New Mexico Universities Sign National Voluntary System of Accountability Agreement, Aug. 5, 2008

Council of University Presidents, New Mexico Higher Education Department Coordinate Effort to Highlight Accountability in College/University Administration

by Thomas Guengerich

SANTA FE, N.M., Aug. 5, 2008 -- The New Mexico Council of University Presidents recently adopted a national accountability standard for higher education in the state.

New Mexico is the first state in the nation in which all of the independent four-year colleges and universities have joined the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA), a national initiative that helps make reporting data from colleges and universities more meaningful to students and their parents.

Dr. Daniel H. López, chairman of the Council, announced Monday, July 28, at the group’s annual retreat that New Mexico universities are taking an important step towards greater transparency and accountability.

“As state-supported institutions, we all have a responsibility to demonstrate that our universities are offering value-added services to our students, to the state of New Mexico and to the nation,” Dr. López said. “This new initiative gives us the tools to quantify our efforts, identify our strengths and weaknesses and develop long-range plans for improvement.”

Consideration of the initiative was first proposed by the New Mexico Higher Education Department. It was developed by two national organizations – the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) – as a means to measure and improve learning outcomes, cost studies and graduation rates and to solidify the public’s trust in public institutions. Ultimately, the goal is to provide schools with assessment tools and a framework for improved service to students.

The New Mexico Higher Education Department and university presidents collaborated with the national organizations to adopt the initiative. The New Mexico Higher Education Department hosted a meeting at which George L. Mehaffy, AASCU Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change, spoke about the effort.

“The Voluntary System of Accountability is a flexible and innovative approach to institutional accountability that will give both potential students and the public at large valuable information about how our colleges and universities are doing,” said New Mexico Cabinet Secretary of Higher Education Reed Dasenbrock, Ph.D. “I believe that the information collected through the VSA will help institutions improve their performance, will help students and their parents make better decisions about college, and will help all of us understand what we are getting for our money. I congratulate the presidents of the institutions for their leadership on this issue.”
The Council of University Presidents includes the leaders from the seven four-year schools in the state – Eastern New Mexico, New Mexico Highlands, New Mexico State, New Mexico Tech, the University of New Mexico, Northern New Mexico College and Western New Mexico.

“We are public institutions that serve the public good,” said George Mehaffy, vice president of the AASCU. “We need to examine cost, effectiveness, engagement and learning outcomes. The Voluntary System of Accountability has a starkly elegant design that lays out concerns and challenges and addresses how we as higher education professionals will respond.”

The most important focus of a fully-functional system of accountability is to focus on student learning and engagement, said Mehaffy, who was formerly a vice president at Eastern New Mexico University. The ideal outcome is to help faculty focus on learning outcomes.

From the financial perspective, the newly-adopted system will also allow universities to correlate funding and education.

“As the cost of higher education goes up, the questions about our effectiveness rise sharply,” Mehaffy said. “The Voluntary System of Accountability provides justification to policymakers and the public.”

Colleges or universities that participate in the VSA must share graduation data in a national clearinghouse that includes data on transfer students. Being able to track inter-institutional transfers will better inform New Mexico’s colleges and universities about how students progress, Dasenbrock said.

Another benefit is that the national system provides a framework for comparing how the higher education system in New Mexico compares to other states. In addition, member institutions use one of a range of possible assessment tools to report on student learning outcomes. The end result of the new program is to provide schools with information-gathering and data analysis tools, coupled with a framework and process for continuous improvement.

The two organizations collaborated for nearly two years to devise the final 13-page document that is the VSA. Combined membership is 525 colleges and universities and already 51 percent of those schools have agreed to participate in the voluntary program.

The national organizations are not currently charging any fees for participation in the program, thanks to funding from the Lumina Foundation for Education.
Although the system does not at present include two-year institutions, discussions are under way about how to expand the VSA to include them.

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