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Trusteeship Magazine

Board Responsibility for the Oversight of College Completion

By Cristin Toutsi
January/February
2016

AGB is more than halfway through an 18-month Lumina Foundation-funded project intended to ensure the fulfillment of college and university missions and student success, as measured by outcomes such as graduating more students with high-quality credentials.

Board members’ responses to a national survey and in meaningful conversations during statewide programs reveal that there is general consensus that student success and college completion are the most important or a top priority, but most do not think they dedicate enough time and attention to student outcomes and college completion.

Appropriate board engagement in college completion agendas is needed and required. The real work is the commitment by boards to partner with chief executives to support institutional and system strategies for student success and educational attainment.

AGB is more than halfway through an 18-month Lumina Foundation-funded project intended to ensure the fulfillment of college and university missions and student success, as measured by outcomes such as graduating more students with high-quality credentials.

Board members’ responses to a national survey and in meaningful conversations during statewide programs reveal that there is general consensus that student success and college completion are the most important or a top priority, but most do not think they dedicate enough time and attention to student outcomes and college completion.

Appropriate board engagement in college completion agendas is needed and required. The real work is the commitment by boards to partner with chief executives to support institutional and system strategies for student success and educational attainment.

Among their most important responsibilities, governing board members ensure the fulfillment of college and university missions and student success, as measured by outcomes such as graduating more students with high-quality degrees and credentials. Achieving that is the essence of AGB’s Lumina Foundation-funded project on board engagement in college completion, which is focused on board members’ understanding of the challenges associated with this fiduciary duty to ensure student achievement and oversee college completion.

Meeting state and national goals for substantial improvement in college completion and attainment requires the full participation and oversight of higher education’s policy-making bodies. These governing boards ensure institutional and system missions— which include both educating and graduating students—and, as AGB says, “own” educational outcomes. This fundamental board responsibility and fiduciary duty requires appropriate board engagement, including an understanding of both public purpose and individual needs for postsecondary education. The Lumina study seeks to measure this understanding and work with participating states that are seeking to improve board education and governance.

Guided by an esteemed project advisory council comprising 12 leaders in higher education, this project includes as its first phase a national survey and report of board members’ knowledge of and engagement in college completion efforts at their institutions/ systems. A series of statewide programs for public and independent board members that is focused on board fiduciary duties, the characteristics of “consequential boards,” and board responsibility for the oversight of college completion makes up the second phase. Finally, the third phase includes a forthcoming statement from AGB’s board of directors on best governance practices for boards. The goal is that the recommendations will create new board policies or change current board practices to better support student, institutional, and system goals for student success—all of which contribute to state and national attainment agendas.

AGB is more than halfway through this 18-month project, and the advisory council continues to guide staff in this important work. The project will conclude in fall 2016.

Phase I: The Survey and Report

Highlights from the national survey of what board members know and are doing about college completion efforts at their institutions or within their systems illuminate current successes and identify where there is the capacity for change to ensure educational achievement.

Data from this national survey allow facilitators to hold a mirror up to statewide program attendees to say, “This is what you told me about yourself, and here’s why that matters and can affect educational outcomes.” The full survey results are reported in the report, Governing Board Oversight of College Completion, available for download here and excerpted in the tables and figures presented here.

How does the board use the information it receives about college completion?

Board members’ responses to these questions reveal that there is general consensus that student success and college completion are the most important priority or a top priority on board members’ agendas, but most do not think they dedicate enough time and attention to student outcomes and college completion.

Focusing on improving college completion rates does not simply mean pushing students through to advance rates, but rather to be more effective at monitoring student progress while providing a high-quality education. Colleges and universities must always maintain high standards for educational quality and student-learning outcomes. Boards must ask how institutions/systems know that students are receiving quality degrees and credentials that are valued by other colleges and universities, employers, and other stakeholders.

The highlights included here are just a snapshot of select survey questions and board member responses found in the full report. Survey findings continue to enhance session content for statewide programs for board members.

Key questions asked of program attendees or session panelists:

1. Does your board have the right metrics to monitor institutional/ system efforts to increase completion?

2. Do your board’s structure and agenda allow for effective and integrated oversight of student retention?

3. Is your board functioning at the policy level in its efforts to improve completion rates?

4. Does your board have policies in place that support coordinated completion efforts with other institutions/systems in your state?

Is college completion the most important or a major priority for your board?

Phase II: Statewide Programs

Annual statewide programs for board members are the optimal convening opportunity for state leaders to host a forum focused on higher education governance and leadership. Substantial discussions related to fiduciary duties, board accountability, and board responsibility for the oversight of educational quality and college completion are always at the forefront of agendas.

At the time of publication, AGB consultants have facilitated statewide programs in nine states:

Arkansas, in partnership with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education;

Colorado, in partnership with the Colorado Department of Higher Education;

Florida, in partnership with the State University System of Florida;

Kentucky, in partnership with the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education;

Massachusetts, in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education;

Oklahoma, in partnership with the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education;

Texas, in partnership with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board;

Virginia, in partnership with the State Council for Higher Education of Virginia; and

West Virginia, in partnership with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

Each program addressed a variety of key topics that are pertinent to board members in their respective states, with an overarching focus on effective trusteeship and board governance.

State participant information

The impact is already far-reaching, as the more than 1,200 individuals who have participated in these statewide programs have fiduciary responsibilities for, or work in support of, institutions, systems, and statewide coordinating boards, agencies, and commissions, with more than 1 million enrolled undergraduate and graduate students. Initial evaluation feedback from board member participants indicates that these programs are improving how board members understand and discuss challenges and opportunities related to student success at their institutions or systems. Statewide programs will continue in 2016.

An overwhelming majority of board members in participating states report that they better understand the challenges and complexities associated with college completion and their role in overseeing student success and educational achievement as part of board fiduciary duties.

Level of Understanding of College CompletionShould the Board Give More Time to Discussing Completion?

Phase III: Statement on Board Oversight of College Completion

The third phase of AGB’s project to improve board engagement and oversight of college completion is a statement on best governance practices for board members. Based on responses from the survey and feedback from statewide programs, AGB is developing a statement focused on board policies and practices to promote student success.

AGB staff and the project’s advisory council developed the statement’s principles and recommendations to guide board actions to improve student achievement. The principles included in the draft statement were developed to inform specific governance and leadership recommendations. They are as follows:

1. Boards should declare college completion among their priorities, regularly reviewing metrics about student enrollment, retention, and completion, and using these data for related decision making.

2. Boards should hold the president and senior administrators accountable for progress toward mutually agreedupon goals for college completion. They should also acknowledge the role of faculty and staff in advancing the completion agenda.

3. Boards should ensure that their institution’s/ system’s mission is clear and that efforts to support college completion are aligned with mission.

4. Boards should ensure that institutional/ system resources are aligned with student affordability, retention, and educational quality as they relate to completion.

5. Because college readiness and the application of transfer credits affect college completion, boards should ensure that institutional/system policies reflect a commitment to collaborations with community partners such as K–12 leaders, high-school counselors, and other colleges from or to which students transfer.

AGB will continue to develop a comprehensive statement that fleshes out board governance principles and recommendations for best practice. The statement will include a series of specific recommendations for board members and presidents/chancellors.

Appropriate board engagement in college completion agendas is needed and required. AGB’s work in this area is significant, but merely the tip of the iceberg. The real work comes as boards partner with chief executives to support and advance institutional and system strategies for student success and educational attainment.

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