Higher education welcomed the election of President Obama last year. So far, the administration has not disappointed. Stimulus money, proposed reforms in financial aid, special support for community colleges, an ambitious goal for degree and credential completion, and, perhaps above all, a tone of support instead of hostility all suggest a cooperative, productive relationship between higher education and the administration.
The clock is ticking, though, and higher education may again be challenged and called to account sooner rather than later. As misguided as the Bush administration and the Spellings Commission often were in their proposals for reform, they did point to a set of recurring challenges that still face us. Through all the rhetoric and wrangling of the last eight years and despite some bits of progress and glimmers of hope, not very much has changed in meeting these challenges.
Before too long the Democrats will begin to pose the same questions -- about affordability and access, alignment with K-12, stalled degree attainment, lack of evidence of educational effectiveness and transparency of outcomes. Unless higher education takes the lead in responding to these challenges, the temptation for greater regulation may be overwhelming. Indeed, that process may have already begun as the stimulus money is being tied to more stringent reporting on outcomes.
It’s time for higher education to take ownership of the key questions of improving student learning. Are our students developing the skills and knowledge required to be productive, competent citizens? How do we know, and how can we show the public that we are being effective? How do we organize the higher education community to do so?
The best way to confront the critical challenges facing higher education is to push to demonstrate that we are assessing and improving student learning:
Stalled achievement: Achievement of postsecondary degrees in the United States has been level for at least a decade. Other nations are now surpassing us in completed degrees, especially for younger segments of the population. The Obama administration has set a very ambitious, laudable goal of leading the world by 2020 in percentage of the population with some form of postsecondary credentials and degrees.
Whatever level of degree or credential attainment we achieve, the point of a more educated population is lost if these credentials don’t reflect real skills and knowledge appropriate for work and citizenship in the 21st century. And research indicates that supportive learning environments and persistence go hand in hand. Moreover, in counting postsecondary credentials as well as degrees we must avoid a new system of tracking that will not provide either adequate opportunity or what society needs. Credentials (and degrees) should signify the development of both technical and broader skills and knowledge.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) goals  are a good example of the kind of broad education we should aim for throughout the system. The quality of both credentials and degrees must be rooted in a view of education that creates, in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase, “an aristocracy of everyone.”
Cost and Affordability: If achievement has stalled, cost has continued to rise with no end in sight. Public frustration even reached a point in the last reauthorization where proposals for price controls were bandied about. Some steps colleges and universities have taken to try to lessen the financial burden through, for example, more financial aid, cost effective course redesign, more online offerings and mixed delivery, and other efficiencies seem to have done little to fix the problem.
In the more exclusive precincts of higher education, costs are driven by a seemingly limitless stream of good ideas for programs and an amenities arms race on residential campuses. The notorious climbing wall is emblematic of this competition because schools don’t compete on quality and learning outcomes in similarly visible ways.
More broadly, the competitive challenge posed by for-profit providers arises in part because of advantages -- ease of use, clarity of aims, efficient practices -- that, in the absence of some clear quality advantage, trump more traditional providers. Attention to assessing and reporting on quality may not resolve all questions of cost and affordability, but it would give us a better understanding what is or isn’t worth paying for. And we may find out, as some have suggested, that quality improvement may not be driven by expenditures.
K-16 Alignment: Low rates of retention and completion, particularly at community colleges, often reflect a lack of readiness for college, a failure to align precollege work with the demands of higher education. Recently, the governors of forty-eight states have agreed to set clear, common standards for high school completion with an eye to assuring readiness for postsecondary work.
A comparable effort is needed in the postsecondary sector to help define readiness in a way that is linked to appropriate postsecondary goals. K-12 standards for readiness will do little to enhance alignment without clearer assessments of what real postsecondary success looks like. The broad and vague consensus on goals for “our underachieving colleges” cited by former Harvard President Derek Bok needs articulation in ways that indicate to students at both the secondary and postsecondary levels what real achievement is.
We haven’t done so yet. A recent survey by AAC&U indicated that while the vast majority of administrators claim that they and their faculty members could articulate their goals for undergraduate study, less than five percent believed that their students were aware of or understood them.
Reframing the challenges of attainment, cost, and alignment in terms of quality leads to different but no less difficult questions. Admitting that we do not have enough students earning credentials or degrees, how confident are we that post-secondary credentials and degrees reflect real achievement and the capacity to be productive and competent citizens? How can we better articulate, assess, and report on what a quality postsecondary education is and convey that to students at various levels and to the public? What does quality really cost, in pedagogical practice as well as dollars?
So what is to be done? The good news here is that we increasingly know what produces effective, quality undergraduate education. We increasingly know, too, how to measure it, and are taking steps to do so. The Voluntary System of Accountability is taking the first steps toward some common measures of critical thinking. A fairly long research tradition has established the “high impact practices” which produce good results.
Several decades of work on assessment has produced and is producing more and more useful measures of outcomes, from the standardized measures in the VSA to more complex measures under development in terms of portfolio assessment such as the AAC&U’s VALUE project. The tools are increasingly available to measure quality and effectiveness and use these to improve our work and report on it to the public. We are also taking steps to organize the higher education community to form an “Alliance” to develop a collective, coherent, and systematic pursuit of quality in higher education.
The bad news is that what we know is not being put to use. Estimates of students experiencing high impact practices are below, in some cases well below, 50 percent. Despite increasing emphasis and attention on assessment and accountability, including in the accreditation process, many and perhaps most faculty members are unaware of these issues or simply reject serious consideration of them. Moreover, the autonomy within and among institutions that is so highly prized has not promoted -- indeed it has often stymied -- efforts to use what we know in a systematic, coordinated, and coherent way. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.
At the last reauthorization, Senator Lamar Alexander put the matter bluntly, "If colleges and universities do not accept more responsibility for assessment and accountability, the federal government will do it for them.” Indeed, the government may be beginning to do so. There has been considerable federal pressure on the accreditation process and, again, requirements on reporting outcomes attached to stimulus money. The next reauthorization may witness increasing demands for regulation.
The threat of regulation is a good reason for responding to the challenges of quality and learning, of assessment and accountability.
A better reason is that failing to meet these challenges would keep us from serving our students and the nation as we should.
The clock is ticking.
David C. Paris is executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, senior fellow at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, senior adviser at the Council of Independent Colleges, and professor of government at Hamilton College.