John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the Foundations of Excellence® process?

A model for engaging postsecondary institutions in a voluntary, comprehensive self-study, improvement planning, and change implementation process focused specifically on the totality of the beginning college experience.

2. Can any type of postsecondary institution become a Foundations of Excellence institution?

Yes, any regionally accredited institution in the US and comparable educational institutions in other countries may participate. Both two-year and four-year campuses are welcome and encouraged to participate.

3. Are there any charges/fees?

Yes. For additional cost information, click here. Additional project enhancements and services are also available at an extra cost to be determined as a function of extra services desired.

4. What is the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education?

The John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, an outgrowth of the Policy Center on the First Year of College, is a national leader in efforts to improve undergraduate learning and retention at institutional, regional, and national levels.

The Institute was incorporated in May of 2007, and the Policy Center began operations in October of 1999.

Please visit our insitute overview page to learn more.

5. What is/are the source(s) of financial support for the Gardner Institute?

As the Policy Center evolved between 1999 and 2005, it was supported almost entirely by grants from five foundations: The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Lumina Foundation for Education, Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and USA Funds. In 2005, the Center received a three-year grant from Lumina Foundation to move from a grant-funded to a self-sustaining non-profit entity through the development of what is now the Institute’s signature line of work: the comprehensive, voluntary, self-study process known as Foundations of Excellence® in the First College Year. As of 2009, over 160 campuses have participated in Foundations of Excellence.

6. How is the Gardner Institute different from the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition?

The Policy Center (now Gardner Institute), founded in 1999, is a direct outgrowth of the USC National Center, founded in 1986. In granting the original funding for the Policy Center, The Pew Charitable Trusts envisioned that the Policy Center would complement and not duplicate the work of the National Resource Center. The Center at USC was founded by John Gardner who remains a Senior Fellow in that Center and who is the President of the Gardner Institute. The Gardner Institute’s Vice President and Senior Scholar, Betsy O. Barefoot, also holds an appointment as Fellow of the USC Center. Both centers work collaboratively in designing, organizing, hosting a number of joint initiatives for the improvement of the first college year. While the USC Center is focused on a wide range of undergraduate improvement initiatives and the dissemination thereof, the Gardner Institute’s focus is much more narrowly confined to one signature effort, the Foundations of Excellence self-study and improvement planning processes.

7. How long should a campus plan to devote to a Foundations of Excellence self study?

The self-study portion of the process can be completed in approximately one calendar year. In some cases the institution may decide to devote a longer period of time for this purpose.

8. Is there any connection between the Foundations of Excellence self-study process and a self study used in reaffirmation of accreditation?

Yes, if the institution and the Accreditor agree to this. Originally, the Foundations of Excellence initiative was not designed to be used for formal reaccreditation purposes. But, both the Gardner Institute and the regional accrediting agencies share in common the objective of making better use of assessment to improve student learning. Recognizing this affinity of interests, the Gardner Institute is proud to offer a cooperative, integrated process leading to reaffirmation of accreditation granted by the Higher Learning Commission open to institutions accredited by that association. There is also a natural affinity between the Gardner Institute’s Foundations of Excellence self-study process and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) process.

9. Should a campus liaison receive release time to lead the self study?

The role of campus liaison and leader for the Foundations process is highly demanding in terms of time and energy. While the Gardner Institute does not recommend the creation of a new position to provide such leadership, it is recommended that a person be selected who will have the requisite time, commitment, and support to perform these temporary leadership duties. The accreditation self-study model, where it is common to provide work load release for self-study management, may be a model worth considering and emulating. An alternative would be to create a structure for multiple or co-liaisons, perhaps of a senior administrator and a faculty member, or an academic affairs and a student affairs colleague.

10. When a campus completes a Foundations of Excellence self-study, is the campus in any way “certified,” “licensed,” and/or “approved”?

No. At this time no form of certification, licensure, or approval is formally granted. The key assumption of the initiative as currently designed is that the campus conducts a self evaluation, makes its own judgments, and designs its own comprehensive action plan. The campus is not judged by outsiders (unless the process is used as part of reaccreditation for approved Higher Learning Commission campuses). Instead the Gardner Institute staff members coach and support the conduct of such self-studies, and it is the campus that conducts an evaluation and makes professional judgments.

11. For the surveying components of a Foundations of Excellence self-study can a campus make use of its previous administrations of national surveys such as the NSSE, CCSSE, FSSE, Your First College Year, The Freshman Survey, etc?

Yes, absolutely. The surveys designed by the Gardner Institute and its survey development partner, Educational Benchmarking, Inc, are designed to complement your campus’s existing processes of data collection. The EBI/Gardner Institute Foundations of Excellence surveys, unlike other nationally available surveys, are designed explicitly for providing student and faculty data that are tied directly to the Foundational Dimensions® which are the primary units of measurement for institutional performance in the Foundations of Excellence self-study process.

12. Is participating in the Foundations of Excellence Launch Meeting mandatory?

Yes. We know that in order for a campus to take maximum advantage of the Foundations of Excellence process, the attendance of at least three campus representatives is essential. One of these individuals MUST be the project liaison; we highly recommend that the other two be the chief academic officer, and an IR/assessment person. In addition, the campus may bring additional representatives for a modest fee. But that is strictly voluntary, and each campus should be able to function at a high level in our processes with the three-person minimum. For additional information regarding the Launch Meeting, please click here.

13. Is it possible for a for-profit, post-secondary institution to participate in a Foundations of Excellence self-study?

Yes.  We welcome participation of any regionally accredited institution including those in the for-profit sector.

14. What is the Gardner Institute’s relationship with Educational Benchmarking, Inc.?

EBI is a for-profit company focused on helping higher education improve its core functions through systematic surveying and data collection. EBI and the Gardner Institute were the co-developers of a benchmarking survey, the “First-Year Initiative,” designed to benchmark the effectiveness of first-year seminars. The Gardner Institute has a contractual partnership with EBI to deliver the Foundations of Excellence technology support, surveying, and data analysis infrastructure.

15. Does Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year Link with Student Learning Outcomes?

Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year is a self study that leads institutions to be more accountable for student learning through a) the identification of common learning goals for the first year, and (b) the auditing of learning outcomes across first-year courses. The process is not prescriptive. It does not provide specific goals for learning or measure specific learning outcomes. The core philosophy of the self study is that setting and monitoring learning goals is an important indicator of institutional excellence, and that there are many ways to accomplish this end. Rather than directly testing students’ knowledge and skills, the Foundations of Excellence surveys and processes present an aspirational vision of learning that requires a campus to evaluate its success in a) establishing desired learning outcomes, b) communicating these to students, families, and other stake holders, c) documenting student learning with multiple sources of evidence that may include quantitative and qualitative measures, and d) using results to confirm effective practices or make adjustments.