Leadership & Governance

Many College Boards Are at Sea in Assessing Student Learning, Survey Finds

September 09, 2010

While oversight of educational quality is a critical responsibility of college boards of trustees, a majority of trustees and chief academic officers say boards do not spend enough time discussing student-learning outcomes, and more than a third say boards do not understand how student learning is assessed, says a report issued on Thursday by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

The issue of academic quality is important for boards to consider because it is central to each institution's mission, and ensuring that that mission is upheld is as much a part of board members' responsibility as guarding the college's financial stability, said Susan Whealler Johnston, executive vice president of the association and author of the report. Board oversight of educational quality is even more crucial at a time of heightened calls for accountability and greater focus on the quality of educational services. (See The Chronicle's series on quality, Measuring Stick.)

The report, "How Boards Oversee Educational Quality: A Report on a Survey on Boards and the Assessment of Student Learning," is based on a survey conducted in November 2009 that asked 1,300 chief academic officers and chairs of board committees on academic affairs how boards oversee academic quality. The response rate was 38 percent, with 28 percent of trustees and 58 percent of chief academic officers participating. Almost one-quarter of the respondents were from public institutions, and three-quarters were from private institutions.

Results of the survey were mixed, Ms. Johnston said. While slightly more than half of respondents said boards spend more time discussing student-learning outcomes now than they did five years ago, 61.5 percent said boards do not spend sufficient time in meetings on the issue. A smaller proportion—38.5 percent—said enough time was spent on the subject in board meetings.

"There is plenty of room for improvement," Ms. Johnston said.

According to the survey results, business matters take up the bulk of board-meeting agendas. A majority of respondents—56.9 percent—said much more time was spent during board meetings on financial and budgetary matters than on academic issues, and 22 percent said slightly more time was spent on those matters.

That isn't a surprise, because many trustees have business backgrounds, Ms. Johnston said. There may also be a feeling among board and faculty members that teaching and learning assessment isn't something the board should be involved in (21.5 percent of respondents said focusing on student-learning outcomes was not an appropriate role for a board).

"I can't remember a serious discussion about this in my 12 years on the board," one private-university trustee commented in the survey.

2 Bottom Lines

The report refutes the idea that boards should stay away from questions of educational quality, saying that colleges have two bottom lines—a financial one and an academic one. While boards should not get involved in the details of teaching or ways to improve student-learning outcomes, they must hold the administration accountable for identifying needs in the academic programs and then meeting them, the report says. Boards should also make decisions on where to allocate resources based on what works or what should improve.

The survey found that many boards do not receive adequate information from college officials that would help them assess how students are progressing. The most commonly received information by boards was college-ranking data, which three-quarters of respondents said were very important or somewhat important in monitoring educational quality. Rankings may look at graduation rates and retention, however, but not at the quality of student learning. The second most common information source was alumni surveys, which Ms. Johnston said can be a good indicator of how well alumni believe their college education prepared them for the workplace or graduate school.

In the report, the association makes several recommendations for boards and college administrators, including that they devote more time during board meetings to discussions of what the college is doing to assess and improve student learning. Boards should expect to receive useful high-level information on learning outcomes, the report says, and should make comparisons over time and to other institutions. Training in how to understand academic and learning assessments should also be part of orientation for new board members.

Richard L. Morrill, president of the Teagle Foundation and a former college president, said monitoring academic quality was part of the active oversight that boards are responsible for. Boards should not tell faculty members how to do their jobs, he said, but they should hold the administration accountable for how the academic mission is carried out. Board members should receive information about learning and academic programs, ask questions about it, and monitor the institution's progress, he said.

Presidents and academic officers have a responsibility to provide information to board members that is easy to understand and monitor, so they can perform that oversight, said Mr. Morrill.

"When questions are raised around a board table, it has a powerful effect" throughout the institution, Mr. Morrill said. "I know that, having been a president and a board member."