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V6I3: Letter from the President

Institutional Effectiveness: Student Achievement and Outcomes

Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU  

As the institutional accreditor for over 160 colleges and universities, located predominantly in the Pacific Northwest, our workflow ebbs and flows around our late-June (Summer) and late-January (Winter) Commission Meetings. This is when our member institutions make an appearance for their comprehensive, year-seven Evaluation of Institutional Effectiveness (EIE) review, after which our Board of Commissioners takes action on the institutions’ accreditation.  

The institutional appearances in some ways remind me of doctoral dissertation defense exams. Even as we try to make the appearances congenial and non-confrontational, it’s intense and sometimes nerve-wracking for the institutional presidents and chancellors who make the appearance and must “defend” their efforts in light of the findings and recommendations of the volunteer peer evaluation teams. This appearance is the culmination of a process that starts seven years prior and includes a series of annual reports and staff feedback, mid-cycle self-study report and on-campus peer evaluation visit, year-six Policies, Regulations, and Financial Resources virtual peer review, and the comprehensive, year-seven EIE self-study report and on-campus peer evaluation visit (Figure 1).

Fig. 1. NWCCU Accreditation Reporting and Review Cycle.

Institutions that are doing well, i.e., are singularly focused on student success and have all of the relevant processes and procedures in place to support student outcomes, which allow them to meet or exceed NWCCU’s Standards for Accreditation and Eligibility Requirements, know the process will be a breeze.  

In contrast, institutions that are having challenges because of, for example, poor student outcomes, declining enrollments and budgets, or governance issues, could potentially be found to be non-compliant with our Standards, Eligibility Requirements, or Policies and Procedures, find themselves in the hot seat, in part, because non-compliance could result in sanctions of Warning, Probation, or Show Cause. 

During the commission meetings, time is set aside for our commissioners and staff to also engage in broader conversations regarding institutional effectiveness, particularly in relation to federal/state policies and regulations, legislative actions, extant societal conversations, strategic directions for the commission, commission policies and procedures, diversity, equity, and inclusion, data- and evidence-informed approaches to evaluation and promoting student access, belonging, and success, and myriad other topics relevant to higher education and accreditation.  

As we prepared for the 2024 Winter commission meeting, which occurred this past late January, one of our commissioners asked if we could spend time facilitating discussion of findings published in three, recent reports: a survey of employers regarding the need to inculcate in students core competencies, including critical thinking, problem solving, communication skills, etc., postsecondary completion trends, and education and skills required for jobs of the future 

Related to the results of the survey of employers, our member institutions know that NWCCU’s Standards, particularly Standard 1.C.6, require measurable demonstration via learning outcomes that the they are inculcating core competencies, such as, for example, effective communication skills, global awareness, cultural sensitivity, scientific and quantitative reasoning, critical analysis and logical thinking, problem solving, and/or information literacy. NWCCU was the first institutional accreditor to incorporate such learning outcomes for core competencies in the Standards for Accreditation, and since then only two other institutional accreditors have done the same. 

Progress on college completion rates appears to have stalled in America, with the six-year, national completion rate for the fall 2017 cohort at 62.2 percent, essentially unchanged since 2015. Completion rates increased in over half of the states and rates stalled or declined across all ethnicities, with Native American and Black students posting the largest decreases. The gender gap in completion rates continues to grow, with 70.8 percent of females completing in six years versus 63.4 percent of males. While six-year completion rates for traditional-aged (18-24-year-old) students declined, it increased for older students, although the latter group still lags traditional-aged students.  

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s report on completion rates includes averages across all student types (i.e., those entering postsecondary education for the first time, full-time or part-time at two-year or four-year institutions, and completing at any U.S. degree-granting institution) and institution types (i.e., public, private, tribal, and faith-based colleges and universities). The highest, average six-year completion rate was seen in Vermont at 74.1 percent. The average rates for students in the Pacific Northwest (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington) was 51.3 percent, with a range of 34.3 to 56.9 percent, significantly lower than the national average of 62.2 percent.  

The Clearinghouse analysis, based on all student types and institution types, masks significant completion rates at individual NWCCU member institutions, some of which are on par or even surpass national peers. We will be working with all of our member institutions to address completion rates by supporting/requiring the use of institutionally identified indicators of student outcomes benchmarked against peer institutions, as required under Standard 1.D.2 and 1.D.3 

NWCCU has initiated development and deployment of data dashboards as decision support tools for our staff, peer evaluators, commissioners to undertake data-informed evaluation of institutional effectiveness. Starting with the Spring 2024 peer evaluation visit season, we will also be offering guidance , training, workshops, and other forms of support on the use of regional and national peer benchmarking to drive student outcomes.  

Institutional effectiveness, as measured by student achievement and outcomes, underlies the preparedness of graduates to succeed economically and socially. To succeed in the modern economy, particularly in the decades to come, the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University reports that workers will need significant postsecondary education. The report states that 72 percent of all jobs in the future will require postsecondary education or training; indeed, the report paints a dire warning: without a postsecondary degree, certificate, credential, or at least some college, the path to middle-class jobs is narrow.  

These national trends, reflected in the recent reports cited above, suggest that it will require a concerted effort on the part of our institutions, the federal and state regulators, and accreditors to ensure students are successful in achieving their educational goals, such that they have developed the knowledge and skills needed for the jobs of the future.  

In a recent article on the challenges and opportunities facing higher education and accreditation, I wrote that there is a need to reimagine and reengineer higher education and accreditation, laser-focused on student success and closing equity gaps, while ensuring accountability and transparency.  

I stated every individual on campus – students, staff, administrators, and other stakeholders of the campus community – has a critical role in ensuring student success, and not just faculty, who own the curricula, teach, and have the primary role in helping students achieve their unique educational goals.  

Similarly, as an accreditor, we have a role in ensuring student success, i.e., one of holding institutions accountable, articulated in NWCCU’s 2020 Standards for Accreditation and vision to promote student success and closing equity gaps by fostering access, belonging, and success of ALL students, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. NWCCU’s approach is to support evidence- and data-informed, continuous improvement by promoting educational outcomes at institutions, thus contributing to institutional effectiveness.  

By such reimagination and reengineering of higher education and accreditation, our expectation is that it will result in addressing the dismal completion rates, help create a cadre of graduates with the knowledge and skills to enter the jobs of the modern economy, thus, advancing their economic and social mobility.

At a different time and under a different context, Winston Churchill stated, “This is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure.” 

For higher education, this is indeed a time to dare and not be satisfied with the status quo regarding institutional effectiveness, i.e., poor student outcomes. 

There’s no magic formula to promoting institutional effectiveness; it will require a concerted, collaborative, all-hands-on-deck effort. 

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