U to assess undergrad programs

Administrators want a standard system to evaluate undergrad programs.

Emma Nelson

Top research universities have traditionally been measured by the quality of their graduate programs. But recently the focus has shifted toward undergraduate education.

Administrators at the University of Minnesota are developing a standard system — slated for completion by the end of the academic year — to evaluate the University’s undergraduate programs.

Until now, individual programs have been evaluated differently, meaning they could not all provide uniform data on the undergraduate experience.

Karen Hanson, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, initiated the project and asked Dean of Undergraduate Education Robert McMaster and Dean of Graduate Education Henning Schroeder to develop the plan.

“As long as we’re going to do a review of a department,” McMaster said, “we ought to be looking, in my mind, as much at the undergraduate curriculum and the undergraduate success as we are at the graduate level.”

Individual program reviews — especially for accredited programs, such as the engineering program and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication — provide data on undergraduate education, McMaster said.

But not all programs have the same amount of data, he said. The Carlson School of Management keeps track of undergraduate job placement, for example, but many other programs do not.

Academic advising is another area where data collection could be improved, he said. Across the board, information about adviser responsibilities, student-to-adviser ratios and how advising works in each department is not currently available.

The University’s peer institutions are focusing on similar issues.

Amy Goodburn, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the university completed an overall assessment of undergraduate programs for the first time last year.

The assessment, called a “campus blueprint,” focused on undergraduate recruitment and retention.

Task forces from offices across the university outlined goals for the next three to five years, Goodburn said, including improving academic advising and expanding undergraduate research opportunities.

Planning for accreditation

McMaster and Goodburn agreed that having across-the-board data on undergraduate programs is helpful during the institutional accreditation process.

Institutional accreditation is conducted every 10 years. The University of Minnesota’s next accreditation is set for the 2015-16 academic year.

The Higher Learning Commission, an independent corporation that is part of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, accredits institutions in the north-central U.S.

The HLC has always focused on the undergraduate experience, McMaster said. The basic question reviewers ask, he said, is “Are students learning?”

The University’s seven student-learning outcomes are an advantage in the accreditation process, McMaster said, because the school can compile data showing if and how students in each major are meeting these goals.

Goodburn said the University of Nebraska developed its own outcomes after its 1995-96 accreditation, when reviewers pointed out the need for more assessment of student learning.

Early stages

Along with determining how the assessment will work, University administrators are also deciding who will be involved.

It’s not yet clear if the University’s coordinate campuses will be included in undergraduate program evaluation, said Nic McPhee, a faculty member at the University of Minnesota-Morris and a member of the University Senate’s Educational Policy Committee.

“A possible outcome — still unclear — is that they might start on the Twin Cities campus and then reach out to the coordinate campuses to see if we can push the process out,” he said.

Either way, McPhee said, it’s important for faculty members to know the reasons behind the assessment.

“Structuring this in a way where faculty feel like it’s not burdensome — and potentially useful — is, I think, one of the great political challenges in something like this.”