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Our History

From Program to National Center

NCHEMS began in 1969 as the Management Information Systems program at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). In 1977, NCHEMS parted with WICHE and became its own independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission to improve strategic decision making in post-secondary education for states, systems, institutions, and workforce development organizations in the United States and abroad.

National Scope & Expertise

NCHEMS’s rich history has provided over 50 years of contextual knowledge and expertise that we draw upon as we work to innovate and evolve the field of higher education.

Through The Decades

The Very Beginning

As early as 1965, several large institutions and state agencies in the Western U.S. identified the need for a consolidated effort to research and develop higher education management information systems. Members of the WICHE discovered costly duplications of effort in developing and implementing management information systems. This led several state coordinating agencies in the WICHE region to begin discussing a more efficient exchange of higher education data.

By 1968, a proposal was submitted to and accepted by the U.S. Office of Education (OE) for a WICHE Management Information Systems (MIS) program. The initial goals of the MIS program were to:

  • Develop a Data Element Dictionary (DED)
  • Develop a Program Classification Structure (PCS)
  • Design a Resource Requirements Prediction Model (RRPM)

While the MIS program was initially limited to institutions in the West, work with the National Center for Educational Statistics attracted attention nationally. As a result, institutions across the country began requesting to participate in the MIS program. It became clear that there was an immediate need for a research and development center with a national scope.

In 1969, the MIS Steering Committee appointed a National Advisory Panel that recommended MIS technical reports be distributed nationally and that all interested institutions be allowed to participate in the MIS program. The Office of Education granted funding for a second year and WICHE Commissioners approved a proposal to establish a Planning and Management Systems program.


NCHEMS Staff Member Wayne Kirschling



The 1970s

Participation in the Planning and Management Systems program increased steadily and by the end of 1970, 650 institutions and agencies were involved in the work associated with this program. In February 1971, the OE Site Visit Committee recommended that OE fund the program as one of its centers rather than on a project grant basis. At this time, the Planning and Management Systems program became the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) at WICHE. By 1973, there was substantial use of NCHEMS products (i.e., publications, data collection and analysis systems, and computer software and documents) on campuses and by state agencies throughout the country.

In 1977, NCHEMS parted with WICHE and became its own independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission to improve strategic decision making in post-secondary education for states, systems, institutions, and workforce development organizations in the United States and abroad.

The 1980s

By the 1980’s, the emphasis of NCHEMS’ work shifted from data to information, from procedures for collecting data to analytic procedures for converting data into information for users at different levels and in different decision contexts.

Particular attention was given to state and national informational needs. NCHEMS initiated a major project dealing with enrollment analysis at the state level. Also, the Organizational Studies Program was created to address the effectiveness of colleges and universities as organizations.

NCHEMS received a major grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to demonstrate that the collection and use of outcomes information could be used to improve planning in colleges and universities. As a result of this project, NCHEMS came to hold a central place as a source of applied research and practical guidelines regarding the assessment of student outcomes and the use of the resulting information for management purposes.

NCHEMS Management Services, Inc. (NMSI) was created after the demand for NCHEMS’ consulting and technical assistance work increased. The creation of NMSI as a subsidiary organization helped manage the demand and established a fee-for-service model for the first time.

NCHEMS Staff Members Paul Brinkman and Shelly Niwa


The 1990s

Work at NCHEMS in the 1990’s saw an increased focus on statewide issues, specifically with a recognition that institutional improvement was not possible if the state policy environment was not supportive.

Work on assessment continued but with a new focus on accreditation and the use of concrete evidence and quantitative information.

During the 1992 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), Congress authorized the Secretary of Education to designate a State Postsecondary Review Entity (SPRE) in each state. SPRE’s were intended to set standards for conducting reviews of postsecondary institutions according to criteria specified in the HEA. NCHEMS, in collaboration with a consortium of states, developed a draft of the standards for the review process (the provision for SPRE’s was later repealed by Congress in 1995).

NCHEMS served on the planning and implementation team for the Western Governors Association (WGA) to assist with the creation of the Western Virtual University along with NCHEMS’ current president who worked at WICHE at this time. The institution would eventually become Western Governors University (WGU). Among the many responsibilities NCHEMS held in this role, refinement of the university’s mission and scope, review of its governance and structure, and the creation of the competency-based degree programs and their assessment methodologies were among the most influential.

NCHEMS advised several states, including Kentucky, Louisiana, and West Virginia, on the formation of their new community and technical college systems. And the organization began developing links with and engagement in international higher education reform through Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Center for Higher Education Policy (CHEPS) in the Netherlands.


NCHEMS Resources

The 2000s

The field of higher education in the 2000s saw more emphasis placed on public agendas: setting goals, aligning policies to increase states’ education attainment, and working on state finance policy. NCHEMS worked to provide the data, information, and analytic tools to states to help shape their goals and develop metrics for monitoring progress.

NCHEMS also served as a partner on two major national initiatives during this time period:

  • Measuring Up
  • Changing Direction: Integrating Higher Education Financial Aid and Financing Policy

NCHEMS was the data engine behind Measuring Up, the national report card on higher education performance produced by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and the Campaign for College Opportunity in California. NCHEMS was also the senior consultant for the National Forum on College-Level Learning, a five-state project to develop a model of college-level learning for the states, created from work by the Measuring Up initiative.

The Changing Direction initiative, led by WICHE and funded by Lumina Foundation sought to explore how to structure financial aid and finance policies to increase participation and success for all students and promote more informed decision-making on issues of financial aid and finance in higher education. As a partner for the Changing Direction project, NCHEMS authored reports, served as a thought partner, and provided technical assistance to states participating in the project.

Work in areas of assessment and accreditation continued, with an emphasis on “closing the loop” or using assessment and effectiveness information to make evidence-based improvements.

In 2005, The State Higher Education Policy Center, LLC (SHEPC) was created by NCHEMSSHEEO, and WICHE. Funded by a low-interest loan from the Ford Foundation, the founders of SHEPC purchased a building in Boulder, Colorado.

The shared facility allows for more informal cross-fertilization of thinking, as well quicker dissemination of information and new ideas throughout the organizations and among the policymakers they serve, greater synergy in activities, both in the selection of projects and in the concepts utilized within projects, improved capacity for effective collaboration, yielding more formal collaborations among the staff and members of the three organizations, and richer educational experiences (and more opportunities) for interns and graduate students involved with each organization.

The State Higher Education Policy Center (SHEPC)


The 2010s

NCHEMS’ work was focused heavily on advising states, systems, and institutions on how to adapt to changing demographics and economic realities after coming out of the Great Recession (roughly 2007 – 2009).

The emergence of distributed education, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and a wide variety of other innovations in the postsecondary education marketplace had a major impact. And work in the areas of academic credentialing (the conversion of learning to credits and degrees) and workforce/workplace credentialing (providing assessments that result in employer/industry-recognized certifications gained momentum.

In 2011, NCHEMS created the original statistical model for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence – a biannual $1 million award honoring institutions’ achievement in teaching and learning, completion, workforce success, and equity for students of color and low-income students established by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. NCHEMS continues to provide data support for the award competition.

In 2018, NCHEMS was again asked to help design a new institution to meet the needs of Californians working in jobs that were projected to be replaced by automation within 10 years. NCHEMS worked with the California Community Colleges Office of the Chancellor to explore who the potential students would be, their unique needs, and which fields offered living wage jobs that could be included in programs. This became Calbright College.

2020 and Beyond

As states, higher education institutions, and their quality assurance agencies are challenged by changing demographics, state financing, the COVID-19 pandemic, and new student interests, NCHEMS is called on to use information to guide strategic planning, new finance models, accrediting choices, plus academic and workforce needs. NCHEMS is also helping institutions examine their options using quantitative and qualitative data to assure greater student success and the elimination of equity gaps.

NCHEMS continues to be a trusted, reliable partner, providing conceptual-based knowledge and insight through consulting and technical assistance efforts so that states, systems, and institutions have the data and information needed to make informed decisions within a rapidly changing landscape, while remaining true to our mission and purpose: To Create Opportunities for All People to Prosper.

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