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The Road to Excellence Passes Through Assessment

What business and the health care industry can teach higher education about assessment
University Business, Jun 2008

TO MANY, THE TITLE <em>UNIVERSITY Business</em> is an oxymoron. The world of the university and the world of business are often perceived to be two very different cultures.

Today's business leaders talk about "Six Sigma," "Black Belts," best practices, and the Malcolm Baldrige Award. In the business world there is <em>institutional introspection driven by corporate competition.</em> Businesses study themselves to become better and thereby to thrive.

Assessment will be good for colleges and universities, forcing them, just as it did hospitals, to improve.

Higher education leaders, on the other hand, champion concepts such as academic freedom, faculty governance, focus on mission, and institutional autonomy. Colleges and universities are often examples of <em>institutional inertia driven by individual inclination.</em> Many of them change little over time in mission and practice while allowing individuals to choose their own balance between conformity and innovation.

Fighting great resistance, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has tried to bring the culture of business into the higher ed arena. Her Commission on the Future of Higher Education pushed assessment, transparency, and accountability.

In the September 30, 2007, issue of <em>The New York Times Magazine,</em> James Traub noted that "the <b>University of Charleston</b> (W.Va.) and a small but growing number of other public and private institutions" are using institutional assessment to strengthen the learning processes at their institutions. He was intrigued by the emphasis on assessment but saw it largely as a marketing gimmick-one that better known schools such as <b>Stanford</b> and the <b>University of Michigan</b> don't need to use "to prove that students are getting their money's worth." Secretary Spellings and others, however, see assessment as the vehicle for improving quality at all higher ed institutions.

Health care and higher education are both seen as indispensable service sectors, and both have not been treated as profit-making businesses. Hospitals provide the environment for doctors to deliver care just as colleges provide the environment for faculty members to provide education.

The health care world is under public scrutiny. The federal government now requires hospitals to track the care provided and to use standardized criteria and forms to report their results-which are reported on the web for anyone to see. Those who read the results are sometimes surprised.

For example, <b>Harvard</b> researchers used Hospital Quality Alliance data from 2005-2006 and identified little-known Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC) in West Virginia as the top performing U.S. hospital for quality of care. It outperformed Johns Hopkins and many other sites according to quantitative caregiving data.

The public reporting of institutional results has brought assessment, transparency, and accountability to hospitals everywhere, forcing them to improve care. The day is surely coming when the government will mandate increased reporting requirements as a way of directing the millions of dollars it invests in colleges and universities.

The higher ed community has legitimate concerns about what information will be collected, how accurate it will be, and how it will be used. Nevertheless, increased assessment will be good for IHEs.

Private IHEs have special concerns about the level of government intrusion and the possible constriction of their independence. Still, information already available on The Council of Independent Colleges' "Making the Case" website ( suggests that many of these schools will be able to demonstrate, just as CAMC did, that they have outstanding outcomes. These outcomes will often be better than those at more prominent institutions.

The assessment movement is less about bragging rights than about striving for excellence. IHEs need to learn the art of continuous improvement from the business world-demonstrating to students and parents (their customers) that they're striving to be the best. Institutional assessment is the road to excellence. Students, parents, and society deserve nothing less.

<em>Edwin H. Welch is president of the University of Charleston (W.Va.).</em>

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