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Strategic Directions | Feature

NCHEMS: From Data to Decision Making and Educational Attainment

A Q&A with Sally Johnstone

The work of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, while perhaps not as highly visible as that of some other organizations, is continuing as it has for the past 40-plus years, helping colleges and universities translate data into usable information for decision makers. Here, CT speaks with Sally Johnstone, who recently began her role as the nonprofit organization's new president.

Mary Grush: You've had a couple months now in your presidential post at NCHEMS. How are you enjoying your new role?

Sally Johnstone: It's exciting to join a remarkable staff who have been at the forefront of helping states and education institutions understand the ways in which they can use information and data to guide decision making in very strategic ways. The work that NCHEMS has done in areas like quality assurance, higher education financial models, state policy for higher education, and institutional improvement will continue as an invaluable resource for institutions. NCHEMS looks at the whole higher education enterprise, pushing very high quality outcomes so students coming out of higher education are truly ready for the next stage of their lives.

Grush: What are some of the important factors in the work that NCHEMS is doing today?

Johnstone: Among the things that have become increasingly more pronounced in our higher education environment are the expectations governmental entities, both federal and state, have for accountability on the part of institutions. These are getting more and more focused, and I believe this will continue. Regardless of who wins the national elections coming up in November, there is bipartisan support for greater accountability.

Grush: What does that accountability mean for institutions?

Johnstone: Accountability translates to serving more students well. Whether students are working on associate or baccalaureate degrees or some form of certification, the role of the institution is no longer just to provide and present information, but also to assist and support those students in their journey as they acquire knowledge in their field.

Most states now have very ambitious attainment goals relating to postsecondary certifications or degrees — student attainment at a level that has never been achieved before. As the states push toward these attainment goals, we find that institutions are being called on to serve new types of students. In addition to serving what we think of as younger, "traditional" students along with adult learners as returning students, there is going to be an important and growing need to reach out to adults who have never had any prior college experience. This will require our colleges to think differently and specifically about how to serve that particular population.

All this is exciting and a big part of the thinking that colleagues here at NCHEMS are doing. How can we help institutions reach out to serve a population on which they have not previously focused?

Grush: What is some of the work at NCHEMS that could address this?

Johnstone: One of projects that we are hosting at NCHEMS — and this is very new — is called the Foundation for Student Success. It is just forming as a result of the assets of the nonprofit PAR organization being acquired recently by Hobsons.

NCHEMS is hosting the Foundation for Student Success with the idea that we will be exploring ways in which we can encourage institutions and state systems to utilize the data they have available to them, to help impact student achievement. 

Grush: Can you explain a bit about how PAR's work will be applied to this problem? Why is PAR important here?

Johnstone: We are looking at some specific, underachieving populations of students. While this is really just in the formative stages at the moment, the board of directors of FSS is thinking in terms of helping institutions really understand all of the information that they are collecting through the technologies they already use, and how they can identify practices that work as well as practices that are not effective.

PAR was originally established as a project within WICHE, then it spun off as an independent nonprofit organization. Recently the assets of PAR were acquired by Hobsons. With that acquisition, there were some funds designated to go back into helping the community that PAR had originally served.

Grush: How will the Foundation for Student Success be organized? What will its first work be?

Johnstone: As I mentioned, the foundation is still in its infancy. The board is just starting to set goals and define activities. We will know much more later this year. What the NCHEMS staff is helping the board to do, is to begin examining strategies that will enable us to move the needle a little further on good practices of using the data that's readily available to help institutions achieve better outcomes for populations that have historically not been well served.

Grush: Are there any other projects that are particularly important now, to NCHEMS?  

Johnstone: Another area that NCHEMS has worked on in the past, and continues to focus on, is assisting the higher education community with financial models both at the institutional as well as the state systems levels. We think about attainment goals and the ways in which state systems need to be planning and understanding how things will have to develop in order to meet those goals, and we think about how institutions will be expected to meet those goals without additional funding. More funding is just not in the cards right now, and there are several states that continue to have terrific cuts to higher education support.

Institutions are now expected to do more with less money, and they must start to do things differently. If they don't make better and more effective uses of the technologies that they have brought into play already, and layer in additional technology as needed, then they will never meet the attainment goals or the accountability demands that both our federal and state governments are starting to impose.

Grush: Then what changes might we see? How might institutions do things differently?

Johnstone: When you think about all this, one thing that comes up quite readily, is the notion of integrating competency-based education, especially in areas where students have not been served well in traditional frameworks. Again, this means really rethinking how you are using technology and how you are using people to help support students and their learning.

One of the things that we've just wrapped up here at NCHEMS is a cost modeling tool for competency-based education. It's a very concrete way for institutions to uncover where they are spending money and how they are utilizing the money they put into competency-based education programs. Finally, the institutions can model all this over time and see where they can actually reach sustainability. 

The cost modeling tool is a free, open education resource, available at the NCHEMS Web site.  

As my colleague Dennis Jones and I were pilot testing the model with several different colleges and systems, we found that it was frequently the first time that the chief business officer, the chief academic officer, and the president/chancellor of the college or system had ever sat down and really had the kind of conversation that looked at the real revenue, and the ways in which they were delivering programs and integrating technology into those programs, along with how they were allocating their costs within different frameworks.

Interestingly, one of the things that Dennis and I found was, there are a lot more degrees of freedom than typically the leaders of colleges or systems think they have. This means they can get down to the level of really rethinking how to support students, the critically important roles of faculty in the whole framework, and how to utilize technology.

Grush: In general, when you consider the technology piece, what types of applications might you be talking about?

Johnstone: I'm talking primarily about technology for teaching and learning, but you also have to think in terms of, as I mentioned before, the incredible data that's being collected but rarely utilized to see how students are performing.

The common notion is that we've been using "new" technology in the teaching and learning process — but mostly, we've just exported the classroom model. So we have, for example, a faculty member who has been using technology to reach students, but we have not changed the support structures around this. And we haven't in any way standardized on what's available and how it can be used. Nor have we, in most cases, really looked at what works and what doesn't or considered how we can actually use the information available from data we are collecting anyway in our LMS and SIS systems, to uncover effective practices.

Grush: Then, if you eventually address all that, what needs to happen next?

Johnstone: We then need to move forward and design structures and systems that maximize effectiveness for students — so they can succeed at higher rates.

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