Accountability in Higher Education

The original name of this blog was Access With Success. Since its founding 5 years ago, it has drawn attention to two key education issues: access to education for all qualified students and successful outcomes from education. On July 27, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke about the same two issues at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Mr. Duncan’s remarks identified three needed shifts in our attention to higher education: a focus on outcomes, needed innovation as well as student debt and the costs of higher education.

Too little attention has been paid to higher education’s outcomes. The issues of accountability get lost in the attention to the cost of college and the level of public debt, despite their very significance. Greater attention has to be paid to accountability. That is why I wrote, “Just graduating is not enough” in a recent blog. I wrote about the experience of our administrative team in bringing about accountability with transparent information on students’ performance at Colorado State University. Too few US colleges have adopted and maintained what we instituted there almost a decade ago.

However, there are changes that we can make in the coming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which was originated in 1965 and last reauthorized in 2008. Those changes can address the need for greater accountability. They include publishing data like those envisioned in the College Portrait on the Department of Education’s website. Parents and prospective students deserve information about college persistence; graduation rates; and postgraduate employment, education and career choice. This information makes good consumer sense.

The needed changes to the Higher Education Act also extend to accrediting bodies. Mr. Duncan observes in his remarks that regional accrediting bodies pay little attention to outcomes and accountability. He is mostly right. Years ago I served on a site review team of a major research university up for its periodic regional accreditation review. Another team member and I were very concerned with whether the university’s honors program was delivering a quality education. We had met the young people. They were enthusiastic about getting an education, and they appeared highly intelligent. They deserved more than what they said they were getting. Yet, the site review team’s report, led by one of the accrediting body staff, paid little attention to our concerns about outcomes. There are needed changes to higher education accreditation, including more streamlined processes, requirements for evaluation of a college’s outcomes, and encouragement for innovation in light of the financial challenges especially for small schools.

The Department of Education cannot take on the entire burden for accountability. Many don’t want it involved at all. I believe they are wrong about limiting too severely the Department’s involvement. There is a role for the US Department of Education. There is also a role for states and the institutions, themselves. States can take action now to demand outcome rather than input data from state schools. They can also take action to make that information publicly available in accessible websites. Private and proprietary institutions can do the same.

Mr. Duncan’s remarks address all of higher education, not just for-profit education. We have needed this widespread focus on all of higher education. I applaud what he has done. I hope his remarks receive widespread attention and debate.

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