The regional organization that provides accreditation for over 150 schools in seven states has given Portland State two years to improve its processes for defining and assessing student learning outcomes, or the university risks probation and the potential loss of its accreditation.
In a Jan. 28 letter, the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities notified PSU President Rahmat Shoureshi the university “is now out of compliance with the NWCCU Standards for Accreditation.”
“This is a big deal,” said Provost Susan Jeffords in a Feb. 4 report to the Faculty Senate. “This is of such seriousness that I thought it ought to be the only topic that I report to you about.”
According to the NWCCU, accreditation is “a voluntary process of recognizing educational institutions for performance, integrity and quality that entitles them to the confidence of the educational community and the public.”
Brian Sandlin, PSU’s accreditation and state authorization coordinator, said that losing accreditation means losing access to federal funds. “In many instances, you stop being a school.”
PSU was also cited for the same issue in 2015.
Accreditors serve as the gatekeepers between colleges and of billions of dollars in federal aid, funds that in many instances are borrowed by or awarded to students through grants, student loans and financial aid.
Several high-profile cases in recent years have found private universities culpable for taking massive amounts of federal financial aid while providing subpar instruction, deceptive marketing practices and inflated graduation and job placement rates.
Last year, United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reinstated a controversial accreditor of for-profit colleges that had previously been found by the Obama administration to exhibit “a profound lack of compliance” with its most basic responsibilities as an accreditor.
“University accreditation really ensures that universities are good stewards of federal funding they receive,” Sandlin said. “It’s a protection for the students, in that way.”
Like other regional accrediting organizations, NWCCU applies a wide range of standards to schools such as PSU. A major criterion is a robust and engaged assessment of student learning activities along with evidence of those activities.
According to an internal report sent to the NWCCU, currently less than half of PSU’s undergraduate programs and roughly one-third of graduate programs have official plans to assess student learning activities, also known as “program level student learning outcomes.” Additionally, 37.3 percent of undergraduate and 30 percent of graduate programs are actually carrying out those plans.
Sandlin said his current understanding of the minimum threshold for achieving compliance requires at least 50 percent for both assessment plans and assessment activity.
In her report to Faculty Senate members, Jeffords said she wanted to go further. “I think for an institution such as PSU, that cares as deeply as we do about student learning and the outcomes of student learning, even 50 percent is not a number to which we should aspire.”
Unlike some universities with a centralized office that oversees assessment, PSU uses a decentralized model where programs have control over the process.
“I wish we had showed more progress,” Sandlin said. “It’s not something that I can affect.”
This year will be the third consecutive year the university conducts an annual survey asking department chairs if learning outcomes are in place, whether assessment plans exist and whether they’re being followed. The results of that survey will be included in a progress report submitted to NWCCU in the fall.
PSU has roughly 120 undergraduate and 100 graduate programs which require posted learning outcomes and internal assessment plans.
The department of mathematics, for example, has a list of 16 learning outcomes posted online. Included are items such as “awareness of the limitations of technology,” “ability to ask the right questions to learn something new or apply something known to a new situation” and “proficiency in oral and written communication of mathematics to peers as well as people with less mathematical background.”
“[Program-level student learning outcomes] are overarching skills that are taught throughout the classes and measured at various points in the program,” Sandlin explained. “In some instances, students may not even know that their work is being assessed in this way.”
In addition to defining broad learning goals for students in their programs, departments are also responsible for outlining how they will assess the progress of those goals and opportunities for improvement.
If a learning outcome is that students are able to write an in-depth term paper, a department may have a core course include a paper assignment. A rubric would then be applied to writing samples from the assignment to assess whether students were learning what professors were trying to teach them.
“These are deep and meaningful practices about how we commit ourselves not only to identifying what we hope students learn while they’re here, but assessing ourselves and our ability to support them in doing so,” Jeffords said.
“How do our practice and support systems align so that we ensure students are actually achieving the learning outcomes that we have articulated?” Jeffords continued, “That is serious business—maybe the most serious business that we do while we’re here.”
PSU Office of Academic Innovation works with departments who have not identified learning outcomes or made assessment plans.
OAI was not available for comment before press time.
Sandlin said programs that struggle with meeting assessment requirements typically lack confidence or training on how to do it, don’t feel it’s helpful or the program itself can’t come to agreement.
“We are required to do this. In my experience, there are some faculty members who are very good at this, who are open to it, who are willing to try new things; but this is a skill that’s not often taught during their professional preparation.”