Footsteps and Footprints: Emerging National
Accountability for Higher Education Performance
An emerging national footprint of accountability is taking form and developing substance. It is a work in progress, targeted to address additional public accountability and evidence of quality performance from higher education and accreditation. Contrary to some fears, the footprint does not, thus far, resemble the 2002 major federal elementary and secondary accountability effort, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And, at least to date, it is an overlay on – not a replacement for – the decentralized structure of higher education and accreditation, apparently respectful of mission, institutional autonomy and academic freedom.
Major contributors to the design of the footprint include some higher education associations that have made public accountability a significant priority. Other contributors are the U.S. Congress as it continues work on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), through its information gathering and analysis as well as its federal oversight of accrediting organizations. None of these contributors, at present, would be likely to agree that there is any shared effort or even intent here. Nonetheless, their combined efforts reflect a significant convergence of thinking about the importance of national accountability to the public for the performance and quality of higher education.
Higher Education Associations
In just the last four years, a number of national associations have signaled to their members that there is a considerable urgency to address accountability. These associations have made remarkable investments to create language, tools, principles, models and research for use by colleges and universities to enrich capacity to create and share more extensive evidence of institutional performance and quality.
The American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) has taken a strong stand that “In the current climate it is not enough for an institution to assess its students... Colleges and universities also must provide useful knowledge to the public... about the quality of student learning.” In 2004, the association published “key educational outcomes” in liberal education as one means to inform the public of how well students are doing. AAC&U went on to develop ten recommendations for a “new accountability framework.” Most recently, the association has documented the extent to which national data are lacking on liberal education outcomes and student achievement, underscoring the challenge of accountability.
The Business Higher Education Forum (BHEF) is urging that we establish a new “accountability consensus” for student learning in higher education. A 2004 BHEF Position Paper states “...we are most concerned with the national capacity to measure and publicly account for general knowledge and skill levels”. To work toward this consensus, BHEF offers design principles for national accountability that include better tools for public accountability, clarification of the language of accountability and clarification of the respective roles of institutions, states, accrediting organizations and the federal government, as well as research bodies.
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, through the National Forum on College Level Learning, recently published a “Model for Measuring College-Level Learning” (2005) that “...represents a way to address the growing national mandate for accountability without creating a federal program.” The model is the result of a five-state project demonstrating that indicators of collegiate learning can be assembled on a comparable basis across states. Expansion of this model to additional states could ultimately lead to a national set of indicators.
The Council for Aid to Education (CAE) has developed a Collegiate Learning Assessment (2002), a tool enabling institutions to measure their contributions to student learning. The goal is to assist colleges and universities by identifying their “value added” in three areas: critical thinking, analytic reasoning and written communication. As described by “CLA in Context 2004-2005,” on the CAE Website. “The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) is a national effort that provides colleges and universities with information about how well their students are doing with respect to certain learning outcomes....”
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has focused its attention on the role of accreditation in accountability, encouraging additional emphasis both on student achievement and on providing information to the public. In a 2001 report that initiated work in this area, CHEA pointed out that “Student learning outcomes are rapidly taking center stage as the principal gauge of higher education’s effectiveness.” CHEA went on to develop its “Statement of Mutual Responsibilities for Student Learning Outcomes” (2003), with four key principles that accrediting organizations may use as they continue their work to expand attention to student achievement.
Each of these associations has made the case for the importance of accountability to the public for the performance of higher education and accreditation, particularly at the national level. Each has made a specific contribution to building capacity through, e.g., identification of desired student outcomes, offering principles and developing models that can enhance capacity for accountability.
The Federal Government
During this same four-year period, some congressional leaders have been forceful and persistent in their advocacy for greater public accountability, especially in their work on reauthorization of the federal HEA, under way since 2003. While reauthorization will not be complete until sometime in 2006 or perhaps even 2007, lawmakers are expected to continue signaling their intent to collect considerably more information about higher education and accreditation, much of it focused on accountability for performance. Current drafts of reauthorization bills in the House and Senate reflect this, with language calling for, e.g., information on transfer of credit, entry to graduate school and job placement. Institutions would report this information to the federal government with, in some instances, accrediting organizations having responsibility for assuring that the reporting takes place.
The federal USDE is positioned to make good use of any new information for public accountability that may emerge from reauthorization. USDE’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) launched a new Website (www.nces.ed.gov) in 2005. Using powerful online tools for distribution and analysis, the Website allows students and the public to obtain information about a single institution and easily compare an institution with other colleges and universities. This may be done by state, region, across the country or by institutional type. At present much of this information (other than graduation rates) is about resources (e.g., enrollments, core revenues, core expenditures, average faculty salaries and numbers of students with financial assistance).
If the current House and Senate bills become law, this information on resources could be augmented by additional information about institutional performance available for online retrieval, along with comparison among institutions. Students and the public could compare not only graduation rates, but also, e.g., transfer rates, entry to graduate school and job placement. And, these new reporting requirements may be reinforced through accreditation. There are calls within USDE for some accrediting organizations to pay greater attention to student achievement, especially quantitative measurement of student learning outcomes in vocational programs.
Two key features of the emerging national footprint for accountability are reasonably clear at this point. The footprint will (1) centralize important information about evidence of the quality of performance of higher education at the national level and (2) provide for comparisons among institutions with regard not only to their resources but also to their performance. A third key feature may also emerge: Centralization and comparability can ultimately lead to national judgments about the quality of higher education performance, perhaps augmenting judgments currently made by institutions and accrediting organizations.
Centralization, comparability and national-level quality judgments about performance have both positive and negative dimensions for higher education and accreditation. On the positive side, we may have the beginning of a shared dialogue about accountability at the national level that can yield some common thinking about evidence of performance and quality. The unusual confluence of interest and energy both from the higher education community and the government may also lead to useful cooperation as future accountability initiatives develop. And, given that we are in the early stages of an emerging footprint of accountability, there is significant time for the higher education enterprise to influence national thinking on key issues, such as the role of mission.
On the negative side, proponents of a strong and unassailed academic leadership role for institutions may have cause for some concern. As the federal government collects more and more data on institutional performance and makes more and more comparisons, it is increasingly well-positioned to take a leadership role in determination of quality, perhaps even establishing national benchmarks for performance. Instead of augmenting the judgment of higher education and accreditation, the government may prefer to act independently, supplanting the academic judgment of institutions and accrediting organizations.
Whatever the ultimate contours of the national footprint, it will be difficult to ignore the persistent call for more public accountability, now accompanied by new tools and models for information collection, analysis and distribution. Increasingly, institutions and accrediting organizations may find that a national footprint of accountability influences their future footsteps in the arena of higher education performance and quality.