Nationalization and Transparency: On Our Own Terms

January 11, 2007

National access to judgments about quality and expectations of transparency are more and more viewed as public entitlements—and increasingly, this includes higher education and accreditation. The public, public officials and the press call for data about graduation and success with regard to student transfer; they want justification for college costs. Higher education and accreditation are pressed for judgments of the effectiveness of institutions, programs and self-regulation practices, accompanied by increasing calls for transparency or information that is easily understandable and readily accessible.

Nationalization of expectations of performance and transparency are facts of life for most social institutions today. Twenty-five years or so ago, CNN did not exist, nor did USA Today. Today, they are lead vehicles for nationalizing the news we obtain. Twenty-five years ago, the Web had barely penetrated public consciousness. Today, it aggressively frames that consciousness, providing transparency that is both instant and commonplace. This “nationalization”—increasing and persistent demands on higher education, accreditation and other social institutions coming from a national level—may or may not involve a single set of nationally applied standards.

Enter the Commission on the Future of Higher Education

These issues were recently and forcibly brought home to accreditation and higher education by the recommendations of the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDE) Commission on the Future of Higher Education. This commission, chartered in 2005 and completing its work in September 2006, put forward recommendations that have the likely net impact of forcing a nationalization of judgments about higher education quality, as well as creating greater transparency. Specifically, accreditors are called upon to make indicators of student learning outcomes and institutional performance central to judgments about academic quality. Both institutions and accreditors are urged to make these indicators easily understandable and easily accessible to the public. Both are pressed for national information that will allow comparisons across like institutions and programs.

Moving to a Post-Commission Phase

We have now moved to a post-commission phase of addressing nationalization and transparency, with—significantly—accreditation as the first area of focus. The spotlight remains on student learning outcomes and institutional performance, accompanied by calls for some form of national “external validation” or “bright lines” or “yardsticks” for the effectiveness of colleges and universities. And, although it is yet to be determined, this external validation might be done by the federal government—adding fuel to the speculation that nationalizing expectations of both higher education and accreditation really amounts to federalizing expectations of academic quality.

This emphasis on nationalization, transparency and external validation was apparent in an “Accreditation Forum” convened by the U.S. Secretary of Education in November 2006 to discuss implementation of the commission recommendations. It was also driven home at the regularly scheduled meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (a committee that advises the Secretary on the federal recognition of accrediting organizations) in December 2006. Throughout its three days of proceedings, the committee demonstrated its commitment to the commission’s emphasis on student learning outcomes, as well as emphasizing the importance of developing capacity for external validation.

Going forward, in March 2007, the Secretary is convening a summit of higher education, accreditation and other leaders to continue the discussion of the Futures Commission recommendations. The summit will consider the role of accreditation in emphasizing student learning outcomes as well as transparency, in addition to discussing affordability, higher education cost and nontraditional students.

Nationalization and Transparency—Our Own Terms

The plethora of national standard-setting and transparency activities for many other social institutions, as well the recommendations of the Futures Commission and the post-commission efforts, all send a message. Higher education and accreditation need to find some way to deal with nationalization, to get out in front of the calls for performance and outcomes, transparency and comparability. If we must be national and transparent—it should be on our own terms.

Our communities already agree on a number of terms to drive a distinctive higher education approach to nationalization and transparency of performance and effectiveness. These terms address mission, context and ownership of indicators of success. And, although there is still debate here, there is a willingness to at least consider making more of the results of our work public.

Higher education nationalization and transparency means that mission—the fundamental purpose of an institution—needs to remain essential to judgment about higher education performance. The context of operation of an institution or program (e.g., admissions practices, composition of student population, mode of delivery of instruction, organizational structure and control) needs to continue to drive our judgments about student success. Our choice of indicators of institutional performance and student learning outcomes still needs to be grounded in both mission and context. Transparency is valuable only to the extent that all these factors are addressed.

Using our own terms for nationalization and transparency, we can provide information about the outcomes and performance of a wide array of institutions and programs. But, by design, our terms for nationalization and transparency preclude the use of a single set of standards or performance indicators to judge the entire higher education enterprise. On the other hand, the terms increase the potential for useful institutional or other localized information-sharing. They allow for some national judgments across specific types of institutions with similar missions and context on a voluntary basis. And, some national judgments can be made about performance indicators across institutions, e.g., general education expectations, taking mission into account.

Our terms need to include being public with the results of our efforts. Our institutional, programmatic and accreditation Websites can be as transparent about performance as they are effective as marketing tools.

Higher education is a vital and incredibly important social institution. It is time, once again, to reassert the value of both higher education and accreditation to students and society. We need to remind the public that our enterprise is built on a powerful vision of intellectual development in a democratic society, education for life as well as work and a commitment to general education that includes education for civic responsibility and citizenship. Accreditation is a core element of this vision, supporting the institutional autonomy and academic freedom essential to its realization.

Higher education and accreditation may not be able to do anything to halt the increasing nationalization of expectations of institutions in our society. We can, however, play a powerful role in shaping this nationalization as it applies to our institutions and programs. What is at issue here is our attitude: a recognition of our obligation to those who support our vital service. We must not stand on the idea that we are so different from everything else in the society that we cannot be nationally scrutinized and, even at times, measured. We recognize our obligations—in our own terms—by reaffirming the value of our enterprise, assuring that institutional mission and context drive judgment about indicators of successful performance and making this information readily available.