College Accountability Movement Moves Online

Group of institutions that focus on educating adults at a distance craft their own way of measuring effectiveness, emphasizing program-specific outcomes.
September 17, 2007

One by one, coalitions of colleges of different sorts and stripes have wrestled with the best way to respond to the intensifying public pressure to prove their value and their effectiveness in educating students. Proposals have come from state colleges and universities, major research institutions and private colleges -- and not surprisingly, each has been tailored to the specific goals of the proponents.

The latest entrant in what might be called the accountability sweepstakes comes from an entirely new set of institutions -- a small group of colleges (some for-profit, some nonprofit, but all regionally accredited) that operate online and focus primarily on educating adults. And as with its predecessors, “Transparency by Design,” as the plan is called, has distinctive characteristics that reflect the colleges’ distinctive missions.

Like the accountability proposals put forward by other groups of institutions, the plan crafted by these colleges provides some data that can be compared across institutions, including scores on the National Survey of Student Engagement and the performance of students in general education courses, as measured by the Educational Testing Service's Measurement of Academic Proficiency and Progress.

But what most distinguishes the substance of the Transparency by Design effort from the others is its focus on student outcomes at the program-specific level, a logical approach given the colleges' focus on preparing their students for success in careers of their choice, says Michael Offerman, president of Capella University, who led a panel of the Presidents' Forum of Excelsior College that crafted the accountability proposal.

"We really wanted to get at this in a discipline-specific way," Offerman says, to answer students' question, "What am I learning in this degree that I came to study?"

Like the other associations and coalitions of colleges that have grappled with accountability measures, though, the adult-focused online institutions found that there were limits for them, too, on how much comparability is possible among institutions. Because "there is no national curriculum for the M.B.A.," for instance, says Offerman, the accountability template will allow each institution to define its own goals and hoped-for outcomes for students in each program, and then to show how well it is achieving them.

"We're saying, we don't know how to get it to the point where it's comparative right now," says Offerman. "We think that as a prospective learner, the key thing you're going to want to know are, 'Are you teaching me what I need to know?' "

So far six institutions have committed to using the new accountability system, which will be formally unveiled (and shared with other potential participants) at a Webinar this week: Capella University, Charter Oak State College, Excelsior College, Kaplan University, Regis University, and Union Institute and University.

They and other participants in the Presidents' Forum of Excelsior College designed the accountability system as part of the forum's larger discussions, in which online institutions -- which do not at this point have an association of their own -- gather occasionally to brainstorm about promising practices and difficult challenges facing distance education and their colleges.

In that context, as in just about every other in higher education in recent years amid pressure from the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education and other sources, conversation has turned to accountability and a desire to prove how the institutions are faring, for potential students and for policy makers alike.

After more than a year of discussion, the institutions produced a set of principles of good practice (adapted from one used by the Pentagon and institutions that educate large numbers of military personnel) and a draft template to serve as a potential model for participating institutions.

The template has institutions reporting basic information about its students, including average age, proportion receiving financial aid, and the proportion of students who completed their degree requirements within six years, as well as the per-credit cost that students paid to attend.

It calls on participating institutions to report significant amounts of information from the National Survey of Student Engagement (many colleges and universities use NSSE for internal purposes, but a far smaller number make their results public), and, if they choose, to measure their undergraduates' success in mastering general education skills such as writing and analytical reasoning by giving a sample of students the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress. The institutions also plan to include information from surveys of alumni about what they got (and didn't) out of their programs.

The guts of the assessment framework, though, would be the program-by-program information designed to give potential students a clear sense of how their predecessors in that particular field fared. That, ultimately, is what the mostly older students who enter institutions like these want to know, says Capella's Offerman: "I'm here because I want to go into this professional program and succeed in this profession. What are you going to do for me?"

Offerman acknowledges that letting each institution set the desired outcomes and anticipated results for each program may not fully satisfy those who have been pushing higher education institutions to collect and publish easily comparable data about their student outcomes.

But in individual specializations and majors, he says, "it's very difficult to get to comparability because we don't have a national curriculum. We could have spent years on this. My faculty believe that what you have to have in business administration is x, y and z; your faculty is saying it's a, x and y. Where we're erring, for now, is to say, Let's get started on this and see how hard it really is. It may prove that once we start doing this, it's not as hard as the theoretical."

Richard Garrett, a senior research analyst at Eduventures who has worked with the Presidents' Forum group and is helping to coordinate the accountability effort, says that while there's a "strong appetite for comparability," participants also had "concern about not wanting to overdo it at this stage." He said college administrators and even professors have shown an increasing willingness to compare themselves to other institutions, such that "what’s risky now becomes acceptable a year down the road."

Garrett also sees an ancillary benefit of the accountability effort in the online sector of higher education, in which competition has intensified greatly but there is relatively little outside quality control. "We're in a very subjective, and claim-based marketing environment in which student traffic is driven in large part by who can spend the most on marketing," Garrett said. (An accreditor of online programs, the Distance Education and Training Council, has its own voluntary consumer information disclosure form aimed at getting more information about online programs into public view.)

"By putting schools side by side, this would provide a mechanism that really doesn't exist right now, because there are no third-party rankings that prospective students can turn to. Anything that moves us to something that's a little more evidence-based, a little more comparable, will help students make more rational decisions." Garrett and Offerman both say as many as 50 other colleges could participate in the accountability effort, given their online orientation and focus on adult students.

One of the strongest advocates for more public accountability and publication of comparable information about higher education is Charles Miller, who headed the Spellings Commission. Miller said that he was impressed by the online colleges' plan, especially its focus on individual programs. "It'll be a major advance if you can get more and more institutions over time to bring accountability down to programs, because that may be how you would smoke out some of the worst problems in how we utilize money," by focusing on which individual programs are producing well and which aren't.

More important than any individual accountability proposal, Miller said, was the collective effort. It is "amazing that these [accountability proposals] are all of the sudden just blossoming everywhere," he said, adding that it was "encouraging that the whole [higher education] community is putting out what they think is necessary for them."

There are "imperfections in each of these," he said, but over time, "that’s how you get to the right answer: You find the missing ingredients and the flaws" in each individual proposal, and consensus ultimately forms.


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