive review. The Vice President for Academic Affairs was hired in 2012, the President in 2013, the Vice President for Administrative Services in 2014, and Vice President for Student Services in 2016. All were hired as a result of a search process that included participation by faculty, professional and classified staff. NWC search processes include extensive vetting within the college community, and culminate in the search committee recommending a candidate for hire. This hiring process is evidence that employees have significant opportunity for meaningful participation in important decision making.

President Hicswa and administrators engage in formal and informal shared governance in decision making, as evidenced by regular meetings with constituent group presidents, College Council (see 5.B.), Employee Employment Policy Review Committee, Faculty Employment Policy Committee, appointment of task forces to address specific issues, monthly all employee meetings, and broad participation by the college community in revising the mission and creating the strategic Vision 2020 (see 1.A.). These committees and participatory processes are evidence that administrators, faculty, professional and classified staff participate in consultative processes. 

The Vice President for Academic Affairs (VPAA) regularly engages the Academic Advisory Council (AAC) regarding issues important to academic affairs and the college at large. The AAC discusses and advises on issues such as budgeting, prioritization of faculty positions for hire, and academic policies.  The AAC is comprised of academic division chairs, the library director, the registrar, the dean of student learning, and the dean of extended campus and workforce development. Division chairs are appointed by the VPAA, who considers the results of a formal vote by division faculty on candidates for the position (page 60 of the employment handbook evidence file). The membership and role of the AAC in consultation with the VPAA is evidence of the shared governance process at work in Academic Affairs.

The Vice President for Administrative Services (VPAS) has implemented a budget development process with broad based participation. The VPAS meets with budget managers (employees who have expenditure authority) individually and as group to gather information for the development of the budget. These consultations include discussion of current and future funding priorities. The President approves the budget developed through this process, and forwards the budget to the Board of Trustees for final approval. This participatory and transparent budget development process is evidence of the shared governance process at work in Administrative Services. (See 5.A, 5.C)

 Planning and Budgeting  

Under the leadership of President Hicswa and Vice President for Administrative Services and Finance, planning and budgeting processes have changed significantly since the 2013 focused visit. The Action Resource Planning process described in the 2013 Report of a Focused Visit has been supplanted by a broad based participatory process involving constituencies across the college.

In order to better tie budgeting to planning the College first needed to develop a new strategic vision. In beginning the strategic planning work, President Hicswa soon realized the mission statement also needed revision. Once the mission statement was revised and key performance indicators were finalized for the Strategic Vision 2020 using campus-wide shared governance processes, the institution then began linking processes for budgeting to planning. (See 1.A.1, 1.B, 1.S, 5.A.3, 5.A.5 and 5.C)

Planning activities are based on the Strategic Vision 2020, which focuses on a future/forward thinking agenda as reflected in the Mission statement. In service to Vision 2020, President Hicswa schedules regular planning meetings that include Vice Presidents, the director of the NWC Foundation, and other staff members as appropriate for the topic under discussion. Recently these meetings have focused on implementing a plan to obtain funding for two new buildings to replace outdated facilities– a student center and visual and performing arts facility. These projects are the College’s top Facilities Master Plan projects (see 5.C.2)

Examples of major planning initiatives linked to budgeting include the following:

  • Prioritization of policy reform (see 5.C.2 and 5.A.5)
  • Development of capital asset plans
    • Campus Facilities Master Plan (See 5.C.2)
  • Residential Hall Plan
  • Landscaping Plan
  • Hardscape Plan
  • Academic buildings Plan
    • Campus capital financing planning
  • Assessment of student learning (see 4.B.)
  • Emergency planning (see 5.C.3)
  • Campus Technology plans
  • Strategic Enrollment Management (5.C.4)
  • Predictive scheduling

President Hicswa charged the institutional effectiveness committee and various Futures Task Forces to further anticipate emerging factors for budgeting and planning, such as the organizational structure of the college and employee compensation (see 5.A.5 and 5.C.5). Because of the planning work over the last four years, the institutional effectiveness committee will undertake the next step to identify, develop, and prioritize a plan for the comprehensive review of all programs and services starting in FY2018. The results of this analysis will inform future budget decisions.


Northwest College has made significant progress in all three of the areas of concern identified by Higher Learning Commission peer evaluators in the 2010 comprehensive review and the 2013 focused visit. New leadership has emphasized participatory decision processes, sustainable assessment of student outcomes, and strategic short and long term planning. The institution has demonstrated a commitment to continuous improvement in all its operations, and the ability to sustain improvement through external and internal challenges. We believe we are ready to move on to the Open Pathway.