Institutional Assessment: The Art of Self-Reflection

As the technology continues to improve, colleges and universities devise new ways of mastering institutional assessment: some vendor-based, some homegrown, some combinations of both.

Institutional AssessmentMETAPHYSICALLY SPEAKING, the idea of self-reflection has been the subject of discussion for thousands of years. There are mentions of it in the Bible. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle spoke of it in Classical Greece. The idea carried human beings through the Renaissance, and an entire movement tied to it sparked a sociopolitical movement called the Enlightenment. In more recent times, thought leaders such as Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud all have opined on the subject of our ability to look inside ourselves and act accordingly. It is, as Kant once wrote, the very thing that makes humans “rational animals.”

The art of self-reflection is alive and well in academia today. College and university administrators apply the same philosophical tenet to their own operations, utilizing a variety of methods to figure out how to maximize efficiencies and minimize waste. By reflecting on their priorities, goals, and processes, schools can get a better sense of important quantifiable data such as student matriculation, average class size, employee benefits spending, financial aid awards, and research dollars, to name a few of the more commonly aggregated and mined data. As an administrator you no doubt are familiar with the process termed “institutional assessment,” but you may not fully realize just how critical it is to your school’s ability to meet its institutional goals and fulfill its mission, not to mention meet its more routine—but no less essential—needs.

According to Catherine Burdt, senior analyst for Eduventures, the Boston-based education technology research organization, “At a time when schools need hard facts for purposes of budget exploration and accreditation, these practices help feed a culture of evidence.” Moreover, Burdt stresses that “the more energy a school spends on assessment, the more that school understands how things work best.”

And though institutional assessment practices aren’t perfect, many of them have helped schools get a better sense of how performance varies over time. What’s more—at least in some cases— interfacing with data from the federal Department of Education has enabled schools to get a firm grasp on the way their institutional performance compares to that of their peers. Yet, no matter how schools tackle the issue of assessment, Michael Redmond, VP of technology, information services, and institutional effectiveness at Bergen Community College (NJ), maintains that investigating operational efficiencies will only make schools stronger over time.

“For just about every school, time spent evaluating processes is a good thing,” says Redmond, whose own institution recently launched a three-year initiative to move beyond the traditional method of charting institutional assessment by hand, via spreadsheets. “The more familiar you are with how things happen, the better you’ll get at making sure that what happens is what’s best.”

In the past, in fact, staffers at most schools carried out many assessment functions by hand, cross-referencing spreadsheets and other forms of paperwork in an attempt to chart mission-critical performance. Nowadays, however, a growing number of schools are embracing data-driven web-based interfaces and new data analysis techniques to ease the process. Schools such as Texas A&M University, the University of Central Florida, the University of California-Davis, Western Washington University, and Flagler College (FL) are utilizing new advances in institutional assessment tools in order to improve performance across the board. While some of these colleges and universities are using homegrown systems, others have turned to the vendor community for help.

Going It Alone

Interestingly, many of the most notable advancements in institutional assessment are proprietary. At Texas A&M, for instance, technologists have developed a homegrown database, based on Microsoft Access, in order to chart institutional performance by keeping tabs on what’s happening with faculty members. The database, which users can access from a web-based interface, tracks various statistics about faculty productivity for publishing, grants, awards, editorships, classes taught, and graduate students completed. University administrators utilize data from the program to evaluate individual programs, certain clusters of departments, and sometimes even the school as a whole.

The Heart of It All

Institutional AssessmentComparing your data against that from NCES? Here’s what you should know. Most schools that engage in institutional assessment compare data of their own against data from the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the Department of Education. All of the information that g'es in and out of NCES runs through one program—the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS — which collects, sorts, analyzes, and distributes data on demand.

Specifically, IPEDS is a system of surveys designed to collect data from all primary providers of postsecondary education. It is built around a series of interrelated surveys to collect institution-level data in such areas as enrollment, program completions, faculty, staff, and finances. This data is collected and disseminated through a web-based interface called the IPEDS Peer Analysis System.

IPEDS is nothing new; the Higher Education Act of 1992 mandated that schools complete IPEDS surveys in a timely and accurate manner, and NCES started data collection the following year. Between 1993 and 2000, NCES continually improved the IPEDS data collection instruments and the list of institutions surveyed. Then, in 2000, data collection was converted from a paper-based to a fully web-based system.

Elise Miller, program director of the Postsecondary Institutional Studies Program at NCES, says IPEDS supersedes the Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), a similar set of surveys that collected data from 1965-1986, from a more limited universe of accredited institutions of higher education.

“In addition to approximately 3,600 HEGIS institutions, IPEDS includes many schools that are not accredited, and institutions providing postsecondary training in occupational and vocational programs, including proprietary schools and institutions,” she says. “This expanded universe consists of some 6,800 postsecondary education providers.”

Most recently, IPEDS added the IPEDS College Opportunities Online Locator, or IPEDS COOL. The site is designed to help students and their parents understand the differences between colleges. Users can select colleges based on location, program, or degree offerings, and obtain information on admissions, tuition, room and board, graduation rates, accreditation status, financial aid, and enrollment.

Feeding the database is a process that takes all year. Becky Carr, assistant dean for administrative services, explains that, toward the end of every year, her department administers to faculty members paper-based evaluations on various subjects. When the evaluations are complete, a data analyst inputs the statistics into the database, where department heads and other administrators can access the material on demand. Users can view data for specific areas, or they can employ a special feature that takes a broader, more comprehensive look at a variety of categories at once. The goal: to give officials an evidentiary look at how things are going.

“We can do several things with this data,” says Carr, who estimates the cost of this system as not much beyond the annual salary of her data analyst and the dollars spent yearly on server capacity. “Most importantly, we get a good sense of faculty productivity and [help with planning] for the future.”

This summer, at the behest of Texas A&M’s provost, Carr’s department used the assessment process to investigate faculty diversity over time. For the purposes of this particular study, Carr’s department established five different categories to describe the ethnic background of new hires: White, African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and International (a grouping that incorporated everyone else). By tracking the ethnicities of recent hires, the school was able to chart how the diversity of its faculty had changed. The results were projections for the 2006- 2007 year that indicated a sharp increase (almost three times the increase between 2004/2005 and 2005/2006) in the number of African-American faculty members (see “Faculty Diversity at Texas A&M”).

Institutional AssessmentThe University of Central Florida is also tackling institutional assessment on its own. Under a relatively recent mandate, approximately 200 academic programs and 100 administrative units are involved in conducting web-based assessment on a yearly basis. The process includes annual submission of a homecooked assessment report which contains the results of the previous year’s assessment, proposed or actual changes based on those results, and a new assessment plan to measure the impact of the changes. Julia Pet-Armacost, assistant VP for information, analysis, and assessment, says the system has worked wonders for institutional effectiveness.

“We’re certainly thinking in ways we weren’t able to think before,” she reports enthusiastically. “When you’re running an institution, just this kind of thinking alone can be priceless.”

The Hybrid Approach

At the University of California-Davis, home-baked assessment applications have taken on a new flavor. To monitor the status of faculty grant proposals from conception to completion and approval, the school has customized its own version of an electronic research administration system from Inf'Ed International, says Doug Hartline, director of technology planning and development. Hartline says the school is in the early stages of a 25-month rollout, but notes that when the solution is complete, resulting processes should save significant time and money over the old method of submitting, tracking, and finalizing grant applications by hand.

“We’re weaving functions together in order to make our entire environment more efficient,” he says. “Over time, as the volume of our work increases, we can take the resources we save and dedicate them to performing other functions.”

Western Washington University, too, is combining an off-the-shelf solution with one developed in-house. There, school officials have combined backend student, financial aid, human resources, and advancement systems from SunGard Higher Education with a brand-new series of web-based Qualitative Symbolic Reasoning (QSR) tests, to dig even deeper into data at hand. The assessments are part of an effort dubbed the Western Educational Longitudinal Survey, or WELS, and they seek to ask students in-depth questions about their present experiences so that officials can develop a richer picture of how the everyday is affecting their development.

Karen Castro, associate director of WWU’s Center for Instructional Innovation, explains that the effort is designed to coordinate information that isn’t easily captured by the SunGard product. After years of utilizing national instruments such as the Cooperative Institutional Research Program and the College Student Experiences Questionnaire, Castro devised the system as a less expensive alternative. Rich Frye, research analyst for the Office of Institutional Assessment and Testing, says the one-two punch of SunGard and WELS has proven to be an unbeatable resource, giving WWU more data than administrators there had ever dreamed possible.

“We distribute information to both academic and non-academic programs, and those programs are getting information they have never had before,” he says. “We believe that the better the data we develop and provide, the better the student experience will become.”

Leaning on Vendors

The assessment systems at UC-Davis and WWU are a homegrown spin on a commercial product; other schools have relied more heavily on vendors for help. For instance, Flagler College administrators, long-time customers of Jenzabar, use Jenzabar EX, an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system that collects institutional assessment data from a variety of sources. The system, which is entirely softwarebased, automates much of the reporting that school officials previously pulled together in a manual fashion. As a result, CIO Joseph Provenza says the school has saved big bucks (not to mention huge amounts of time) on gathering business intelligence.

Institutional Assessment

At Texas A&M, a homegrown database
(costing about as much annually as a data
analyst plus server capacity) helps
administrators get a solid grasp on faculty
productivity and a head start on planning.

Once the school uses its Jenzabar system to compile in-house data on areas such as student retention, financial aid, faculty/student ratios, and faculty benefits, it compares this information to data about peer institutions from the National Center for Education Statistics (see “The Heart of It All”). Randi Hagen, director of institutional research, effectiveness, and planning, says that on top of this, the school utilizes a number of user-friendly electronic assessment products from the Educational Testing Service to tackle student performance assessment. Using a SharePoint Portal Server from Microsoft, Flagler distributes results from these tests via the campus intranet.

“In the past, only a select group of people on campus could see the limited institutional data we collected,” says Hagen, who notes that the school will deploy Jenzabar’s new Jenzabar Internet Campus Solution (JICS) later this year to “webify” the entire process from beginning to end. “Today, not only have we increased our data exponentially, but as long as you have a computer and a faculty or staff account, you can see it all.”

Challenges Ahead

While these schools have embraced innovative technology to facilitate institutional assessment, the new approaches are not without their challenges. First is the issue of cultural change. In days past, university assessment departments were able to cull performance data from paperwork that faculty members filed at the beginning and end of every semester. With some of the new technologies, institutions require faculty members to report data more consistently. Not only do the new demands force faculty members to spend more time submitting data, but these users also must familiarize themselves with a new interface, which takes time.

Some schools have tried to tackle this learning curve by implementing professional development classes to help staff and faculty members get to know the new technology. Others, such as Texas A&M, have tried to deploy intuitive interfaces to make using assessment systems as user-friendly as possible. In many cases, efforts like these have yielded good results. Still, Burdt at Eduventures says that some of the more sophisticated institutional assessment technologies have wreaked havoc on schools with large departments or departments with faculty members who insist on blazing their own trails. “It’s a tricky cultural shift,” she says. “As funding becomes tighter, schools are maneuvered into a position of having to prove that assessment technologies are effective, and everyone must comply.”

Another challenge, of course, is the quality and uniformity of the data itself. Whenever independent colleges and universities share information, it’s essential that the data exist in similar formats, in order to prevent errors and other reporting glitches. The problem, at least today, is that few schools seem to adhere to those formats espoused by the National Center for Education Statistics. Then too, Provenza at Flagler insists that statistics from the federal government frequently come with errors; he says it’s impossible to determine accurate numbers when some of the base information is wrong. (He adds that while his own administrators value clean data, even they make similar mistakes from time to time.)

Institutional Assessment

AT UC-DAVIS, assessment systems
are a homegrown spin on a commercial
product from Inf'Ed International. The
rollout will take just over two years.

Finally, of course, is the issue of time to market. Solid, battle-tested institutional assessment programs don’t sprout overnight; assessment endeavors need time to settle in to the everyday ebb-andflow of an organization before they can make a difference. At WWU, where the WELS solution works in tandem with SunGard to evaluate traditional and notso- traditional facets of campus life, university officials experienced years of frustration with inefficient institutional assessment tools before they created and sharpened a solution of their own. “It wasn’t easy, but we’re finally happy with the system we have in place,” says Castro. “Now it’s up to us to use it in a way that makes it all worthwhile.”

::WEBEXTRA:: At CT2006, panelists from MIT discussed how to assess the effectiveness of teachingtechnologies. Listen in here.

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