To say the future of the accreditation process for California’s community colleges has been unclear lately is the peak of all understatements. Yet even while the conversations swirl over what direction the community college system will take, colleges throughout the state are still working feverishly to create their self-evaluations for the upcoming cycle. A new aspect of that process for colleges that have not completed a self-evaluation under the 2014 standards is the Quality Focus Essay (QFE).
The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) began requiring the QFE as part of the Self-Evaluation Reports for Spring 2016 visits; however, the concept of an expanded and comprehensive plan for improvement embedded in a college’s self-evaluation is not a new approach to self-evaluation and continuous quality improvement, as other regional accreditors use similar essays in a variety of formats. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools uses a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) and the Higher Learning Commission provides a framework for large-scale or long-term improvement in its Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP). The ACCJC created the QFE with the stated purpose to be an instrument the colleges use to “discuss and commit to two or three areas for further study, improvement, and enhancement of academic quality that are hoped to enhance student outcomes and student success.” Colleges need to understand exactly what the QFE is and how faculty can be involved.
Under the new and previous standards, colleges are expected to record changes and plans that arise out of the self-evaluation process. In addition, colleges are now to identify two or three “action projects” that are “vital to the long-term improvement of student learning and achievement over a multi-year period.” Within the 5,000-word limit of the QFE, plans for these projects are laid out with specific details and benchmarks. The projects “should be realistic and culminate in a set of observable and measurable outcomes.” Progress on these projects will be a focus of the Midterm Report and visit. According to Commission Associate Vice President Dr. Norv Wellsfry in his presentation at the ASCCC Accreditation Institute in February, this project should be related to accreditation standards, be based on data found in the Self Evaluation Report, and be focused on multi-year and long-term goals.
According to Wellsfry, the QFE identifies areas or projects and establishes measurable goals and outcomes. A timeline to implement action steps should be included, and all responsible parties should be identified. If additional resources are needed, the QFE should include how that issue will be addressed and establish a plan for how to assess completion of the plan and how to measure its success and effectiveness.
With the implementation of this requirement, faculty must ensure that the creation of this essay and the plans it establishes are vetted thoroughly with a faculty perspective and support effective practices that involve faculty and are meaningful to students. When a college sets out to write a QFE, the local academic senate should make certain the institution’s board policy regarding academic and professional matters is respected and insist that the process for creating the plans follows a collegial consultation process similar to what any planning document would undergo. The plan’s inclusion in an accreditation self-evaluation does not make it a purely administrative matter.
According to Wellsfry, the college’s accreditation visiting team and the ACCJC will provide feedback on the QFE, but how progress on the plans will be considered during annual or mid-term reporting is unclear. Currently unanswered questions involve what happens if a college has not made substantial progress on the actions outlined in the QFE, whether colleges may include projects in a QFE that have been identified in a focused planning process rather than growing from the self-evaluation, and how specific the planning should be in a 5,000-word essay.
As more colleges create their QFEs and make public the feedback they receive from their external visiting teams and the commission, all institutions will learn more about this new requirement and whether it will be a benefit to colleges or a burden. Meanwhile, faculty can insist on being engaged in the process of creating a QFE and have input even in areas that are not traditionally the primary responsibility of faculty. Those who serve on planning and operations committees, hiring committees outside of hiring new faculty, and institutional effectiveness committees and data analysis groups can and should all provide important feedback in the creation of a QFE.
 “New Accreditation Standards and Practices: Focus on Quality Improvement.” ACCJC presentation to the Community College League of California Annual Convention, November 19, 2015.
 Guide to Evaluating and Improving Institutions (July 2015), page 3 http://www.accjc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Manual_for_Institutiona…