An association of public research universities is studying the possibility of creating a new, voluntary system to define and measure the outcomes of undergraduate education, in a way that would allow for public comparisons of similar institutions.
The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges -- a group of more than 200 public research universities, including flagship institutions in every state -- is floating this idea as a federal panel on the future of higher education has become increasingly critical of the way the government and colleges assure their quality. Leaders of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education have for months been scaring colleges with talk of using new national tests to assure quality.  And just last week, the panel infuriated accreditors when it released a report suggesting that the regional system of accrediting colleges be replaced  with a national one.
While college leaders have acknowledged that they could do better at measuring what they do to educate students, they have done so largely by suggesting tweaks or improvements in current systems of oversight. The idea being considered by the land-grant group has the potential to more dramatically change the way colleges are evaluated and to change the dynamics of the way higher education is responding to the federal commission.
The group has released few details about how a new system might work, but is expected to present ideas about it to the federal commission as early as this week, when the panel meets in Indianapolis. And while the commission is clearly putting this issue on the universities' agenda, an explicit role of the universities' effort is to make sure that any new system for evaluating public higher education is developed "within and shaped by" those institutions, rather than imposed by federal authorities, according to a letter to NASULGC's presidents recently sent by Peter McPherson, the new president of the association and the former president of Michigan State University.
McPherson's letter said that the association's Council on Academic Affairs (the provosts of the group's member institutions) had already been discussing the idea and agreed that it was time to formally consider creating such a system. A statement adopted by that council said the system would work at "defining outcomes and contributions, by type of classification of university."
Further, the statement said: "It is apparent that there are opportunities to approach accountability in a number of ways including defining and communicating the different roles of universities that are relevant to parents and students, to the community boards, to states and at the national level."
A group of university leaders -- likely also including members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities -- will soon be appointed to flesh out the idea.
In an interview, McPherson said that any system created would be focused on "outcomes," but he said that there would not just be a focus on any single measure, such as graduation rates. He also said it was important that those outcomes consider the skills and knowledge that students bring to college -- so institutions aren't just judged superior for being able to admit better prepared undergraduates.
He also said any new system should be easily understandable by people who are not immersed in higher education. There is an important role for reports from accreditors and others that are "more nuanced" and "less easily communicated" than the kind of system his association may help create, he said. But he said college leaders need to get over the idea that just because they need such reports, they can ignore public demands for information that they can understand.
By failing to come up with good systems, he said, people end up relying on flawed alternatives like the rankings of U.S. News & World report. "We've got measurements out there, but they are ones with which we have vehement disagreements," he said.
Any new system will work only if colleges approach it with the right attitude, McPherson said. It is true, he said, that American colleges and universities are the best in the world. But that doesn't negate other realities: that "we've got some real problems." The first step to solving problems, he said, "is to state them," and the new system the association is talking about could create both public and internal pressure to solve problems once they are identified.
Sally Mason, provost of Purdue University and chair of the NASULGC group that has worked on this idea, said that she sees the idea as a natural outgrowth of how she and her counterparts at other institutions are constantly considering how they can improve programs and their institutions. Such efforts might have more impact if they were part of an entity or construct that crossed campus lines, she said.
"We need to be able to convey to the public at large that we are seriously engaged in the pursuit of quality education, efficiency in our use of resources, and accessibility to all students who are prepared and willing to earn a college degree," Mason said.
Mason said she didn't see the possible new system duplicating the work of accreditors. Specialized accreditors focus on specific areas, she said, while accountability issues are "a part of the work of [regional] accrediting agencies" but "are not their only focus."
A range of metrics -- already collected in some form by most institutions -- could be used in the system that universities may create, she said. Mason cited data on graduation rates, admissions, applications, student demographics and faculty demographics. She said that "local context' remained important for considering "why our measurements might be different from those of selected peer institutions," but she said it should still be possible to make comparisons. "We can and do use metrics to set goals for improvement," she said. "What we hope to achieve in our work is a strong message regarding our commitment to accountability and the mechanisms that each of us will use to achieve greater accountability."