Accountability, not access, has been the central concern of this Congress in its fitful efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. The House of Representatives has especially shown itself deaf to constructive arguments for improving access to higher education for the next generation of young Americans, and dizzy about what sensible accountability measures should look like. The version of the legislation approved last week by House members has merit only because it lacks some of the strange and ugly accountability provisions proposed during the past three years, though a few vestiges of these bad ideas remain.
Why should colleges and universities be subject to any scheme of accountability? Because the Higher Education Act authorizes billions of dollars in grants and loans for lower-income students as it aims to make college accessible for all. This aid goes directly to students selecting from among a very broad array of institutions: private, public and proprietary; small and large; residential, commuter and on-line. Not unreasonably, the federal government wants to ensure that the resources being provided are used only at credible institutions. Hence, its insistence on accountability.
The financial limits on student aid were largely set in February when Congress hacked $12 billion from loan funds available to many of those same low-income students. With that action, the federal government shifted even more of the burden of access onto families and institutions of higher education, despite knowing that the next generation of college aspirants will be both significantly more numerous and significantly less affluent.
Now the Congress is at work on the legislation’s accountability provisions, and regardless of allocating far fewer dollars members of both chambers are considering still more intrusive forms of accountability. They appear to have been guided by no defensible conception of what is appropriate accountability.
Colleges and universities serve an especially important role for the nation -- a public purpose -- and they do so whether they are public or private or proprietary in status. The nation has a keen interest in their success. And in an era of heightened economic competition from the European Union, China, India and elsewhere, never has that interest been stronger.
In parallel with other kinds of institutions that serve the public interest, colleges and universities should make themselves publicly accountable for their performance in four dimensions: Are they honest, safe, fair, and effective? These are legitimate questions we ask about a wide variety of businesses: food and drug companies, banks, insurance and investment firms, nursing homes and hospitals, and many more.
Are they honest? Is it possible to read the financial accounts of colleges and universities to see that they conduct their business affairs honestly and transparently? Do they use the funds they receive from the federal government for the intended purposes?
Are they safe? Colleges and universities can be intense environments. Especially with regard to residential colleges and universities, do students face unacceptable risks due to fire, crime, sexual harassment or other preventable hazards?
Are they fair? Do colleges and universities make their programs genuinely available to all, without discrimination on grounds irrelevant to their missions? Given this nation’s checkered history with regard to race, sex, and disability, this is a kind of scrutiny that should be faced by any public-serving institution.
Existing federal laws quite appropriately govern measures dealing with all of these issues already. For the most part, accountability in each area can best be accomplished by asking colleges and universities to disclose information about their performance in a common and, hopefully, simple manner. No doubt measures for dealing with this required disclosure could be improved. But these three questions have not been the focus of debate during this reauthorization.
On the other hand, Congress has devoted considerable attention to a question that, while completely legitimate, has been poorly understood:
Are they effective? Do students who enroll really learn what colleges and universities claim to teach? This question should certainly be front and center in the debate over accountability.
Institutions of higher education deserve sharp criticism for past failure to design and carry out measures of effectiveness. Broadly speaking, the accreditation process has been our approach to asking and answering this question. For too long, accreditation focused on whether a college or university had adequate resources to accomplish its mission. This was later supplanted by a focus on whether an institution had appropriate processes. But over the past decade, accreditation has finally come to focus on what it should -- assessment of learning.
An appropriate approach to the question of effectiveness must be multiple, independent and professionally grounded. We need multiple measures of whether students are learning because of the wide variety of kinds of missions in American higher education; institutions do not all have identical purposes. Whichever standards a college or university chooses to demonstrate effectiveness, they should not be a creation of the institution itself -- nor of government officials -- but rather the independent development of professional educators joined in widely recognized and accepted associations.
Earlham College has used the National Survey of Student Engagement since its inception. We have made significant use of its findings both for re-accreditation and for improvement of what we do. We are also now using the Collegiate Learning Assessment. I believe these are the best new measures of effectiveness, but we need many more such instruments so that colleges and universities and choose the ones most appropriate to assessing fulfillment of learning in the scope of their particular missions.
Until the 11th hour, the House version of the Higher Education Act contained a provision that would have allowed states to become accreditors, a role they are ill equipped to play. Happily, that provision now has been eliminated. Meanwhile, however, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, is flirting with the idea of proposing a mandatory one-size-fits-all national test.
Much of the drama of the accountability debate has focused on a fifth and inappropriate issue: affordability. Again until the 11th hour, the House version of the bill contained price control provisions. While these largely have been removed, the bill still requires some institutions that increase their price more rapidly than inflation to appoint a special committee that must include outsiders to review their finances. This is an inappropriate intrusion on autonomy, especially for private institutions.
Why is affordability an inappropriate aspect of accountability? Because in the United States we look to the market to “get the prices right,” not heavy-handed regulation or accountability provisions. Any student looking to attend a college or university has thousands of choices available to him or her at a range of tuition rates. Most have dozens of choices within close commuting distance. There is plenty of competition among higher education institutions.
Let’s keep the accountability debate focused on these four key issues: honesty, safety, fairness, and effectiveness. With regard to the last and most important of these, let’s put our best efforts into developing multiple, independent, professionally grounded measures. And let’s get back to the other key issue, which is: How do we provide access to higher education for the next generation of Americans?
Douglas C. Bennett is president and professor of politics at Earlham College, in Indiana.