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Passing the Test


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Dr. Shirley A. Mullen

Higher education has come slowly to true outcomes assessment. Christian higher education has been no exception. We have made plans for years — even plans that we called “strategic.” We have certainly done “evaluation” of students. We have regularly evaluated each other through the peer accreditation process. But in all of this, we have focused more often on “inputs” rather than “outcomes.” And we have not, in a disciplined way, allowed the process to fundamentally change how we do things.

That is, until recently. The public outcry about rising student debt, low college completion rates, and escalating costs; alternative delivery methods for higher education; and increasing government involvement in higher education has certainly captured the attention of educators — hopefully before it is too late.

The reluctance of higher education to develop meaningful assessment processes that result in ongoing alignment of resources to mission and ongoing improvement in mission effectiveness has been more than “ivory tower” oblivion or self-declared exceptionalism. (Though there has certainly been some of that!) Educators in general, and Christian educators in particular, have resisted a process that they view as reductionistic and inherently incapable of measuring the core values of the enterprise — personal maturity, spiritual and moral transformation, commitment to lifelong learning, and long-term community and global impact.

Much of that worry is justified. It is easier to measure outcomes that are quantifiable and short-term than outcomes that relate to quality of life and service to others over the course of a lifetime. Much of the deep work of higher education does not fit the categories that measure “efficiency” and “productivity” as those categories are usually understood.

Nevertheless, the economic challenges of the past five years, demographic and technological changes, and the threat that others (the federal government, private foundations) will step in and do for us what we have not adequately done for ourselves, has forced higher education to do what we ought to have been doing for years — to struggle with how to meaningfully assess the true and deep work of higher education.

As Christian educators, we must take this work of assessment and accountability even more seriously. It is (without trying to sound overly dramatic) a matter of life and death. In this very moment, when the world and the church needs thoughtful Christian leaders more than ever, Christian colleges and universities are increasingly less understood and valued by the church, and increasingly more under threat by the political and legal realities of federal and state governments.

So how are we, at Houghton College, stewarding this kingdom responsibility of accountability and assessment?

We certainly owe it to the Christian community to make the case for Christian higher education in the face of Christian causes that seem so much more urgent (e.g. evangelism, hunger, extreme poverty). And we also owe it to the Christian community, since the burden for Christian higher education may well fall increasingly on the church, should federal and state employment requirements and student loan requirements threaten the viability of Christian colleges and universities.

In the past two years, we have developed an institutional strategic map that identifies our key mission, vision, and objectives. This is different from previous strategic efforts in five fundamental respects:

1. It is linked to a “balanced score card” that connects our objectives to performance measures that are regularly monitored by president’s staff.

2. The institutional objectives are tied to specific implementation plans in each administrative area of the college.

3. The “balanced score card” ensures that the plan is dynamic and allows for ongoing alignment of resources in order to achieve the most important mission objectives.

4. The plan focuses ongoing discussion and ensures transparency among all sectors of institutional governance: our sponsoring denomination, the Board of Trustees, the administration, and the faculty.

5. The plan addresses both those aspects of the college’s operation that are more easily quantifiable (e.g. admissions conversion rates from enquiries to applications) and those that are less so (e.g. compelling curriculum; faculty and staff development for mission).

This new approach has already focused and strengthened the teamwork of our president’s staff. It has shaped the agendas of our trustee and faculty meetings. The true test is its ability to ensure simultaneously both clarity of mission and economic sustainability for the long haul. For the sake of the kingdom, we are committed to passing this test!

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Dr. Shirley A. Mullen is in her seventh year as president of Houghton College, Houghton, New York. This post is an excerpt from her article in the Spring edition of Outcomes Magazine.

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