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V6I3: Peer Comparators and Student Success 

Ed Harri, Senior Vice President, NWCCU  

As a staff liaison to a number of NWCCU member institutions, I have the opportunity to regularly observe the impressive work our member institutions undertake to advance student success. Many have been inspired by peer institutions effectively tackling similar challenges resulting in demonstrated improvements in their student outcomes. NWCCU strongly believes in the power of peer learning for institutional continuous improvement. It is a major contributor to developing clear and coherent strategies for improving student outcomes and closing gaps in achievement between different student populations.  

NWCCU’s 2020 Standards for Accreditation 1.D.2 and 1.D.3 reflect these commitments to the use of disaggregated student achievement data, benchmarked against institutionally-identified peers, to support continuous improvement.  

Challenges  

Since adoption of the Standards, approximately half of the institutions (39 of 80) that completed their year-seven, Evaluation of Institutional Effectiveness received a Recommendation on either Standard 1.D.2 or 1.D.3. A Recommendation refers either to the evaluation team’s final statements or its confidential advice to NWCCU regarding an institution’s accreditation or candidacy status.  

Recommendations related specifically to Standards 1.D.2 or 1.D.3 are the result of a number of factors, including but not limited to lack of evidence for:  

  • Use of disaggregated data for regular planning and review processes. 
  • Benchmarking against regional and national peers. 
  • Public posting of student achievement outcomes. 

While some of these deficiencies become evident through the institutional self-study and peer evaluation visit and report, institutions and peer evaluators have indicated they struggle in interpreting elements of Standards 1.D.2 and 1.D.3, specifically on the selection of peers, disaggregation of data requirements, and presenting and using data. This makes it challenging for institutions to effectively demonstrate and report on practices they use to address the Standards. Consequently, it becomes difficult for peer evaluation teams to evaluate these practices in the report and visit.   

Guidance  

In an effort to provide institutions with support and clarity that enables them to productively move forward in what we consider critical Standards for demonstrating continuous improvement, NWCCU has created guidance for Standards 1.D.2 and 1.D.3. The guidance describes the purpose of these specific Standards. This includes ensuring that institutions: 

  • Define and use relevant student achievement indicators for planning, resource allocation, and improvement.  
  • Disaggregate their own student achievement data to identify equity gaps and inform strategies for closing gaps.  
  • Identify peer institutions and benchmark their student achievement data to measure student achievement efforts. 
  • Publicize their student achievement indicators on their website for prospective students, faculty and staff, members of the public, and other stakeholders. 

Frequently asked questions related to these Standards are also addressed in the guidance document, including the number of peer institutions to be identified, best practices in selecting peers, requirements for disaggregation of data, and presenting and using data.  

The NWCCU Board of Commissioners was afforded an opportunity to discuss and provide input to the guidance during the Commission meeting in January 2024. Similarly, the guidance has been provided via email in February 2024 to chief executive officers, academic officers, and accreditation liaison officers (ALO) of NWCCU member institutions. In addition to discussion of the guidance during the ALO Townhall in February 2024, we will incorporate the guidance into peer evaluator refresher training sessions to be held during Summer 2024.  

Our goal is to have evaluators become prepared to ask questions of institutions related to this guidance starting with the Fall 2024 peer evaluation cycle, as envisioned in NWCCU’s Mission and Vision to promote access, belonging, and success of all students. In doing so, our intent is to advance data-informed peer evaluation, which incorporates use of institutional data as a formative, continuous improvement approach to promoting student achievement and success.  

Please note that these efforts will be further supported by the institutional data dashboards being developed and deployed by NWCCU’s Vice President of Data Science and Analytics, Jess Stahl. Dr. Stahl’s article describes these dashboards in more detail. 

Institutional Examples 

A number of institutions are already demonstrating strengths in their use and presentation of disaggregated data. Examples include:  

  • Saint Martin’s University: SMU has publicly available dashboards comparing their student achievement outcomes to their identified peer institutions.  
  • University of Western States: UWS took the lead in developing a data-sharing agreement with other graduate health professions institutions and uses these data to compare student success and progress.  
  • Whatcom Community College: WCC has an extensive history of comprehensive college, program, and course-level disaggregated student achievement and outcomes assessment data publicly available in various forms. 
  • Western Washington University: WWU has recently updated its public-facing dashboards to provide years of data on enrollment, graduation, and and retention compared to different peer groups, including aspirational peers.  

We anticipate that institutions will be able to further demonstrate their efforts on these Standards in the near future, leading to more examples to share with our members.  

Please continue to share with your staff liaison feedback and your own examples of data presentation and peer comparisons. We have been using your feedback to provide this improved guidance, which should only help to strengthen our commitment to these Standards and institutional demonstrations of improved student outcomes. 

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