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December 2015

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By Elizabeth R. H. Sanchez (‘15M)

First year assessment and measurement doctoral student Madison Holzman recently had the opportunity to speak with the distinguished Dr. John Schuh. Schuh, a prolific scholar, award-winning leader in higher education, and current Director of the Emerging Leaders Academy at Iowa State University, shared freely his insights and experiences regarding the current and future state of student affairs on college campuses.

Holzman, who had read some of Schuh’s work as a Master’s student in JMU’s college student personnel administration program, was pleased to discover that Schuh is one of the outstanding few leaders that have dedicated themselves to merging student affairs practice and assessment. When asked what advice he’d give someone following the same sort of career trajectory, Schuh emphasized the importance of “getting started.” In other words, he encourages those who have only a rudimentary background in statistics and institutional research to begin the assessment process—and not be shied away from the practice because of their background or resources.

As Holzman later reflected, one of the key insights she gained from Schuh was the importance of starting where you are (what university you are a member of) with what you have (the resources allocated to you) in order to do what you can. During the interview, Schuh reiterated the “getting started” point several times, stating, “…I think anybody who has any level of responsibility for programs or services or student experiences ought to think about and then engage in some form of assessment to determine whether or not that for which they are responsible is effective. And then, share the results with their stakeholders.”

Holzman, too, noted that oftentimes student affairs assessment is viewed as an “add-on instead of [being a] part of the culture.” University faculty and staff in charge of programming are busy; but the consensus between Schuh and Holzman is that without assessment data, there’s little way to know whether or not the time invested in programming is well-spent. As Schuh stated, “…the handwriting on the wall is in Technicolor in terms of what needs to be done.”

In fact, whenever Schuh talks about the current state of student affairs assessment, he brings the conversation back to the regional accreditors’ standards. Accreditors typically have requirements for evidencing extracurricular student learning; a clear message to colleges and universities nationwide that this assessment “trend” is not to be ignored. But Schuh also emphasizes that assessment serves a dual purpose; successfully researching the effectiveness of a program achieves accreditors’ expectations and owes what is due to students: “…feedback in terms of the potency of their experiences.”

Additionally, Schuh articulated that in many cases waiting “to be invited” by or receive “permission” from senior officers and accreditation coordinators before starting to assess student learning serves no one well. A hard truth to admit, as Schuh suggested, may be that many in the upper administration received little-to-no training in assessment practices. So, “waiting for pronouncements about how [assessment should] be done might be a mistake.” Instead, Schuh believes that student affairs personnel “have to kind of leap from the middle or leap from wherever we are and not worry so much about waiting for permission or encouragement from senior leaders.”

Further emphasizing the need for institutions to start where they are with what they have, Schuh, who is dedicational to tracking funding trends in higher education and has taught a course on the topic, foresees no substantial increase in the budget of institutions nationwide. During the conversation, Holzman asked Schuh whether performance-based funding is a conceivable option for the future. He responded, “it’s very difficult to reduce [success] to measures that are easy to understand.” Retention rates, as Schuh mentioned, can be tied to admissions standards.

Another discussed obstacle to funding allocation is that legislators and administrations do not necessarily speak the same language when it comes to finding and declaring budgetary needs. Meaning, “public institutions in particular are going to have to come up with creative ways to identify financing to keep themselves relatively viable,” because, “we are tapped out,” as Schuh continued, “[for many public institutions] raising tuition or increasing fees or both won’t work anymore.” There are few answers to funding needs—but Schuh noted an intrinsic need to integrate assessment into the culture of higher education anyway.

Although he is an advocate for current leaders in assessment, who Schuh says can come from virtually any position, he predicts a shift in who universities hire and keep in positions of student affairs and upper administration. Instead of allowing those who are unwilling to adapt assessment as part of the student affairs culture to continue to occupy positions of responsibility, Schuh believes that colleges and universities, at risk of remaining accredited, will seek out candidates who have a readiness and eagerness to engage in assessment practice. As someone who has gone to college and university campuses for accreditation visits, Schuh stresses the importance of a university providing evidence of research that shows that “we know a little more than we got started.” Holzman agreed, not every university will have the ability or means to create the best instruments or provide the most psychometrically sound data. But as Schuh mentioned, it’s more important to start collecting data and sharing results than it is to master the technique.

As for Holzman, having a degree in college student personnel administration and earning a degree in assessment and measurement is advantageous. She is certainly developing the types of skills and background experiences that Schuh believes will be essential on college and university campuses nationwide—especially for those dedicated to improving student affairs experiences for students.