|Working Papers logo 130||
In the throes of the recent economic downturn, the nation's leaders have continually pointed to America's higher education system as one of the key engines that will drive the country's recovery in the years to come. In his first speech to a joint session of Congress, President Obama lamented America's failure to keep pace with other industrialized nations and challenged the country to regain its mantle as the worldwide leader in postsecondary attainment. While previous reform efforts have focused on increasing access to higher education, increasing postsecondary attainment will require higher levels of college retention and completion. Put simply, colleges and universities will have to do a better job of serving the students that they enroll.
President Obama's interest in improving the performance of our higher education system, signaled by his proposed $2.5 billion College Access and Completion Fund, continues a focus established by former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education. In its report, the Spellings Commission, put colleges and universities on notice: if the United States was to maintain its competitive edge, American institutions of higher education could no longer be "increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive." Among the problems identified by the commission, the most glaring was the absence of transparency and a failure to hold schools accountable for how well they serve students. "Compounding all of these difficulties," the report argued, "is a lack of clear, reliable information about the cost and quality of postsecondary institutions, along with a remarkable absence of accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in educating students."
The major higher education trade associations responded to the call for transparency and accountability by announcing the creation of two public online databases into which colleges would be able to voluntarily submit consumer information. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) launched its University and College Accountability Network (U-CAN) in September 2007. Several months later, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, (now known as the Association of Public Land Grant Universities (APLU)) announced the birth of their Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA). The associations have touted these efforts as a step toward meeting the pressing need for increased accountability. Meanwhile, a number of state systems of higher education have joined in, adopting the VSA model for their own institutions. Increasingly, these voluntary accountability systems are defining the contours of higher education accountability in the 21st century.
A close examination of these two prominent efforts reveals serious flaws that undermine their utility as engines of accountability. The site for private colleges and universities, U-CAN, is not really new at all; it is essentially a re-packaging of data that are available elsewhere, and it provides almost no new information about costs, student experiences, or learning outcomes to parents and prospective students. In contrast, the VSA, which catalogs public schools, represents a legitimate effort to provide students with important information about how much college costs and the education students receive in return. But the VSA also suffers from numerous shortcomings: Not all institutions participate, particularly those at the top and bottom of the quality scale. The site is deliberately designed to thwart the easy comparison of institutions, despite the fact that the database was ostensibly created to facilitate consumer choice. And many of the most crucial VSA data elements are incomplete, non-comparable, or selected in a way that often obscures differences between institutions.
For these efforts and others like them to improve consumer choice and exert meaningful pressure on schools to improve, they need to be more complete, comparison-friendly, and designed to highlight institutional differences rather than obscure them. If existing flaws are not resolved, the nation runs the risk of ending up in the worst of all worlds: the appearance of higher education accountability without the reality. Most importantly, the small steps already taken should not persuade policymakers that accountability can be increased by harnessing the good intentions of the very institutions that they seek to hold accountable.
Andrew P. Kelly is a research fellow at AEI. Chad Aldeman is a policy analyst at Education Sector.