Answers to questions such as how many books line the stacks in a library or how many Ph.D.s line the halls of academe are no longer as sufficient as they once were. Now what matters most to the entities dispensing imprimaturs to colleges and universities is this: What have students learned and how did they learn it?
Oberlin, midstream in the decade-recurring process known as reaccreditation, is also immersed in new mandates established by its governing body, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA). The NCA accredits the College--the Conservatory of Music and the College of Arts and Sciences--as a whole.
Until recently, accreditation had been resource based--the NCA required evidence of an institution's ability to fulfill its stated mission by means of its student quality and diversity, faculty qualifications and salaries, curriculum, and physical plant. But pressure from the public and from the U.S. Department of Education led the NCA to require evidence of mission fulfillment, ipso facto. And lo, a new word entered the accreditation vocabulary: assessment.
The change of focus from resources to outcomes is "a sea change, not a trend," says Associate Professor of History Carol Lasser, and such a major addition that the NCA required an academic-outcome assessment plan from institutions scheduled for self study between 1996 and 2000. The NCA has approved the assessment plan Oberlin submitted in June 1995, and a site visit is scheduled for March 1998.
In 1994 Oberlin formed an assessment committee, chaired by Lasser, who says "the most formidable task in getting started was working to devise an assessment plan worthy of Oberlin College."
The assessment committee, comprised of members of the college and conservatory's teaching faculties and Director of Institutional Research Ross Peacock, used a grass roots approach--the basis of which were department-level discussions in the College of Arts and Sciences--to clarify Oberlin's academic objectives and to solicit suggestions for assessing the institution's success at reaching those goals. The Conservatory of Music, which had held similar discussions a few years ago, is planning an assessment process along guidelines set by the National Association of Schools of Music, which also accredits the conservatory.
A self-study committee, which has recently begun to meet, is charged with preparing the report that will be used when the NCA visits the campus in 1998. Coordinating with the assessment committee, the self-study committee will analyze Oberlin's vast and varied resources and demonstrate how those resources are utilized in ensuring that students emerge with an "exquisite liberal arts education."
What indices will help in taking such a measure? Besides departmental-based assessment--most likely portfolios and quantitative tools--Peacock says surveys, focus groups, and the analyses of transcripts and post-Oberlin experiences will be used. Both he and Lasser say they do not foresee any situation where students would be required to take a major proficiency test.
Alumni can expect, at some point, to receive a questionnaire, the purposes of which, says Peacock, "are manifold. [We] will ask alumni to reflect on their collegiate experiences, [and we will] gather data on education, career paths, involvement in community, life satisfaction, etc." This year, surveys will be conducted with the classes of 1991 and 1995. At some point, a regular process will get underway for surveying older graduates.
--Marci Janas '91
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