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The Doctoral Benchmarking Alliance

New York City - May 17, 2017: Graduates in gowns and doctoral tams stand outdoors talking near Columbia University in Upper Manhattan.
Doctoral programs create standardized measures to assess their performance
  • Client
    University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University, Walden University, Capella University, Indiana Weselyan University, Colorado Technical University, and Northcentral University
  • Dates
    2017 - 2019


Doctoral programs needed better ways to measure student success.  

External accreditors, stakeholders, and funders are increasingly calling on colleges and universities to demonstrate their effectiveness in meeting their educational missions and engaging in evidence-based planning and assessment activities to ensure continuous improvement. At the undergraduate level, institutions widely track and benchmark measures of student achievement, such as retention and graduation rates. At the doctoral level, however, there are few standard measures to help institutions assess performance. This is especially true for institutions and programs that primarily serve part-time doctoral students or those in nontraditional formats—such as online, hybrid, compressed, or other programs—that grant a growing proportion of doctorates. 


NORC created a means for useful program-level comparisons.  

The Higher Education Analytics Center (HEAC) at NORC at the University of Chicago partnered with a small set of institutions to host a Doctoral Benchmarking Alliance (DBA). To aid universities, their students, and the public, NORC has worked in this alliance to measure and assess the performance of doctoral programs. The DBA allows universities to benchmark their student and program data against similar institutions and facilitates communication among member institutions. The benchmarking analyses rely on measures including institution- and program-level retention rates for the first year, end of coursework, comprehensive exams, dissertation proposal, doctoral candidacy, and time to degree.  


Participating schools have standardized data to show student success.

Each year of the project, DBA members sent assessment data to NORC. For each member, NORC used it to produce a report that benchmarked a member’s data within a group of institutions and programs that serve similar students. NORC also distributed aggregated benchmark data on these other similar universities to each member. In its first year, the DBA focused on institutions with doctoral programs that tend to serve nontraditional students. As a result, the population was largely composed of doctoral students who work full- or part-time, part-time doctoral students, and students who drifted between full- and part-time status. DBA members viewed NORC’s first year as a success in providing them with benchmarked data on important metrics. To follow this initial effort, NORC expanded the institutional population to include a variety of doctoral programs serving both traditional and nontraditional students.

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