Defining Quality: What Should Quality Look Like in Higher Learning?

In today’s higher education landscape, quality has become the most important watchword as institutions navigate new accountability policies and regulations while new providers hope to demonstrate their efficacy and impact with students.

For today’s students, quality is much more than an abstract concept: it translates to their prospects for career, financial and personal success after they complete their degree or credential. But what does “quality” actually look like? To help provide a starting point for that discussion and build on conversations happening in the field, Higher Learning Advocates is releasing a new brief “Defining High-Quality Higher Learning”. This new quality definition proposes that a high-quality postsecondary education program:

  • Provides a pathway to timely completion;

  • Equips students with skills for meaningful employment;

  • Delivers equitable access to learning and support services and;

  • Creates value for students by delivering these opportunities at an affordable price and setting them up for employment or further education.

Increasingly, these are the hallmarks of quality that matter for today’s students. We have historically thought about quality assurance at the federal level as a process of setting minimum acceptable standards an institution must meet to be eligible to receive federal student aid. Today, it’s clear that instead of setting the floor, we need to focus on raising the bar. We need to recalibrate federal accountability policies and quality assurance systems to help institutions continuously improve and deliver the high-quality outcomes that today’s students deserve.

The old adage is “what gets measured gets done”, yet America’s system of higher education is still too focused on measuring administrative compliance instead of important outcomes such as completion, employment, equity and value. Federal rules and regulations are a myriad of checks that do not always relate to student outcomes or safety. At the same time, new providers who may excel at delivering strong student outcomes are, by and large, currently blocked from participating in federal financial aid programs.

It’s time to flip the script on quality assurance and refocus our time, resources and policy on students and the outcomes they gain. Discussions around the renewal of the Higher Education Act offer a concrete opportunity to create a more agile and responsive system of quality assurance based on quality standards today’s students deserve. A new definition of quality can provide a set of guiding principles during that process.

Reach Emily Bouck at Download the Quality Definition resource here.