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WASHINGTON -- Given the sprawling terrain covered by the American Enterprise Institute's forum here on "Increasing Accountability in American Higher Education" Tuesday, it was probably inevitable that the conversation would touch on so many topics as to be almost incoherent.

Accreditation. Finance. Scholarly research productivity. College rankings. Governance. Tenure. Standardized tests. With papers and presentations on those topics and more, the daylong discussion was, not surprisingly, all over the map. But if a major theme emerged from the assembled speakers, most of whom fall clearly into the pro-accountability camp, it was that as policy makers turn up the pressure on colleges to perform, they should do so in ways that reinforce the behaviors they want to see -- and avoid the kinds of perverse incentives that are so evident in many policies today.

This is especially true, several speakers argued, on the thorniest of higher education accountability questions -- those related to improving student outcomes. While the event looked at times like a reunion of Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education, with an agenda that featured not just its former chairman but several advisers to the panel, it unfolded very much focused on President Obama's call for increasing the proportion of Americans with a postsecondary credential.

Many of the speakers framed their remarks around changes that they saw as essential to helping the country ratchet up the number of young people and adults who not only enter higher education but emerge with what they need to enter the work force. (Oh, and one or two people actually talked about how nice it would be if policy makers still envisioned college as a place where people learn about citizenship or just become educated for education's sake.)

Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, focused his formal presentation on the growing network of state-based data systems that, in his eyes, present the best chance of producing good information on how students are faring in postsecondary education and beyond. Ewell has long been a leading advocate of such data systems, which will be most effective, he argued, if they are linked to databases of employment records and then stitched together to create regional networks.

But better data systems (which he acknowledged will take years to develop in this way, and are opposed in some quarters of higher education) will help only if the information they seek to collect is intelligently framed, which the most widely used current measure -- graduation rates -- is not, Ewell and others agreed. Ewell called for the development of a set of measures of "milestone events" in a student's academic path -- things like a "basic skills conversion rate" (capturing those who get to credit-worthy work after developmental courses), definitions of "transfer ready" and "work force ready" (to describe those who get meaningful academic or career skills but leave a community college short of an associate degree), etc.

And he said higher education leaders and state policy makers could make a shorter-term change that could start to alter the incentives for, and ultimately the behavior of, institutions: shifting state funding formulas so that colleges receive money based on how many students are still enrolled by the end of academic terms, rather than at the beginning.

"We have a performance funding scheme now -- it's called 'pay to enroll,' " he said. "One of the simplest things we can do is to reimburse for courses completed rather than courses attempted" by their students, he said. Added Stan Jones, former commissioner of higher education in Indiana and now president of the National Consortium on College Completion: "If we could make that change, counting courses at the end of the semester rather than the beginning, that would have powerful implications. Everybody would drag out their [list of] courses and say, 'Where are we having problems?' " (It was acknowledged that such an approach could create perverse incentives of its own, by discouraging institutions from enrolling academically underprepared students who might be unlikely to succeed -- a potential risk of the entire emphasis on "completion" that is increasingly in vogue.)

Many of the other speakers presented time-honored (read: familiar) approaches to what AEI called "the multifaceted accountability equation in higher education." Naomi Schaefer Riley, deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's Taste page and author of God on the Quad, argued for reining in tenure for groups of professors who she argued no longer warrant it -- including instructors in vocational fields who don't need the protection of academic freedom, gender and race studies professors with openly political agendas, and scientists who, she said, have forfeited their right to academic freedom by entering into corporate research arrangements that limit their ability to publish.

"Obviously we can‟t revoke the contracts of these professors now, but going forward, there is no justification for continuing to offer lifetime contracts to people in these fields." Riley said. "Whether because they have a political agenda or their subjects do not necessitate the freedom to ask big questions or because they seem happy to voluntarily give up their right to ask big questions for the right price, these professors do not need their academic freedom protected. And they don't need tenure.

Countering Riley's argument that tenure impedes accountability, Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, argued that tenure allows professors to "hold the line" on academic standards against administrators who encourage instructors to raise the grades of complaining students because they "don't want unhappy customers... Accountability is not quite as straightforward as we think," said Rhoades, who described himself as "not a 'just say no' guy" about accountability. "It's not a question of whether [colleges and faculty should be held accountable], but how, and by whom," he said. "It's about who's developing the measures, and what behaviors do they encourage?"

Among other issues raised at the AEI session:

  • Kevin Carey of Education Sector and Charles Miller, former chairman of the Spellings Commission, both called for a national/federal body to take over some or all of the quality control responsibility that now falls to the regional accrediting agencies. "Regional accreditors should continue to be in the business of peer review, but the federal government needs to be the objective protector of taxpayers' dollars," Carey said. Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, said that government regulation would be a major mistake, but said that accreditors needed to come to agreement on "community-driven, outcomes-based standards" to which colleges should be held.
  • Miller and Ben Wildavsky of the Kauffman Foundation defended the existence and encouraged the proliferation of more rankings of colleges, on the theory that the more information that exists in the public realm about colleges and their operations, the better positioned citizens and policy makers will be to make the choices they need. Higher education officials regularly talk about the "uniqueness of each college" and the dangers of standardization. But while they complain when policy makers seek to develop measures that compare one institution against another, colleges "keep lists of peers with which they compare themselves" on many fronts, Miller said.

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