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Higher Education's Higher Accountability


Kristina Cowan

notepaper on bulletin board


Type in an Internet search for “accountability” and “higher education,” and the top results will form a pattern all too familiar to college and university leaders: Nearly every one details some kind of accountability being imposed from an external source on higher education.

President Obama’s proposal last summer to rate higher education institutions (see article on page 21) is only the latest effort to “hold colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality.” It joins the 2006 recommendations of former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education and numerous efforts at the state level in calling for increased accountability and transparency at colleges and universities.

It’s an irony that’s difficult for many in the higher education world to swallow. As policymakers, think-tankers, and pundits clamor for more higher education accountability, presidents are often left battling misperceptions that their institutions are asleep at the wheel. Yet higher education has been holding itself accountable—at the institutional, system, and association levels—since long before “accountability” became a buzzword.

A Long History of Accountability

“[T]here is a long history here of feeling . . . that we should be accountable to the people of Wisconsin,” said Kevin P. Reilly, outgoing president of the University of Wisconsin System, home to one of the first comprehensive accountability reports for a U.S. university system.

Since 1993, what was then called Accountability for Achievement has clearly detailed the system’s performance on key metrics across a wide range of goals. The most recent update, called Knowledge Powers Wisconsin’s Future: UW System’s Annual Accountability Report, centers on seven core strategies: preparing students, a stronger workforce, stronger businesses, stronger communities, resources, operational excellence, and collaborations. Under each heading are indicators, along with the goals for each, a status report explaining progress, and other information such as national and state comparisons and granular data.

In the 2012–13 report, for example, the strategy on stronger businesses aims to “increase the creation of well-paying jobs by expanding the university research enterprise while linking academic programs to entrepreneurship and business development.” There are three indicators: tracking progress on research funding, graduates’ contribution to the economy, and the annual number of bachelor’s, graduate, and professional degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and health fields.

In addition to the system-wide report, each of the system’s 15 institutions issues its own accountability report. While some measures are the same across all of the reports, each institution may customize parts of the report based on its individual mission, outreach services, and programs, Reilly said. “When I evaluate the chancellors for their performance every year and make salary recommendations, we always look at accountability reports and say, ‘How are we doing?’ So they are used in terms of evaluation and improvement.”

In fact, the university system traces such accountability roots to the earliest parts of the last century: Charles Van Hise, the University of Wisconsin’s president from 1903 to 1918, said he would “never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every home in the state.” Van Hise is often credited as the founder of the “Wisconsin Idea,” the notion that—in the university’s case—higher education should influence people’s lives beyond the classroom.

A Group Effort

That’s also the idea behind the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA)—created by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (A•P•L•U)—a tool that public four-year institutions use to share information about themselves. The information is translated into individual school profiles on a website called College Portrait of Undergraduate Education.

AASCU President Muriel A. Howard said the two groups wanted to be the ones developing the system, and particularly a voluntary one, instead of waiting for the federal government to establish a new policy.

As the centerpiece of the VSA, the College Portrait site provides information about student and faculty characteristics, admissions requirements, average class sizes, cost of attendance, financial aid, and the expected learning outcomes of students in critical thinking and writing. The site makes it possible to compare two institutions, search by state, or conduct an advanced search based on specialized criteria such as campus size, degree levels offered, and special study options. So far there are 281 VSA participants, according to Christine M. Keller, the system’s executive director.

Howard said the voluntary aspect is important, because it allows institutions to go at their own pace without incurring additional costs. The biggest challenge, she said, is providing the public with the right amount of clear, useful data: “I know certainly for families and students it can just be overwhelming, and too much information. That’s why we are trying to get schools to use the VSA and College Portrait, because then people can look and say, ‘This is consistent, easy to read.’” If users don’t find what they’re looking for initially, Howard said, they can drill deeper into the site for greater detail.

Other voluntary accountability plans from associations include the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC’s) Voluntary Framework of Accountability, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities’ (NAICU’s) University and College Accountability Network, and the Student Achievement Measure, a joint project of A•P•L•U, AACC, AASCU, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities, and NAICU.

Clearly Accountable in Massachusetts

When University of Massachusetts President Robert L. Caret arrived at the five-campus system in 2011, one of his top priorities was implementing a new accountability plan. Caret wanted to adapt a report-card system he had set up during his presidency at Towson University in Maryland, where he served from 2003 to 2011. In early 2013, he unveiled the first part of the plan, a report called UMass Performance: Accountable and On the Move. It focuses on six priorities developed and adopted by the university’s board of trustees: student experience and success, workforce and citizenry, research and development, social well-being, resource stewardship, and promoting the UMass story.

For each priority there are key goals—a total of 21—and future reports will measure progress on the goals, based on several metrics. Under student experience and success, for instance, the third goal is to improve student success, retention, and graduation rates. An example of a metric for that goal is to measure six-year graduation rates for first-time freshmen. At UMass Amherst, the goal is 70 to 73 percent; currently the graduation rate is 70.4 percent and has ranged between 66 and 68 percent over the last five years.

Goal-setting is key, according to Caret. “[J]ust reporting what happened and reporting what happens based on goals you have set is a very different thing,” he said. “It’s not just reporting graduation rates. It’s saying, ‘These rates are not good enough; I am going to improve them by this amount next year, and then report on that.’”

The first report showing UMass’s progress on its set goals—due out in February 2014—will be distributed at events, mailed to constituents, and posted online. The idea is to circulate the report widely, so UMass can be “totally transparent about how successful we are,” Caret said.

Caret said the report will likely use red, green, and yellow arrows to indicate whether a campus is moving in the wrong or right direction, or not moving at all. He believes a simple indicator style is best, because it draws readers in without bogging them down in details. If more information is requested, the university will point people to additional resources.

More Than Just Graduation Rates 

Among the metrics most often cited by accountability enthusiasts is a college’s or university’s graduation rate—in part because it seems the most clear-cut, though it can be anything but clear, according to Anna Mays, vice president of student services and enrollment management at Cedar Valley College, one of Dallas County Community College District’s (DCCCD) seven institutions. In the state of Texas, only 14.5 percent of full-time students in public two-year colleges graduated within three years, according to 2012 data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, but that only tells a fraction of the story, Mays said.

“Policymakers and the public do not always understand how higher education is funded or what performance measures [such as graduation rates] mean,” Mays said. “For example, community colleges are required to report the graduation rate of first-time-in-college, full-time students who complete a degree in three years. Since the majority of community college students are part-time and need additional course work to attain college-level course requirements, this ‘graduation rate’ is only representative for a small percentage of students in community colleges.” At DCCCD, for example, fall 2013 figures show 69 percent of students enrolled part time—a proportion in line with national figures.

It’s also important to understand that students attend community colleges with different intentions and grapple with a variety of demands outside of school, she said: They may want to take a few courses to get a promotion or find employment, increase their skills in a particular area, transfer to another college, or take courses for personal enrichment. Some students are simultaneously supporting their families, raising children, or caring for aging parents, necessarily spreading out the time it takes them to earn a degree. Graduation rates don’t reflect these realities, and shouldn’t be the only measure to indicate how well community colleges perform, Mays noted.

Not that such students and colleges in the state aren’t focused on their goal of raising graduation rates, as evinced by Texas Completes (TC), a statewide effort aimed at increasing the number of students who finish associate degrees or certificates before transferring to four-year institutions or entering the workforce. Growing out of Completion by Design (CBD), an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the five original fundees—the Lone Star College System, DCCCD, Alamo Community College District, El Paso Community College, and South Texas College—banded together to independently create and manage TC.

Despite such efforts, Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of AACC, said that community colleges still face a double challenge: increasing institutional transparency while also explaining how the diverse demographics and goals of students at community colleges make their graduation and completion rates a more nuanced picture than is often captured by overly simplistic accountability measures.

Not all students come with the goal of transferring to a four-year institution, he said—some may remain focused on completing a very specific credential or class for a job. “We want to make sure that when we are evaluated and held accountable, that people understand what that means,” Bumphus said. “So if you only look at graduation rates, that is a very narrow view.”

How to Keep Costs Accountable 

In addition to graduation rates, the rising costs of a college degree tend to be uppermost in the minds of parents and students, but also those of higher education leaders. Pamela A. Eibeck, president of the University of the Pacific (UOP) in Stockton, California, is striving to make sure her institution stays accountable on money matters.

“We are in an era where students are asking the most fundamental question: ‘Is college worth it?’ We recognize that the cost of college relative to family income has gone up tremendously over the last few decades. They are graduating with student loans, but not the jobs. It has been aggravated by the economic downturn,” Eibeck said. “So as a university, we have to demonstrate the value of our education—that a degree is worth the investment. We recognize that is a combination of making sure we have high-quality learning experiences relevant to great programs, but also that we are doing our best to contain cost.”

To that end, UOP has launched a university-wide assessment and accountability initiative called Focusing on Our Future. Under the plan, Eibeck is leading the university in reviewing all administrative and academic activities. The process will help UOP identify funds for reallocating into a strategic investment fund of about $15 million. That money will go toward improving current programs, activities, and services, and launching new initiatives consistent with the school’s strategic plan.

To kick the process off, Eibeck asked all administrative units to examine their programs and gauge whether they serve students in high-impact ways, fall in line with the strategic plan, and represent the wisest use of limited resources.

Based on the findings, each unit prepared a report for its vice president or provost, who then made preliminary recommendations. They ranged from maintaining a program as-is to reducing it, reorganizing or consolidating it, eliminating it, and on rare occasions, enhancing it. The findings were discussed at town hall-style meetings, after which UOP’s provost and vice presidents made final recommendations and submitted them in a report to a review committee, which included members of the president’s advisory council and selected student, faculty, and staff members. The committee gave its feedback to Eibeck, who solicited anonymous input from the university through a secure online survey. A few weeks later, the president announced her final decisions.

“This has been a lot of work for people. There will be some activities eliminated because of this, so there are hard choices and some hard impacts on some individuals,” Eibeck said. “The other reality is that there’s nothing we do that is not worthy, and that is true at every university or college. We all start programs and activities with excellent intentions, but we can’t be everything to everyone anymore. . . . [W]e might call this ‘Focusing on Our Future,’ but it’s very much focusing on our students’ future.”

The academic review will follow a similar process, she said, though the time frame will be longer because of faculty members’ busy teaching schedules. The final report, which will integrate the administrative and academic reviews, is expected in the spring of 2014.

A Long-Range View of Accountability

But higher education leaders note that their intense focus on the particulars of accountability is necessarily balanced by the bigger-picture goal of what they do. 

It’s vital not to overlook the long-range accountability that higher education has to educate students for life, said Reilly, the University of Wisconsin System head. “We need to keep reminding ourselves and the public that we are preparing students for not just their first job, but for a career, for life after graduation. We want them to get that first job after graduation—a well-paying job. But our obligation does not stop there. We have to prepare people for the unknown,” he explained.

Others shared Reilly’s view. UOP’s Eibeck said higher education equips students to be effective thinkers, communicators, and citizens—invaluable skills that are inherently difficult to measure. Other unquantifiable but vital elements of the college experience include peer networks, mentoring from faculty, and learning how to apply content in new environments and tackle open-ended problems. “I just cringe when I see that salary within six months of graduation is being used as a measure of the value of a university’s education,” Eibeck said. “A high-quality university education prepares a young person for a lifetime of achievement.”


Kristina Cowan is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.



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