UNL fares well in doctoral program assessment

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UNL is scrutinizing the latest National Research Council assessment of research-doctorate programs where data from 29 UNL programs were included along with more than 5,000 other programs in the United States.

The NRC Data-based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs, released Sept. 28, uses data collected from 212 universities and other national data to assess doctoral programs. Unlike the last NRC doctoral program study, published in 1995, which yielded a single ranking for each doctoral program, the current assessment is not a ranking nor declaration of the "best programs" in a given field. Instead, this assessment is a dataset that includes multiple indicators and rankings provided as wide confidence intervals. The NRC's purpose of the dataset approach is move away from unambiguous, definitive rankings and to explicitly acknowledge that program quality is multi-factorial. This approach also provides institutions a tool to evaluate and improve programs.

The data, primarily gathered from the 2005-2006 academic year, included 20 variables, such as faculty characteristics, publications, citations, grants and diversity; student characteristics such as GRE scores, financial support, publications and diversity; program characteristics, including the number of Ph.D.s granted over five years, time to degree, percentage of students completing and completion after graduation.

What did the data tell us about UNL's doctoral programs?

"The data and methodology are quite complex, and we are excited for the opportunity to examine the data in detail to look for growth or development potential in each participating program," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, acting dean of Graduate Studies. "UNL is committed to high quality doctoral programs, and the NRC assessment data gives us a chance to dig in and take a look at a broad range of information to guide us in program planning." Espy conducted information sessions Sept. 22-24 with vice chancellors, deans, and department and graduate chairs and is providing the data breakout reports to these administrators to share with faculty to conduct their own internal assessment and planning.

The NRC data announcement hasn't been without anticipation or conflict nationally, Espy said. Planning for the survey began among the participating universities more than a decade ago, with data collected from 2005-06 - since then many faculty have arrived and left in the institutions and many students have earned their degrees - and some wonder about the appropriateness of the methodology, and particularly, how accurate or relevant such old data can be. There also is the age-old debate over the reliability of quantifiable data to measure subjective outcomes such as quality or perceptions of quality.

"UNL takes great pride in the quality of our many graduate programs, which have long track records of innovation and excellence across a broad range of fields," said Ellen Weissinger, interim senior vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. "Many aspects of a high-quality education cannot be reduced to numerical measures. The university does not use such ratings and ranking to shape its curriculum or academic policies."

Espy said, "Every student's assessment of the best place to pursue graduate studies should be based on his or her own analysis of what the program has to offer. The decision of where to enroll should not be based on a rating or ranking from any organization."

The NRC study does provide an opportunity to examine the characteristics of various research PHD programs in comparison to other programs, and the data site is available free to the public at http://www.nap.edu/rdp . The data were compiled from student and faculty questionnaires, objective data from universities' institutional research departments, and from external sources such as citation databases. The 20 characteristics served as a basis for the illustrative rankings used in the assessment, with survey-based and regression-based rankings that are weighted and then shown as broad range ranks.

Espy said faculty, staff or students with questions about the assessment related to their program can visit with their graduate or department chair or dean, and can call her directly for more general information.

- Kelly Bartling

More details at: http://www.nap.edu/rdp