Assessment in a Challenging Higher Education Environment

The combination of relentlessly rising college tuition that is pushing student debt steadily higher and creating entry barriers for qualified college entrants, a dramatic rise in federal and state government debt in the aftermath of a severe recession, a relative decline in U.S. educational attainment, and the job market challenges currently facing new graduates is increasing pressure for colleges and universities to demonstrate value-added. 

That pressure is not likely to abate anytime soon. First, even if the nation’s “fiscal cliff” is resolved in a timely fashion, the U.S. is confronted by substantial long-term fiscal imbalances. Those imbalances extend to state and municipal governments. If not addressed over the medium-term, those structural imbalances could trigger a destructive competition for financial resources among government programs and services with implications for all levels of education.

Over the next two to five decades, a number of headwinds could dampen U.S. innovation, translating in slower economic expansion, diminished job creation, and reduced tax revenue growth. An August 2012 NBER Working Paper written by Northwestern University Economics Professor Dr. Robert J. Gordon revealed that demographic change, educational costs and performance, increasing inequality, globalization, issues relating to energy and the environment, and the nation’s elevated level of consumer and government debt could undermine U.S. innovation.

Those headwinds create both threats and opportunities for the nation’s colleges and universities. An intensification of the nation’s fiscal pressures presents a prominent threat, particularly to public institutions. Higher Education’s ability to reverse the relative decline in educational attainment, which could strengthen innovation and increase the nation’s long-term growth potential, offers an opportunity.

In this challenging environment, colleges and universities will need to examine all aspects of their value chain in pursuit of opportunities for innovation or improvement. Primary activities along this value chain include teaching, the development and delivery of course content, and faculty and student research. Supporting activities include the full range of administrative and student support services.

In that context, planning, budgeting, and assessment provide critical foundations for pursuing excellence. As institutions of higher education pursue their missions, assessment will play an increasingly important role in helping them better define their purpose, measure their progress toward strategic goals, inform their planning and budgeting, and maintain their accreditation in putting themselves in a strong competitive position. Assessment will also produce concrete evidence of value added for their stakeholders. Stakeholders include parents, students, accrediting agencies, and public officials.

Since its last accreditation visit in 2009, Lehman College has made substantial progress in building a robust and sustained assessment process. Today, the majority of its academic and administrative units participate in its annual assessment cycle. As a result, Lehman’s focus has shifted from documenting a robust assessment process in its Monitoring Report to pursuing its strategic commitment to “foster a culture of continuous assessment focused on institutional effectiveness to improve overall performance.” Lehman’s success in achieving that strategic objective will help the College navigate the challenges and realize the opportunities of the environment in which it operates. It will help ensure that Lehman College will continue to serve the Bronx and surrounding area as “an intellectual, economic, and cultural center.”

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