Creating a new Educational Master Plan requires campus wide reflection, months of research writing, and faith in the process.
Renewing the district’s accreditation, including an extensive self-evaluation, reveals areas that should be celebrated and those where improvement may be needed.
Doing both at the same time, while challenging, has also unlocked a deeper understanding of what’s happening at Merced College and what steps the district will take to more effectively fulfill its institutional mission of helping students succeed.
Educational Master Plan
“The question of ‘How do we want to grow as an institution?’ we answer by crafting an EMP,” said Julie Clark, a mathematics professor who also served as co-chair of the EMP Task Force.
The EMP for 2023-2028 was developed from October 2022 through May 2023, and approved by the Merced Community College District Board of Trustees on June 13. The task force evaluated the college from student, faculty and community perspectives.
The college’s mission emphasizes student success and workforce development. But since the 2018 version of the EMP was developed, changes in technology and remote connectivity were accelerated by the pandemic. That reality has changed how Merced College students view and chase their education.
“Sometimes the EMP feels like this big thing that everyone ignores for five years,” said Director of Ag Innovation Nikki Maddux, who also served as a co-chair on the task force. “But it is the direction the college is headed, and will be instrumental for developing instructional and facilities master plans as well.”
Faculty, students and the community, via town hall meetings and surveys, gave their feedback about what was good and what needed attention at Merced College.
The findings specific to the student body showed that, regardless of age, circumstance or previous education, Merced College students now need flexible course options to also fit family, work and other responsibilities into their schedule. Content, location and affordability are paramount to all students. In the classroom, also, students want an experience that is less theoretical and more applicable to help them improve their lives.
“We should always be working on that,” Clark said. “We have so many students who take tons of units and don’t complete degrees. We have to make sure the students’ work leads to a job or furthers their education. That’s not just us. It’s statewide.”
So Merced College will continue broadening access to virtual learning.
“We will always have a need for face-to-face classes and support,” Vice President of Student Services Mike McCandless said. “At the same time, we want to continue to develop our educational platforms and wraparound services online to enhance the student experience.”
The next step for the EMP is to turn the findings, explanations and recommendations into an action plan. The Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) will include objectives and tasks that will guide the college’s efforts over the next five years.
To help with developing the EMP and now the SIP, the college hired consulting firm Vivayic, which brought a new perspective to the project. For example, Vivayic did a deep dive of the college’s presence on Twitter, finding that students were looking for a full educational experience—including academics, clubs, activities and sports—to feel more invested in their education.
“I do want to thank our leadership, starting with President Chris Vitelli, for bringing in Vivayic to give us a different perspective on how to approach the EMP,” Maddux said. “They made us start fresh. We weren’t just writing words to get them down. If you look at our other master plans, this one is totally different. It’s visionary. I was excited to be part of it.”
Merced College is also renewing its accreditation, which happens every seven years as prescribed by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
As part of the accreditation renewal process, the college produced a 257-page Institutional Self-Evaluation Report (ISER) and submitted it in August. The campus team and accreditation team will have an official virtual meeting on Oct. 13, followed by a site visit in February.
During this time, the site visit team is reviewing the ISER and asking questions and requesting additional information and evidence. Also, between now and February, anyone can submit a third-party comment about the ISER.
Why do this work?
According to Merced College Dean of Institutional Effectiveness Dee Sigismond, “Without accreditation, we don’t qualify for federal financial aid and our students don’t earn credits that transfer to other colleges and universities.”
During the site visit in February, the site visit team and the accreditation group can share best practices, celebrate successes and highlight work that deserves highlighting.
Merced College Dean of Instruction, STEM Marie Bruley, who was the lead writer for the ISER, said the goal of accreditation is no longer to punish schools that aren’t compliant.
“Nor (does the accrediting body) want to dictate to the college how they should be doing things,” Bruley said. “The ACCJC wants schools to engage in this process to show how they meet standards and how they’re always working to improve.”
Bruley and Vice President of Instruction Karissa Morehouse congratulated Sigismond and her colleagues in Institutional Effectiveness—including Academic Support Specialist Gabriela Garcia and Program Assistant Amber Norris—for creating the system that streamlined the process of building the ISER.
“Accreditation can be hard on the teams because the ISER does take quite a few editing sessions,” Bruley said. “Everyone was open to the back-and-forth. And the process Dee’s team created allowed for updates without stalling the overall work.
Thanks to the team’s work, departments and groups all over campus—faculty, classified, business services, maintenance and facilities staff, marketing, etc.—were able to efficiently document how they were meeting standards and attach evidence, like PDFs, links and screen grabs, to prove it.
Merced College submitted its ISER with over 1,400 pieces of evidence. More than 50 people, who were also doing their day jobs at the time, contributed to the ISER.
“We always want to look at data and see how the numbers help us with our equity efforts,” Sigismond said. “With the ISER, we can see that we are making data-informed decisions. … I also have to thank everyone who participated in all of the heavy lifting over the past 18 months. I’m very proud of the end result.”
“It’s an opportunity to prove to ourselves that we’re meeting our own standards to ensure the quality of our own institution,” she said. “It’s part of caring about student success. It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile.”
While schools renew their accreditation every seven years, Morehouse, who also serves as the campus Accreditation Liaison Officer, says the process never stops.
“The function of the accrediting body is to prod us to ask ourselves: Are we getting stagnant, or are we improving and serving students better at every turn?” Morehouse said. “That’s what I like about accreditation. It’s now a process we celebrate. … I’m excited about where we are.”