National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment |

National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

Institute Occasional Paper 3:
Connecting the Dots Between Learning and Resources


Wellman, J. V. (2010, January). Connecting the dots between learning and resources. (NILOA Occasional Paper No. 3) Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.


With all the talk about the need for more accountability, surprisingly little is known about what kind of resources an institution needs in order to produce a given level of student attainment. Jane Wellman charts this territory and discovers some surprises, such as how conclusions about cost-effectiveness change when the metric is cost-per-degree rather than the traditional cost-per-enrollment.  One result is that, contrary to popular belief, community colleges are not cheap when it comes to cost-per-degree.  Another important insight—again against the grain of conventional wisdom—is that simply investing more money does not appear to produce more or better outcomes.  As Wellman points out, the key to productivity is intentionally targeted investments.

Paper Abstract

American higher education is being challenged as never before by the imperative to increase postsecondary access and degree attainment despite declines in funding. The challenge is made all the more daunting because of the rapid changes in student demographics. Meeting these challenges without harming quality will require unprecedented attention to the intersection of resource use and performance. Almost every institution is currently struggling to find ways to restructure its costs, a painful exercise that requires hard thinking about priorities and spending. Institutional and policy leaders are asking for guidance, and for data that tells them something about how to focus scarce resources in areas that make the biggest difference in access, attainment, and learning outcomes.

They're not getting much help: despite nearly two decades of increased attention to learning assessments, we have yet to cross the rubicon of connecting the dots between educational practices that promote student learning with the way that funds are used. For all the good work that has been done in the assessment of student learning, little parallel attention has been given to questions of cost-effectiveness and to the difference that money either does or does not make in getting students to degrees with acceptable levels of learning. Conventional assumptions about college finances, including the assumption that more money means better quality, appear to be so commonly held that they are not seriously analyzed by institutions or addressed by researchers. The problem occurs on both sides of the equation, with not enough attention in work on student success to clear measures of learning outcomes and not enough attention on the cost side to the connection between spending levels or patterns and student academic success.

To get a better handle on what is known and the much that remains to be discovered, this white paper presents a conceptual approach for analyzing the relation of spending to student success, followed by an examination of what the existing research says about the topic. Since there is so little work directly on the topic of learning and resource use, this paper searches other areas of work for threads that might be sturdy enough to be woven into a fabric of knowledge about learning and resources. The paper concludes by recapping the research themes and by suggesting directions for future work.

Biography of Author

Jane Wellman is the Executive Director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability, a non-profit research and policy organization located in Washington, DC. The Delta Project's mission is to improve productivity in higher education through better targeting of resources to protect to student access and the quality of student learning. Wellman is recognized for her work in public policy and higher education, at both the state and federal levels, with particular expertise in state fiscal policy; cost analysis; strategic planning; state and federal regulation of higher education; accountability metrics and performance reporting; and quality control including accreditation. Her career spans work in public institutions, state as well as federal government, and with private not-for-profit as well as for-profit institutions. She is a widely published policy analyst, and a frequent consultant both in this country and internationally, to institutions, state governments, public policy organizations and foundations. She is a member of the Association of Governing Boards Consulting Services, and serves on the boards of the Association of American Colleges and Universities as well as Argosy University.


This Occasional Paper was featured in the January 2010 e-newsletter of AIR and an article in Inside Higher Ed was written on this paper, The Faculty Role in Assessment on May 28, 2010.

Wellman's paper was also featured in AAC&U's Diversity and Democracy Fall 2010 issue.


"To help all students acquire essential learning outcomes, assessment must evolve from a compliance-driven exercise to one where student learning results are used in decision making and resource allocation."

Jane Wellman

Jane Wellman
Executive Director
Delta Cost Project