After months of discussion, the 62 members of the Association of American Universities have unanimously agreed that the institutions should collect and release key information about undergraduate student performance and tuition costs.
But in becoming the latest institutions to formally respond to the intensifying public policy push for greater higher education accountability, the association of major research universities has set an extended timetable for making the information available -- drawing criticism from one leading accountability proponent.
"This is a step in the right direction -- they've admitted that we need more and better data, and that's good," said Charles Miller, the Texas businessman who headed the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. "I just can't figure out why they are saying some of this information is going to take a 'few more years.' How can the greatest universities in the world continue to drag out this process and keep a straight face?"
The commission that Miller headed called on colleges to collect and report significantly more information about their performance to the public, with the eventual goal, in the commission's (and the Education Department's) eyes of giving the public and policy makers more comparable data with which to judge the relative success (and failure) of individual institutions.
Two major public college associations, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, got out in front of other college groups last year when they announced their own "voluntary system of accountability." Since then, other college groups, including the American Association of Community Colleges and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, as well as AAU, have been quietly working on their own systems and structures for putting more information about their member institutions in the public eye.
AAU, which represents 60 major research universities in the United States and two in Canada, announced Friday  that its members had "committed to collecting and providing to the public basic information about undergraduate student performance, such as graduation rates, time to degree, and careers pursued following graduation," as well as agreeing to "develop cost estimators that will provide more accurate information about the actual (also known as 'net') costs to individual students to attend a specific institution."
“AAU and its member universities recognized that our institutions could provide better, more accessible information to prospective students and their families about the likely cost of attending a university, how long on average it takes to complete a baccalaureate degree, the percentage of students who graduate, and what its alumni do following graduation,” Robert M. Berdahl, the association's president, said in a prepared statement.
Working through the group's existing data collection arm, the Association of American Universities Data Exchange,  the AAU will work with partners like the University of Oklahoma's Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange  and the National Student Clearinghouse  to collect the various sets of information, which the association will then publish in the aggregate, leaving it up to individual institutions, on a voluntary basis, to publish their own data. Berdahl said he believed most institutions would provide most of the information.
But he also warned that it might take the association some time to do this right. “Collecting this information is not a simple matter, however, so it has taken time to determine the best means of doing so, and it will take a few years before it is fully implemented," he said. "But the process has already begun, and we hope to begin reporting some data by the start of the next academic year.”
Miller, who during and after his service as chairman of the Spellings commission said repeatedly that he thought the nation’s elite research universities had shown recalcitrance to reveal their inner workings and hold themselves accountable to the public, said in an interview Friday that he welcomed the AAU announcement.
But Miller said he was troubled and perplexed by Berdahl’s statement that the universities needed to do so much more work to produce the information that some of it could be “years away.” He noted that in discussions with AAU officials during the course of the commission’s work, they had told him that they had been working on learning outcomes measures for five years.
“We fought World War II and built an atomic bomb in a shorter time that it has taken them to do all this stuff,” Miller said. And “I don’t know how they can say they don’t know what the costs are. The greatest universities in the history of the world can’t figure that out in a short time when they’ve been working on it for two years already? It’s hard not to see this as just a delaying tactic, and it’s unacceptable.”
John C. Vaughn, the AAU executive vice president who has led the association's work on the accountability effort, said he was not surprised that some might ask "why isn't it happening right away?" But Vaughn, who described the agreement to collect and publish the data as "a big step for our institutions," said that while most of the universities have some or all of this data in some form now, "when you move from a single institution to data collected across institutions, one of the biggest hurdles is to get to common data definitions, and that can be a real challenge."
In defining students' academic progress, for instance, "if they stop out for medical reasons, do you count it?... When you're reporting 'time to degree,' and your institution has twice as many students studying abroad as peer institutions do, and it takes them longer to finish as a result, is there a way to explain that?"
All of those things can be worked out, Vaughn said, but they take time to do it right.
"Here's where we are: The fact that we have unanimous endorsement meant an in-principle commitment to providing these data publicly as soon as we can, and the process will now begin on working out the details of reporting and to make sure we're collecting comparable, accurate data. And we'll simply do it as soon as we can."
More such efforts are on the way. The board of NAICU, the private college group, approved the creation of a "consumer information template" last month that the association hopes to roll out for public viewing this fall. And AACC, the community college group, has an accountability task force that expects to report within two months on "models and measures for institutions to use in evaluating success inserving their students, David S. Baime, the association's vice president for government relations, says.