By: James M. Kallison Jr. • Philip Cohen
Abstract Over the past few decades, America’s social compact for higher education as a public good has effectively lapsed as government support of higher education has diminished. Given the need for a highly educated workforce in today’s knowledge-based global economy, we propose a new compact for higher education that couples increased funding with increased institutional accountability. While the compact must retain academic freedom as an essential component of higher education, this autonomy must co-exist with rigorous accountability standards. Accountability systems should be multifaceted, as different methodologies have differing strengths and limitations. All systems should, however, inform the public and provide for institutional improvement.
Key Words higher education . funding . accountability . assessment
Dr. James Kallison is an educational consultant who has recently retired from the faculty of the Department of Educational Leadership at The University of Texas at Arlington. Previously, Dr. Kallison served as Acting Deputy Assistant Commissioner at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. He holds a B.E. degree from Vanderbilt University, an M.A. from Peabody College, and a Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin. His interests include higher education policy, accountability, governance, and college readiness. Email contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Philip Cohen is the Dean of the Graduate School, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, and a Professor of English at The University of Texas at Arlington. He holds degrees from American University, the University of Southern California, and the University of Delaware. Dr. Cohen is a member of the executive committee of the Council of Southern Graduate Schools and President of the Association of Texas Graduate Schools. He has published widely on American literature, William Faulkner, and on the relationship between literary studies and textual scholarship and editorial theory. Email contact: email@example.com
J. M. Kallison Jr. (*)
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, The University of Texas at Arlington, 701 Planetarium Place, Box 19575, Arlington, TX 76019-0227, USA
Office of Graduate Studies, The University of Texas at Arlington, Box 19167, Arlington,
TX 76019-0227, USA
After World War II, the United States pursued a broad range of policies and programs designed to fund and encourage access, affordability, and participation in higher education. Broad support for increased federal and state funding for public colleges and universities, state regulation of tuition at public institutions, and more need-based financial aid for low- income students were based on the assumption that higher education was a critical public as well as individual good. After its high water mark in the 1960s, this long-standing “compact” among taxpayers, government, and public institutions all but unraveled for a variety of reasons. A much narrower conception of higher education as primarily if not exclusively a private good has reigned long enough for its inadequacies to become manifest. Lamenting the loss of this earlier compact, a common trope in opinion pieces and policy papers, has given way to a recognition that significantly increased levels of public funding for higher education will not be returning any time soon. Although we agree that the days of highly subsidized public education are gone and unlikely to return, we believe a new higher education compact is urgently needed to meet the changing social and economic needs of the country and its citizens. This compact would recapture some critical elements of the past, including higher levels of funding, but would also place more responsibility on public colleges and universities for reform and accountability.
The Previous Compact for Higher Education
Historically, federal programs such as the Morrill Acts, the GI Bill, and the National Defense Education Act acknowledged universities’ productive contributions to states and the nation. In addition, the government developed a broad range of need-based and merit- based grant and loan programs for undergraduate and graduate students, including grants for students in critical fields. The states extended this foundation of federal support by providing funding for a significant part of the instructional and capital costs of public colleges and universities and for additional need- and merit-based financial aid for their residents. Further, state legislatures historically kept tuition and fees at public institutions low (Archibald and Feldman 2006).
This support for public colleges and universities rested on a fundamental premise that higher education produced the educated, literate workforce required by the American economy and fueled basic and applied research, that, once commercialized, would help create new industries and jobs, spur economic development, and bolster our national security. Because higher education correlated not only with individual economic attainment but also with broader social and economic benefits, taxpayers and politicians often saw great value in supporting it.
Despite these benefits, not all citizens were able to participate equally in higher education. A college education was restricted largely to the most prepared and able students, and institutions achieved excellence mainly through selectivity and high standards. Women and some racial and ethnic minorities were often significantly under- represented in college and university enrollment and degree completion figures (Carey 2005). While increased financial aid along with changing attitudes about women and minorities in the 1960s helped increase college access and affordability (Menand 1997), many public institutions, including the most recently created ones, still had student populations that were disproportionately white and male. Also slow to change at our nation’s colleges and universities were curricular reform and meaningful accountability efforts. General accountability for the stewardship of public funds was often limited to the public’s trust that administrators and faculty were professionals acting in good faith and to the minimum standards imposed by accrediting bodies.
The Current Compact for Higher Education
The consensus relating to the previous compact for higher education reached its zenith in the late 1960s, only to be challenged steadily since then and gradually supplanted by another compact driven, in part, by the recognition that increased individual educational attainment generally leads to increased individual lifetime earnings. A 2007 U.S. Census Bureau report indicated that high school graduates earn on average $29,448 a year, bachelor’s degree recipients $54,689 a year, master’s degree recipients $67,898 a year, and doctorate recipients $92,863 a year. Accordingly, many voters could question the need for taxpayers to subsidize the pursuit of advanced degrees that increase an individual’s earnings potential.
Higher Education as a Private Good
Our current higher education compact evolved as a response to years of population growth, increased spending on entitlements, growing budget deficits, and repeated tax-cutting. Federal and state support for higher education in the form of student financial aid now covers less of a college education even though the dollars funding these programs have increased overall. In the competition for scarce state dollars, higher education appropria- tions have frequently lost out to other priorities such as primary and secondary education, healthcare, and the criminal justice system. An analysis by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (2006), for example, found that state and local support for higher education per student hit a 25-year low in the 2004–2005 fiscal year due to inflation and increased enrollments, despite a recent upswing in spending on public colleges and universities. This challenging funding pattern for public institutions is compounded by the fact that the improved support for higher education that follows a recession has rarely restored college budgets to pre-recession levels. A 2006 report by the Center for the Study of Education Policy and other organizations examined the effects of recessions on financial access to college during the 25-year period 1979–2003 and found that “In each successive decade, recessions affected more states, percentage declines in higher education appropria- tions were larger, and it took longer to recover” (p. 15). Looking to the future, Jones (2006) in a report for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education had a decidedly pessimistic outlook for state appropriations for higher education. He concluded that the demand for social services, especially Medicaid, will outstrip the demand for higher education in 46 states in the short term and that all 50 states will face budget deficits by 2013. The country’s current recession has expedited this trend, as states such as California have experienced large budget deficits, resulting in significant cuts to higher education (Woo and Knutson 2009).
To make up for reduced state funding as a percentage of institutional cost, many governing boards and some state legislatures have increased tuition dramatically at public colleges and universities; and some legislatures such as those in Colorado, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia, have pursued tuition deregulation (Davis 2006). Thus the College Board (2006) reported that published tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities soared 35% after inflation between 2001–2002 and 2006–2007, an increase greater than any other five-year increase from 1976–77 to the present. Of course, many students at public institutions do not pay the published rates for tuition and fees because of federal and state grants and other forms of student aid. However, undergraduate financial aid has not kept pace with tuition increases; and, accordingly, student debt loads have grown. Clearly, low-income Americans have been disproportion-
ately affected by this trend. The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (2006), an independent federal committee chartered by Congress, has concluded that financial barriers “in the form of high prices net of all grant aid at four-year public colleges
. . . are a primary cause of low- and moderate-income, college-qualified high school graduates being unable to attain bachelor’s degrees at the same rate as their middle- and high-income peers” (p. 6). These financial realities have moved higher education from its place as serving the public good to that of serving the private good.
Need for College Graduates
At the same time as financial barriers are hindering some from attending college, the nation has a dramatically increased need for college graduates. The American economy is now inextricably connected to a global economy that has pulled much of our manufacturing sector and increasingly a significant portion of our services sector offshore and overseas. As we struggle to grow our knowledge-based economy on the vestiges of our industrial origins, it has become evident that the United States needs a highly educated workforce. Indeed, American workers need to become more broadly and deeply educated than ever before to retain their status as a relatively well-paid source of productivity and innovation. The 2007 Association of American Colleges and Universities’ report on the role of liberal education in the 21st-century agreed noting that “Employers are calling with new urgency for graduates who are broadly prepared and who also possess the analytical and practical skills that are essential both for innovation and for organizational effectiveness” (p. 16). Without a college degree and, in many cases, a graduate degree, Americans will find the road to the middle class and above increasingly difficult, even impossible to traverse.
The Demand for Accountability
As employers are calling for more highly trained college graduates, so are other stakeholders of higher education. Increasingly, institutions are judged on a “value added” basis, with the public and lawmakers wanting to know what the product of an undergraduate education is worth. Because colleges and universities can and do influence undergraduate success despite differences in entering student characteristics (Carey 2004, 2005; Kuh et al. 2005), regional accreditation associations are now evaluating institutions’ efforts at assessing student learning through measurement of specific student outcomes and improving undergraduate performance, much as professional accreditation organizations have been doing for years (Lubinescu et al. 2001). In addition to increased scrutiny of student learning, external voices are questioning the value of the tenure system for faculty. Tenure-stream positions are declining, and legislatures in a number of states have mandated post-tenure review for public institutions (Clawson 2009; Wood and DesJarlais 2006).
A New Compact for Higher Education
In order to build a higher education system that attracts more participation and produces graduates who are prepared for the global workforce and for civic engagement, one must view higher education as both a public and private good. Higher education must recapture some elements of the previous compact and maintain the needed aspects of the current one. In doing so, the higher education community should form a new compact with the public and governmental entities. This compact requires legislators to provide more resources to public colleges and universities and aid to students; and institutions, for their part, should provide clear evidence that they are producing graduates with needed specified knowledge and abilities. Legislative bodies will always be predisposed to cost cutting, and higher education administrators will always be prone to wanting more resources. However, increasing resources in exchange for increasing reform and accountability can ease this tension and potentially produce a higher education system that meets the needs of the government and its citizens.
We need to return to governmental policies and programs that provide adequate federal and state funding to public higher education institutions and increased financial aid to students, particularly low- and moderate-income students. Funding must return to levels in which spending on higher education per student keeps pace with inflation. Since family income is the best predictor of college attendance rates (Callan 2006), tuition should be modulated so that the cost of a college education is maintained as a static percentage of median family income. Debt levels, especially for low-income students, must be reduced so that daunting financial obligations do not serve as a barrier to this population to participate in higher education. This priority is in line with the recommendation of the Spellings Commission on Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education (U.S. Department of Education 2006) for “a significant increase in need-based financial aid and a complete restructuring of the current federal financial aid system” (p. 3).
Achieving the necessary college attendance rates also means that minority groups and low- income students, who have traditionally been under-represented in higher education, must attend college at rates that at least reflect their percentages in the general population. Not only is this a moral imperative, it is necessary to ensure that the country meets its workforce needs (State Higher Education Executive Officers 2005). Males have replaced females as the under-represented gender in undergraduate education (McClure 2007; Peter and Horn 2005), and this gender gap (especially for African American males) also needs to close.
In this new compact, the public and lawmakers must also honor academic freedom and the tenure system as necessary components of higher education. Unlike K-12 education, colleges and universities are environments where new knowledge is created. A reasonable amount of institutional and faculty autonomy is essential for institutions to compete in the world arena of producing ideas and products to advance human thought and economic development. The economic and cultural marketplace will ultimately decide the utility of these ideas and products, but faculty members should be unfettered from a political filter to pursue their work. Higher education institutions are the place in our educational system where the free flow of ideas and information should be cultivated.
However, such a distinction does not exempt public colleges and universities from strict scrutiny by education stakeholders. The principles of academic freedom coupled with adequate governmental financial support of higher education need to co-exist with rigorous accountability standards. While curricular diversity and mission differentiation observed in higher education present very significant challenges for institutions to assess learning outcomes and other relevant accountability measures (Ewell 2001), the mantra of simply “trust us and our accrediting bodies” is no longer acceptable to the public. The uniqueness of higher education does not absolve public institutions from these responsibilities, and the new compact calls for higher education to address these challenges. As Miller and Ewell (2005) noted, “certificates and degrees are increasingly inadequate proxies for educational capital. It is the skills and knowledge behind the degrees that matter” (p. 6).
Implementing the New Compact
Goals of Education
The new compact for higher education mandates that public universities be accountable for student learning. However, it is often unclear exactly what these learning outcomes should be. In 2004, 2005, and 2007 the Association of American Colleges and Universities reported on efforts to identify learning outcomes that all students should achieve during their undergraduate study. In addition to obtaining subject area competencies, these skills included problem-solving abilities, collecting and synthesizing information, and commu- nicating effectively. These skills prepare graduates for success in the workplace and provide them with competencies to participate meaningfully in the local community and beyond. While these outcomes and others like them are difficult to measure, institutions must consider and devise methods to assess such learning. Although other factors beyond the control of the institutions influence student achievement—for example, student abilities, preparation, and outside obligations—colleges and universities should apply whatever strategies are within their influence to affect these outcomes.
This is not to suggest that there is a universal consensus that the above outcomes definitively constitute the purpose of all higher education experiences. The process of goal setting, which should include relevant stakeholders of the college and community, needs to take place to confirm the identification of these or other important goals of the institution. Further, colleges and universities should develop more institution-specific goals to reflect their different missions and areas of excellence. The Commission on Charting the Future of
U.S. Higher Education (U.S. Department of Education 2006) agrees that “faculty must be at the forefront of defining educational objectives for students and developing meaningful, evidence-based measures of their progress toward those goals” (p. 24). Excellence at colleges and universities must be identified, measured, and reported to the public as part of the new higher education compact.
K-12 Accountability Versus Higher Education Accountability
One of the more difficult challenges in implementing the new compact for higher education is to develop an accountability system that will capture the complex array of components of excellence at our public colleges and universities, including evidence of student learning. Accountability systems in higher education have taken many forms, but much of the public uses K-12 education as a reference point for what accountability systems should look like (Ewell 2001; Miller and Ewell 2005). However, accountability systems in higher education should be inherently different from accountability in K-12 education. Mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, states must test student achievement in core disciplines at various K-12 grade levels (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2004). In order to achieve this statewide performance analysis, each state must develop evaluation instruments that reflect standardized curricula, and it is critical for the state to develop these curricula using methods that promote consensus among educators and stakeholders. These K-12 accountability systems are high stakes with consequences for poor performance for the student and school. While not without drawbacks and opponents, this type of accountability allows for comparison of student performance across schools and school districts. It also allows for comparisons among subpopulations of students: for example, data can be disaggregated by race and gender. Further, this type of testing identifies specific content area weaknesses on an individual student basis (Lingenfelter 2003). For the citizenry there is no ambiguity as to the responsibilities for each school in the state and the judgments of effectiveness in enhancing student achievement as measured by the accountability tests. These advantages are not insignificant.
It is difficult or impossible, however, for public higher education to mirror the statewide accountability systems of K-12 education. With rare exceptions, it is impractical and even undesirable for faculty to reach curricular consensus for each discipline taught at a college or university. It is particularly impractical and objectionable to think about accomplishing this on a statewide basis. The curricular diversity available to the faculty in a particular discipline at a college or university is partly what distinguishes postsecondary education from K-12, and this flexibility is needed to advance knowledge. This does not, however, preclude higher education from developing performance-based accountability systems.
Colleges and universities may have relied on the “trust us” form of accountability in the previous compact because of the difficulty of devising and implementing an accountability system that captured the complexities of excellence at these institutions. Such an absence of accountability led to a void that was filled in part by “rankings” from commercial media sources. These companies relied largely on “reputation data” and input measures such as student-faculty ratios, per capita expenditures, and student selectivity measures such at SAT scores. A new compact should call for accountability based on input, output, and outcome measures, including student achievement, that will capture the complexities of a higher education experience and will accommodate diverse institutional missions. Here we agree with the Commission on Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education (U.S. Department of Education 2006) that “Higher education must change from a system primarily based on reputation to one based on performance” (p. 21). Further, the system must not only inform the public in understandable language and data but also allow individual institutions to identify weaknesses and improve the quality of education.
Accountability in the New Compact
Higher education accountability should reflect a multi-faceted approach, as there are several methodologies that public institutions and states can employ (American Association of State Colleges and Universities 2006; Miller and Ewell 2005). As noted below, each approach has both merits and limitations:
1. Use existing instruments that measure attainment of the more global goals of higher education such as problem-solving and writing skills. Instruments such as the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency from ACT, the Collegiate Learning Assessment from the Council for Aid to Education, and the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress from ETS have such capability. These instruments compare what students know (as measured by the instrument) at the beginning of college and at the end of college (American Association of State Colleges and Universities 2006).
Advantages These instruments provide a direct assessment of knowledge and skills. Using appropriate methodology, institutions can assess the “value added” by their campuses. As such, the standardized instruments allow for comparisons among institutions and perhaps states. In addition, statistical techniques can adjust for differences in entering student abilities, thus measuring both actual and “expected” outcome gains and determining whether an institution over- or under-performs. Further, this type of assessment offers some of the same advantages observed in the “standards methods” of K-12, including identifying achievement gaps among subpopulations of students such as ethnicity and gender. Finally, this method evaluates learning across the entire student population, independent of discipline.
Limitations. In order to assess “value added,” institutions should use pre-post testing procedures. While testing all students would likely be cost-prohibitive, assessing selected populations renders student motivation to achieve on a “low stakes test” suspect. In addition, this type of test alone does not capture the full impact of college and does not reflect all the likely learning outcomes that institutions would hold important. Further, this assessment would not provide the kind of feedback to institutions that allows for specific areas of needed improvement (American Association of State Colleges and Universities 2006; Ewell 2001; Miller and Ewell 2005). Banta (2007) has been particularly critical of this type of accountability method. In addition to the above concerns, she argued that 1) these tests are not content neutral, thus disadvantaging students in some disciplines; 2) certain test questions do not match the learning experiences of students across all universities; and 3) faculty members could narrow their curricula to focus on test content, thus homogenizing educational experiences. Ewell (2001) also pointed out that, while differences between expected and actual student performance can be determined, these data would not be easily understood by the public.
2. Use performance reporting on input, output, and outcome measures. Several states have adopted such accountability measures as student-faculty ratios, expenditures per full-time student equivalent, and graduation rates.
Advantages. The measures commonly used for these purposes are largely understood by lawmakers and the public. In addition, most of these measures are important reflections of institutional behavior. For example, graduation rates are viewed as an important measure of institutional effectiveness.
Limitations. With few exceptions, these measures are proxies of excellence and do not provide direct assessment of knowledge, and the use of some measures such as graduation rates could put pressure on institutions to lower their standards. In addition, these measures do not take into account institutional differences such as student background and selectivity. While there are methods that can mitigate these effects such as using formula-based “expected graduation rates” (Astin 2004), these measures are not likely to be well understood by the public. Further, methods to compare “like institutions,” as another equalizing effort, can become complicated and confusing to the consumer (Ewell 2001).
3. Determine if institutional practices that have been empirically linked to student learning and success such as student engagement opportunities are followed at the institution. Instruments such as Indiana University’s National Survey of Student Engagement capture information from students about their experiences at their institutions to inform administrators and faculty about institutional behavior (Kuh 2005).
Advantages This approach focuses directly on student experiences that are important for an impactful education (e.g., teaching and student integration into the social and academic functions of the college). Accordingly, this approach encourages institutional “best practices,” and institutions can identify areas needed for improvement. Also, it is appropriate for diverse college and university types (American Association of State Colleges and Universities 2006; Pascarella 2001).
Limitations. This approach does not provide a direct assessment of knowledge, as the information collected serves as a proxy for student learning. In addition, the reliability of self- reported data is suspect (American Association of State Colleges and Universities 2006; Association of American Colleges and Universities 2005; Miller and Ewell 2005). Perhaps the most pertinent limitation is that “best practices” could be present but performed poorly by the institution; i.e., these instruments cannot always capture the quality of certain practices.
4. Use scores from graduates on licensure exams in relevant fields. For example, the pass rate on the state bar examination is considered a quality measure for law schools. Undergraduate fields such as nursing and other health-related fields, engineering, and teaching also have these kinds of standards.
Advantages As in the use of standardized tests like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, this method is a direct assessment of knowledge. In addition, the skills measured are directly linked to workforce preparedness (Miller and Ewell 2005).
Limitations. Only a few professional fields have such exams. Also, test takers are self- selected, as some graduates choose not to take the exams.
5. Collect and evaluate representative samples of student work collected at milestone points during the course of the students’ program of study, including a senior capstone project. Critiques of student work can come from inside and outside the department, where reviewers examine multiple learning outcomes such as writing skills and critical/analytical thinking (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2005).
Advantages These critiques provide information and feedback to both the students and the departments, and this analysis is a direct measure of student learning. In addition, these assessments, particularly those taken in the senior year, represent students’ most advanced level of learning in the context of their disciplines (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2005). Further, Beyer and Gillmore (2007) have suggested that learning is so discipline-specific that assessment at the department level is the only meaningful measure of student success.
Limitations. Reporting this information (in the aggregate) would likely be difficult and not readily understood by the public or lawmakers.
6. Conduct post graduate alumni and employer surveys that seek input about how well the graduates’ institutions prepared them for the workplace. These surveys, some commercially available, can also capture perceptions of former students, both completers and non-completers, about the quality of their undergraduate education.
Advantages. This method attempts to link the undergraduate experience directly to the skills and knowledge needed in the workplace.
Limitations. It is difficult to separate out the effect of institutional experiences on the graduates versus other contributing factors. In addition, this method is not a direct assessment of knowledge. Further, the technique uses self-reported data, which is not as reliable as other data sources (American Association of State Colleges and Universities 2006; Pascarella 2001).
Since all the above accountability methods have differing strengths and shortcomings, there simply is not a single approach that emerges as universally applicable to all public institutions and states. However, commonality among accountability systems allows for more interstate comparisons. In 2005 Miller and Ewell reported on the National Forum on College-Level Learning, a project sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, in which Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, and South Carolina all used the same measures and instruments to assess student learning at higher education campuses in their states. These states administered to a random sample of students the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) at four-year institutions and the WorkKeys assessments (from ACT) at two-year institutions and collected graduates’ scores on national licensure examines in fields such as nursing and physical therapy and on graduate admission exams such as the Graduate Record Exam. Results of the project indicated how each state compared to national student benchmarks on all the above instruments.
Despite the advantages of interstate comparisons for public higher education, few would advocate for such complete uniformity across the nation. Even in the current “standards era” of K-12, the No Child Left Behind Act allows states to choose their own assessment instruments (although some states have been criticized for setting standards too low). For higher education, each state should determine what elements of an accountability system are most important to the state and the public and choose a method or methods that best deliver on those priorities.
The following accountability systems of three states illustrate these different methods. Collectively, the systems use all six of the above accountability approaches. Kentucky’s accountability system is organized and framed by an articulated statewide higher education construct—the Five Questions of the Public Agenda—that focuses on college preparation, affordability, productivity, quality, and economic and community benefit. The 20 key accountability “indicators” or performance measures (e.g., degrees awarded) are subsumed under one of these questions (Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education 2009). Further, the system incorporates direct student learning assessments. As noted above, Kentucky participated in the National Forum on College-Level Learning project, administering the CLA to random samples of students across the state. Kentucky will continue learning assessment either with the CLA or ACT’s Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP). Since Kentucky uses the ACT for college admissions, the CAAP might provide a mechanism for “value added.” In addition, Kentucky administers the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to a random sample of students on all public college campuses to foster institutional change (J. L. Applegate, personal communication, February 2008).
Like Kentucky, North Dakota’s accountability system and its 31 measures are aligned around a state higher education planning document. The Roundtable Report has six “cornerstones” consisting of economic development, institutional excellence, flexibility and responsiveness, accessibility, funding, and sustainability. Unlike many states, however, North Dakota uses as part of its review process commercial and state-initiated surveys to solicit information from current students, faculty and staff, graduates, non-completers, and employers. For example, the state uses the ACT Evaluation Service Survey to capture alumni perceptions of how well their universities prepared them for their employment. Where possible, North Dakota compares the results on these surveys to national data (North Dakota University System 2009).
Virginia has 12 goals for higher education as part of the state’s Restructuring Plan. Every other year, staff of the state’s Council of Higher Education meet with administrators of each university and negotiate how the institution will address each goal of the plan. The Council subsequently evaluates how successful the institution was in meeting each goal of the Restructuring Plan (State Council of Higher Education for Virginia 2009). In addition to addressing the goals of the Restructuring Plan, the Virginia Legislature requires each public university to assess student learning in six core areas using a methodology that allows for determination of value added. Although the Council of Higher Education provides methodological guidelines for this assessment, each institution can determine how it will evaluate student learning; one institution might use the CLA exam while another university could use a student portfolio method. Therefore, Virginia has a comprehensive accountability system, but the state allows a significant amount of institutional autonomy in addressing the accountability standards.
As these examples from just three states show, multiple approaches to higher education accountability, each with advantages and shortcomings, exist. There are, however a number of principles of higher education accountability that should be evident throughout the U.S. First, each state should have relatively few significant goals and accountability measures (including learning outcomes) for all public institutions to address and then permit individual colleges to formulate institution-specific goals. This approach allows states to focus on their most important statewide priorities, preferably in alignment with a written statewide plan, while limiting confusion for the public (Lingenfelter 2003). As the National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education, (State Higher Education Executive Officers 2005) noted, “more data is not more accountability” (p. 13). Further, individual institutions can set educational goals that reflect their respective missions.
Secondly, the results of both statewide and institution-specific accountability measures should be made known to the public. These results should be presented in language and data sets readily understandable to the lay public (State Higher Education Executive Officers 2005). If appropriate, statewide measures can be grouped by “like institutions” (Ewell 2001).
Third, the purpose of an accountability system is to inform the public and provide for institutional improvement. Institutions need to set clear goals, develop programs, identify responsibilities, and ensure that the goals are achieved (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2005). These goals should include student learning and performance, as learning is an inescapably critical function of education at any level. Further, each state should determine from the portfolio of methods above the accountability techniques that best capture the information most important to the state that would be applicable across all its public higher education institutions. Adherence to these principles should provide the kind of accountability needed in the new compact.
Higher education is expensive. It requires highly trained individuals; a large physical infrastructure; and, in the case of some disciplines, sophisticated equipment and facilities. It is difficult to cut costs and increase productivity at the same time, especially during times of increasing enrollments. Colleges and universities have large labor costs and relatively small economies of scale. Increasing cost efficiencies is possible in nearly every organization, and higher education is clearly no exception. However, gains from eliminating inefficiencies cannot produce the financial base needed by higher education. Increased investment in
public higher education, including need-based financial support for students, has long taken a back seat at the state and federal levels for a variety of reasons. Deficits, foreign entanglement, entitlement spending increases, and inevitable economic downturns (as we currently have) continue to constrain possible efforts in statehouses and Congress to alter the course of the past several years. Our suggestion for a new compact calls for a renewed priority to increase governmental support of public higher education.
However, the new compact must also link additional public funding not only to increased accountability but also to performance. At the very least, the state must provide the public with information from the accountability system, and institutions must strive for improvement. Citizens whose taxes contribute millions and sometime billions into a state’s public higher education system should know the return on their investment.
Only a short time ago, calls for increased funding of public higher education such as ours might have seemed quixotic at best. However, President Barack Obama has made improving education a cornerstone of his domestic and economic policy. Both his 2010 federal budget and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 signed into law in February 2009 include provisions for making higher education more affordable and accessible. Now is indeed the time to inaugurate a new compact for higher education, one predicated on both increased funding and meaningful accountability.
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Published online: 1 October 2009
# Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2009