The time to rethink the nation’s system of quality assurance is now. Today’s students and providers are different than those for whom our nation’s laws were written. Higher learning is ever more critical for economic success. And, students, taxpayers, and policymakers are asking “what do we get out of higher learning?”
The problems with our current system are clear: it is not transparent enough to any of the key actors; there is not an adequate premium on measuring and assessing student outcomes; and the balance between compliance and innovation needs rethinking. But, we are just starting to consider how to solve for these issues.
And, the issue of quality assurance is complex and involves many actors, interests, and aspects. In some ways, we don’t have a “system” of quality assurance. Instead, we have a connected web of multiple regimes, definitions, and approaches to validating quality. In order for an institution of higher education to participate in the Pell Grant and federal student loan programs, they need to answer to at least three (and likely many more) distinct systems of “quality” checks.
Comprehensive quality assurance reform should focus on three key drivers:
- Using measurable, accurate data on student outcomes to drive institutional quality
- Allowing non-traditional innovative providers to challenge the status quo and serve as proven examples of an outcomes-focus
- Recognizing the needs of today’s students have evolved and the higher learning landscape must adapt to be more inclusive
Better and more complete information on student outcomes is critical to form an accurate, comprehensive assessment of quality in higher learning programs. Collecting and using data on outcomes – like completion rates, employment outcomes, equity for all of today’s students, and the value students get from their degree or credential – to assess quality and success is critical. It provides institutions with information they need to measure, improve, and adapt their programs to be effective and high-quality. It provides students with information about return on investment for the schools and programs they are considering enrolling in. It is paramount to have a common understanding on how, and what, to measure to ensure data is informing what quality and outcomes mean in higher learning and how we hold providers accountable.
Additionally, quality assurance in postsecondary education hasn’t kept up with technology and innovation – it’s too heavily focused on existing institutions and stubbornly rooted in measurements of time. Quality assurance instead should be based on learning and centered on students and outcomes, and allow for a process that includes innovative providers and new pathways to recognition and access to aid. As the number of new postsecondary education models – some of which have shown to be more responsive to the needs of non-traditional and low-income students – continues to grow, accreditation reform needs to allow for new actors and innovative assessment models.
Lastly, quality assurance reform models need to acknowledge today’s higher learning student population is rapidly evolving. According to the Lumina Foundation, many students attending postsecondary education are older than 25 (38 percent), work while enrolled (58 percent), are financially independent (47 percent) and have children (26 percent). What were once considered “traditional students” are becoming less common, and quality assurance should reflect the changing student population by being more inclusive and flexible.
As policymakers forge a path forward on reform, it will be necessary to both hold to a comprehensive vision of quality assurance and delineate solutions for parts of the issue. Solving data gaps will not address the maze of regulatory requirements. And, likewise streamlining regulations will not address the inadequacies in accreditation. Each of these conversations are important and require attention. However they will be much more difficult to address until there is agreement on the goals and outlines of a clear and true system of quality assurance.