Reimagining the Triad: What Role for Business in Higher Education Quality Assurance?

Debates surrounding quality in higher education have been building steady momentum since the formation, deliberation, and recommendations delivered by the Spellings Commission a decade ago. In its wake, Republican and Democratic policymakers alike— in D.C. and in state capitals—have started to challenge the accreditor definition of quality, introducing stricter accountability rules and new performance metrics that attempt to more closely tie funding to student outcomes.

Some argue this protects consumers—or learners in this case—from predatory colleges. Others argue this is to protect growing taxpayer investment. Others still others argue these metrics serve as a proxy for alignment with economic demand, though lagging indicators such as employment, earnings, and loan repayment are not a substitute for alignment to employer needs. At the end of the day, quality in the eyes of government comes down to “do you have a job,” and “can you pay your bills?”

At the same time, accreditors have undertaken some reforms designed to refocus on student outcomes—which are noteworthy. Federally-recognized regional and national accreditors have been the vanguard of quality in higher education. Their history and tradition are rich, born of voluntary association where peers seek to hold one another accountable for the claims they make and to continuously improve. Their mission is a noble one, asking “are we who we say we are,” and “do we do what we claim we do?”

Yet, after more than a decade, we seem no closer to a major shift student need when it comes to how we assure the integrity and value of higher education. The discourse around the purpose and meaning of quality is fraught and reform efforts incomplete. Yet, we are still trapped in the triad, seeking to restore—not change—the delicate balance of power and authority between accreditors, the federal government, and state governments.

Up until now these actors have been consumed in a semantic debate over the definition and meaning of quality to the point of talking past one another. Much like Godot, Plato is not coming any time soon to rescue us. Instead, we need to unpack our competing definitions of quality and find a way to bridge or supplant them. There is, however, an opportunity to change the debate and remake the triad. We can do this by recognizing that the triad should not be based on a regulatory framework, but instead on complementary definitions of quality.

Where does this leave us? A triad in search of shared definitions of quality and purpose. So where do we go from here? Now is the time to reimagine the triad based on seemingly competing, but actually complementary definitions of quality. Like it or not, we need a new dialectic for quality in postsecondary education, one that can reconcile the need to cultivate democratic citizens, develop well-rounded learners, and produce a skilled and competitive workforce.

However, to accomplish this we need to address the missing piece in the quality conversation: employer recognition. The business community’s operational definitions of quality look different than those used in academia. Employers assess whether a good or service is “fit for intended use” striving for “zero variance” in outcomes, meaning you must be able to consistently and reliably produce the intended result. The business community has established a global, voluntary system for setting quality management system standards that any supplier can make use of in order to signal that they have the systems in place to be part of a company’s supply chain. Such an approach is supported by layers of aligned standards where suppliers can have multiple recognitions. These recognitions can communicate specializations or enable them to join multiple supply chain partnerships. These standards have been used for nearly a century in industries like manufacturing and aerospace, and while some are industry-specific, many can be used in multiple industries (e.g., energy management for improving energy use and efficiency).

What if we applied business-style standards to the process of certifying a program’s workforce relevance? When applied to education, business is capable of advancing an important and complementary definition of quality that goes further than consumer and taxpayer protection, and instead speaks directly to alignment with the workforce needs of the business community and economy. It is also voluntary and provides institutions and programs choice in terms of which business standard of quality they wish to be recognized by, in ways that are systemic, transparent, and scalable. And it supports equity because quality under the business definition would require equitable outcomes for learners regardless of demographic or socio-economic background.

Under such an approach, one could reimagine the triad to be composed of government, employers, and accreditors, thus addressing the missing piece and restoring balance. In the reimagined triad, it is the accreditation community asking, “are we who we say we are,” government asking, “do learners/taxpayers get a return on investment,” and business asking, “are you able to produce a skilled and competitive workforce?” All three are important quality indicators and need not be in conflict.  Different stakeholder groups are often best positioned to address each of those questions.  The infrastructure exists for the first two, and we at the U.S Chamber of Commerce Foundation are exploring a new model for quality assurance based on leading business practices.

At the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, we are engaging a wide variety of business, education, and quality assurance partners on how to build the missing piece of a new triad, one that can provide better quality signals from employers for both traditional higher education programs and non-traditional programs, such as apprenticeships. The goal? To ensure learners have the information they need on which programs deliver the most aligned career pathways, and employers know which programs they can turn to for reliable talent.