Diversity and Democracy

Assessing Higher Education’s Advancement Toward a New Vision of Society

Envision a local and global society that advances social progress: a world that is equitable, interdependent, sustainable, innovative, and economically secure, and that supports the welfare of all. In order to enact this vision, educators must equip students with the values, skills, and knowledge to become complex thinkers and ethical decision-makers in a society currently plagued with conflict and inequality. Assessment of a broad range of outcomes that reflect student learning is critical to this project. In order to ensure that our students are reaching desired outcomes, we must continually assess our progress: where our students begin, how they grow and change, and how our educational practices and climates contribute to the goals that support our vision.

As postsecondary institutions enter an era of "evidence-based" practice and take greater responsibility for monitoring student outcomes, they must also assess the impact of the diverse environments that help shape student learning. We do our students a disservice if we simply continue to document the cycle of disparities in educational outcomes without understanding implications for practice. Thus assessment must be coupled with identifying areas for improvement of student learning and development. Integrating assessments of student learning outcomes related to the climate for diversity and campus practices--and responding proactively to assessment results--may be the best strategy to ensure that we support all students, especially traditionally underrepresented students, and advance their capacities for success.

Combining Assessment of the Climate and Outcomes

At the Higher Education Research Institute, we recently reviewed the research literature and over ninety instruments used on college campuses to determine how institutions are assessing the climate for diversity, educational practices, and related student learning outcomes (Hurtado et al., forthcoming). Our research identified assessments and practices that highlight the conditions that maximize student learning.

The research is beginning to converge around several key benefits. First, diversity has value-added benefits for student learning. Students who engage with diverse peers achieve change across a wide range of outcomes related to the capacity for citizenship, and a diverse student body is necessary to increase the probability for contact opportunities. Guided and intentional campus practices that create opportunities for interaction and disrupt previous habits and routines are essential to achieving these outcomes. Assessments conducted across multiple campuses using Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) surveys have been key to this research. These longitudinal assessments take into account where students begin, evaluate their campus experiences with diversity, and follow up to assess their academic and civic commitments four and ten years after college entry (see Jayakumar, forthcoming; Gurin et al. 2002). CIRP research reveals the long-term effects of college interactions across race/ethnicity on learning, democratic dispositions, and job skills.

Second, campus climate is critical to all students' ability to benefit from their educational environments. Just as a campus that embraces diversity provides substantial positive benefits, a hostile or discriminatory climate has substantial negative consequences (Cabrera et al. 1999; Hurtado et al. 1999). Both white students and students of color who perceive a hostile climate tend to have a lower sense of belonging (Locks et al. 2008). The climate also informs students of color's sense of success as they manage the academic environment during the first year of college (Hurtado et al. 2007). Climate studies based on new models of student integration highlight the importance of the social and psychological context for diverse students' success and suggest ways institutions can improve their climates.

Finally, positive campus climates must be coupled with proven educational practices. Many popular programs are insufficiently examined, even within the institutions that house them. However, researchers are now working with practitioners in cross-campus collaborations to compile substantial data that illuminate the impact of specific campus practices, including programs like intergroup dialogue (explored in this issue of Diversity & Democracy). New research is also focusing on integrative learning initiatives like living-learning programs (see the National Study of Living Learning Programs at www.livelearnstudy.net) and undergraduate research programs that target underrepresented groups. For example, the National Institutes of Health have funded a grant cluster to build an interdisciplinary community of researchers and program coordinators. This community is examining the efficacy of national and local intervention programs in increasing the participation of underrepresented students in the biomedical sciences.

While campuses engaged in assessment can use their data for self-improvement, other educators can use recent research to inform and improve their work. A range of instruments exists to evaluate the benefits of diversity on campuses with positive climates and practices that provide guided learning opportunities. But it is up to institutions to use these instruments and findings to maximize student learning and retention, particularly in the current climate of accountability.

Assessing in a Climate of Accountability

Since the accountability trend began in the 1960s, volumes on college outcomes have been produced, and multiple frameworks for measuring the chief benefits of college now exist (Feldman and Newcomb 1969; Bowen 1977; Pascarella and Terenzini 1991, 2005). In short, there is ample evidence that college benefits both individuals and society in myriad ways. Yet as the current accountability movement focuses on standardizing evaluations between institutions, assessment efforts face new challenges.

A campus's faculty typically determines institution-specific goals for undergraduate education. Assessing these institutionally specific goals, particularly using standardized tests, is often a complex task. Institutions must build faculty-driven models of assessment to ensure results will have a direct impact on teaching and learning. In addition, many campuses face a high degree of student mobility (e.g. transfers and concurrent enrollment) that complicate outcomes assessment, especially if students have acquired their general education curricula at several institutions. Institutional climate also affects student assessment: the more marginalized students feel, the less likely they are to participate in assessments, and the students with the greatest capacity to benefit may not participate. Growing budgetary constraints are an additional complication. But these circumstances do not relieve educators' duty to provide meaningful evidence.

Complicating these problems is the issue of time: educators engaged in practice rarely have time to conduct research on their programs. Yet part of the difficulty arises from our tendency to "compartmentalize" assessments, employing one set of instruments for the climate, another for student outcomes, and still another for specific practices. Instead of compartmentalizing, institutions would benefit by conducting more comprehensive research about who gains access to program resources, whether program impact is evident on multiple outcomes and goals, and whether successful practices can be "scaled up." By better identifying the outcomes of specific programs, institutions can move successful programs from their status as oases for small groups of students toward spurring wider institutional transformation.

Documenting and Enacting Education for a New Society

Despite the challenges, educators must document how diverse learning environments and guided education initiatives help students develop the capacity for lifelong learning and responsible citizenship. AAC&U's Essential Learning Outcomes stand as one important and flexible guide that faculty can adapt and monitor using several types of instruments, including student surveys and portfolios. But as we monitor these outcomes, we must further attend to their relationship with the overall educational environment and its programs, practices, policies, and climate.

Campuses already have a vast amount of empirical information to guide practice. But nothing can replace critical self-assessment to deepen the campus commitment to diversity and learning. By integrating assessments of educational practices, climate, and related outcomes, campuses can address the challenges they face in producing evidence about student learning. Perhaps more important, integrated assessments can help campuses establish which internal and external factors affect student achievement, allowing them to attend to students' psychosocial well-being, retention rates, and holistic development. Knowing what works and what doesn't can help campuses support students' ability to become competent multicultural citizens--people who will advance social progress in the next generation and achieve a new vision of society.


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