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V5I3: Demystifying Institutional Planning and Governance


Selena M. Grace, NWCCU Executive Vice President

When the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) implemented the revised Standards in 2020, there was a purposeful shift in focus from compliance to one of demonstrating that student learning and student success is at the forefront of an institution assessing their progress and performance in meeting their unique mission. Certainly, elements of assessing quality remain integrated throughout the Standards and there are still many compliance aspects, but there was a shift. Looking at the restructure of the Standards alone provides key evidence to this fact. Major elements of Standard One are about student learning and student achievement, and Standard One elements are the key focus of both the Mid-Cycle and Year Seven visits.

The NWCCU Standards for Accreditation continue to provide a framework of expectations, that are evidence-based, for members to assess their progress and performance in supporting student success and achievement. As you think about these high-level expectations, institutional governance and institutional planning play a key role in achieving the same.

What is the intended focus of the 1.B. Standards – Institutional Effectiveness? At a high level, Standard 1.B.1 sets the expectation that institutions develop an ongoing and comprehensive process to assess institutional performance and progress on fulfilling its unique mission. One key element of this Standard that institutions should remember is that it is continuous and on-going. This is not a one-and-done check the box Standard. Institutions will need to provide evidence that their framework collects and analyzes data that leads to a demonstration of student learning and achievement. Some of the questions institutions should consider as they build their framework are:

  • does the process take into account data related to student learning (programmatic assessment – 1.C.5-7 Standards) and student achievement (disaggregated data – 1.D.2-4 Standards);
  • how is the institution using peer benchmarked data to assess its progress and performance (1.B.2, and 1.D.2-4 Standards);
  • does the process provide mechanisms for participation of key stakeholders (students, faculty, staff – 1.B.3-4, 2.A.4 Standards);
  • how is the budget planning and resources allocation process integrated into this assessment framework (1.B.1, 1.D.4 Standards); and
  • when and how does the institution evaluate the effectiveness of their framework (closing the loop and continuous improvement – 1.B.1, 1.B.4, 1.C.7, 1.D.3-4 Standards).

As part of institutional planning (1.B.3), what goals, objectives, and indicators has the institution established to assess and monitor its performance? The institution should be able to articulate how these are essential elements that are derived from and/or support assessment of mission fulfillment.

A new element in the 2020 Standards is the requirement to include peer data in their analysis. While peers will be a topic of later discussion in an upcoming article in The Beacon, it’s important to note that the selection of peer comparators should include identification of peers that will support and advance institutional goals and objectives and act as a way to hold the institution accountable for performance and improvement. They are not intended to be punitive, but rather as a resource to stretch the institution in ensuring continuous improvement.

While internal planning processes and assessing progress on performance compared with peers is important, NWCCU also expects the institution to monitor its external and internal environments and factors that impact and influence the institution’s ability to successfully fulfill its mission. These could include demographic and enrollment trends, student outcomes, state and federal resources, reserves, and other factors that can impact institutional planning or the ability of the institution to meet the NWCCU Standards.

Essential to an institution’s processes is the governance of an institution. When we look at NWCCU’s Standards on governance, there is an expectation that institutional processes are mission-focused, respectful, inclusive, and ultimately demonstrate a focus on student learning and achievement. From a governance perspective, institutional governing entities should comprise a minimum of five members (ER 9) who have no contractual, employment, or personal financial interest with the institution. Boards have a responsibility for the quality and integrity of the institution. They are responsible for hiring a chief executive officer who then has the full-time responsibility to the institution (2.A.3). Institutions that are part of a multi-institutional system must have sufficient autonomy to meet the Standards and to also fulfill its institutional mission. We sometimes see challenges in this area as it relates to strategic planning, resource allocation, audits, and programmatic planning. Multi-institutional system governing boards should ensure their institutions can meet these standards; such boards should take care to ensure the institution still has appropriate autonomy and authority to satisfy the NWCCU Standards as well as meet its unique institutional mission.

Beyond roles and responsibilities of the governing entity and that of the chief executive officer, a system of effective leadership is critical. And like that of the chief executive officer, administrators must have appropriate authority, responsibility, and accountability to oversee planning – organization and management – of their respective areas. These administrators have key responsibilities for assessing the performance of their areas and thereby supporting the institutional mission. Their assessment is often integrated into areas of strategic planning, programmatic and degree-level assessment, assessment of student services and student achievement, and overall institutional mission fulfillment.

As we move forward this year, we will feature a new area of demystifying the NWCCU Standards. Please do not hesitate to contact your NWCCU Staff Liaison with any questions you may have regarding the Standards, Eligibility Requirements, or any other area of NWCCU accreditation.


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