Board Oversight of Educational Quality

Take Aways

The board has a fiduciary responsibility for educational quality, including greater understanding of student-learning assessment results, clearer institutional focus on accountability, and monitoring the consistency of student learning outcomes with the institution’s mission and values.

Board members, especially during their orientations, should be introduced to how assessment works at the institution, in addition to the more popular topics of the institution’s finances and budgetary process.

While boards are devoting more time to considerations of educational quality, most agree it is still not enough time and that college rankings are used as a proxy for educational quality for the board.

Key Questions

How does the institution define educational quality? What information does the board receive and monitor to fulfill its fiduciary responsibility and oversee the quality of academic programs? How rigorous is this oversight?

Does the board say what and how much students should learn? When do they say it? What kind of evidence does the board collect about learning?

Who is responsible for assessment and how is it accomplished? Is the board benchmarking the institution’s performance against external standards? How does the board use assessment results?

What should be the board’s role when educational program reduction or elimination is indicated for fiscal or other reasons? What evidence should the board acquire before approving a proposal to add or terminate a program?

In order to fulfill a board’s fiduciary responsibilities effectively, the board must understand, monitor, evaluate, and exercise responsibility for the institution’s academic programs and policies. There has been a heightened awareness of boards’ oversight of educational quality in recent years based on the following factors:

  • Increased demands for accountability. With rising costs of higher education, students, parents, government stakeholders, etc., are demanding evidence of tangible outcomes for those costs and a return on the investment that states and the federal government are making in colleges, universities, students, faculty, and research centers.
  • Increased competitiveness. The demand for students is growing.
  • Declining fiscal resources. States are contributing less to institutions of higher education and are demanding evidence of the use of the resources that they are contributing.

The Board’s Role in Educational Oversight

AGB’s 2011 Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of Educational Quality provides an overview of how boards should be involved in ensuring educational quality without crossing the line between necessary fiduciary responsibility for the institution and direct management of its operations. The board should:

  • Monitor and assess the effectiveness of the institution’s academic programs.
  • Ensure that the budget adequately reflects the academic goals of the institution.
  • Be aware of, but not micromanage or interfere with, academic programs and research endeavors on campus.
  • Evaluate student learning outcomes to ensure that they are consistent with the mission and values of the institution.

In highly functioning institutions and systems, boards delegate much responsibility to the administration and faculty. But delegation does not absolve the board of its responsibility to be well informed about matters related to educational quality and to ensure that assessment takes place. Within the board, an academic affairs committee may play a more hands-on role in the management of programs, especially for larger boards. The academic affairs committee will be expected to examine the evidence of educational quality in greater detail than the full board and discuss emerging implications with academic leaders and senior faculty members.

The faculty is responsible for the academic program curriculum of the institution, defining the learning outcomes students are expected to achieve in each academic program and for the institution as a whole and then designing and delivering a curriculum consistent with these objectives. The board should insist that all faculty members have such objectives, that instructors are conscious about designing learning activities consistent with these objectives, and that they are collecting evidence that these objectives are being attained. Boards should insist that conversations about educational quality are based on meaningful measures of performance to improve teaching and learning. Student success measures such as graduation rates, job placement data, and average GPA should not be a substitute for assessing educational quality, that is, the institution’s ability to achieve its intended learning outcomes.

Data on Boards’ Oversight of Educational Quality

In 2009, AGB surveyed member public and private institutions to assess their involvement and evaluation of educational quality. The report found the following:

  • 79 percent of respondents said more time is devoted to discussions of finance and budget than to academic matters, while only 4.9 percent said the board spends more time on academic issues.
  • The majority of respondents (77 percent) said that their institutions have a statement of expectations for what undergraduate students should learn. This is a baseline requirement for meaningful assessment of learning that provides standards against which performance can be assessed.
  • About half of respondents indicated that they learn about their fiduciary responsibility for monitoring student learning when their institutions prepare for re-accreditation.
  • Nearly two-thirds (61.5 percent) feel that not enough time is spent in board meetings on student-learning outcomes.
  • One concerning data point was that over 20 percent of all respondents said that monitoring student-learning outcomes is not a board responsibility.
  • Less than one-quarter of respondents reported that the board uses information about student learning to inform budget decisions. Appropriate connections between fiscal and educational decision making can have positive effects on both “bottom lines” (financial and educational quality).

References

Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. How Boards Oversee Educational Quality: A Report on a Survey of Boards and the Assessment of Student Learning. 2010.

Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of Educational Quality. 2011.

Ewell, Peter T. 2006. Making the Grade: How Boards Can Ensure Academic Quality.

Need more help? AGB’s reference librarian (available to members only) is available to research specific governance questions, provide sample documents, or recommend resources. Contact her here.

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