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Using a Review Process to Improve Quality of Programs and Services

October 6, 2016 Richard Walker Member at Large

Institutions of higher education are under public scrutiny regarding the rising cost of tuition and fees and accountability for delivering quality programs and services that demonstrate impact on student success. As a result, student affairs administrators are being asked to prove efficient and effective use of funds through outcomes-based metrics. This means that divisions of student affairs must establish formal processes by which departments take the time for self-assessment including examining best practices and peer review.

The department/program review approach being taken by the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Services (DSAES) at the University of Houston is a collaborative process including a self-study (internal review) and an external peer review. While self-study and peer review are fundamental components of an external process of accreditation, the department/program review for DSAES serves an important internal purpose. The division is committed to continuous improvement of its programs and services, setting new standards for collaboration and interdisciplinary work, and strengthening each department/program’s connections that promote academic and cultural activities as well as economic and human development.


Our department/program review places emphasis on (1) involvement of campus administrators, staff and faculty from departments/programs other than the one undergoing review, students, alumni, community members and divisional leadership; (2) linkages between the program and the community it serves; and (3) connections between planning, decision-making, and resource allocation at department and campus levels. These emphases ensure that reviews fundamentally contribute to the attainment of the division’s mission and warranted recommendations are carried out.


The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) provides standards and self-assessment guides which are completed by the respective department director and staff. When a CAS guide does not exist for a program area then the departments are strongly encouraged to follow the CAS General Standards outline.


A minimum of three external reviewers from the respective profession or discipline are chosen to take part in a site visit. The Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Services, members of the division’s executive and senior leadership teams, interested staff and faculty from related departments, students, and advisory groups take part in the site visit on  a pre-arranged schedule developed by the Director of Assessment and Planning with departmental cooperation. Participation by the department, those who support the department/program, as well as, participants or benefactors  serves to emphasize the openness of the review process.


At the closure of the on campus visit, the external reviewers meet with the Vice President, the Associate Vice President, the Director of Assessment and Planning, and the director of the department/program reviewed prior to departing the campus for a brief overview of their findings. Close to one month after the site visit, a written report, following the CAS outline, combining the reviewers findings and recommendations is provided. The Vice President then meets with the respective department/program director, their Associate/Assistant Vice President, and the Director of Assessment and Planning to discuss the report. One month following receipt of the reviewers' report, the respective Associate/Assistant Vice President and the respective department/program director draft a written response indicating the actions to be taken to address each recommendation.

The Director of Assessment and Planning calls a follow-up meeting within twelve months allowing the respective director to discuss the reviewers' report. All appropriate representatives of the division administration are invited to this meeting in order to bring to bear all the resources needed to assist the department/program in making essential improvements. The department communicates to stakeholders on progress at one and two year increments. Each targeted improvement area is addressed in annual reporting and during planning/budgeting review. During the third year following the review, the Director of Assessment and Planning schedules a meeting for discussion of the longer-term outcomes.


In the past three years DSAES has completed 14 reviews. From the vantage point of the Vice President, this process has been highly successful in fostering a divisional commitment to program/service continuous improvement, setting new standards for collaboration and interdisciplinary work, and strengthening each department’s connections to demonstrating impact on student success.

The focus on accountability and strategic allocation of resources will be an ongoing component of our work in Student Affairs. Having the tools in place to continuously examine the contributions of our performance to the success of our students is essential.