Renewing the Higher Education Accountability Coalition

Accountability is easy in the abstract.

That’s true at the national level, it’s true at the state-level and it’s true at every college and university. When we keep it vague, the accountability coalition is a big tent. Everyone in public life favors ambitious goals and sensible reforms.

But when you get down to the hard policy details — real numbers and real money — the accountability consensus starts to fracture.

We’re in an era of fraying public trust. Rebuilding it will require a renewed coalition for accountability in education, a reemergence of the civil rights and business community partnership that helped push high standards and equitable outcomes to the front of the national education agenda.

As skepticism rises, we must do the hard work of setting clear metrics for success and sharing them openly.

During my time as President of the UNC System, we have worked to do that across our 17 institutions. It’s been a challenging but worthwhile journey and three years later, we now have an accountability framework that is vastly ahead of where we began.

Here’s what it looks like:

  • For the entire System, we have a clear strategic plan with measurable goals on big metrics like graduation rates, achievement gaps, and critical workforce degrees. We’re not alone in having a strategic plan. It’s what comes next that matters.
  • Following that plan’s adoption, my team worked with every institution — from R-1’s to regional universities — to create a personalized, context-specific performance agreement.
  • Each performance agreement ranks nine measurable goals into three categories of priority and then sets ambitious goals to meet by 2022.
  • Today, each institution’s progress towards their goals is publicly tracked on dashboards and I’m holding each of my direct reports — our 17 chancellors — responsible for their progress just as I’m being held responsible for meeting our measured System-wide goals.
  • Key to this new set-up is a modernized data infrastructure across our System that has allowed us to create interactive dashboards for senior leadership around key metrics of student performance and operational finances at each of our institutions. Our level of insight has never been higher as we work towards these goals.

If my time in North Carolina has reinforced one thing for me, it’s that governance structures matter. North Carolina’s higher education system now has a set of accountability measures baked into its governance structure — a consistent incentive structure for progress on the issues that matter.

We know that our incentives aren’t well-enough aligned nationally. No one who is well-versed on the policy debates in D.C. would say that the accountability metrics that are in use now are correct.

One of the big reasons why is because we have such a patchwork of data collection across the country. It’s why I’m so excited about the progress that the College Transparency Act has made in the U.S. Senate, and I’m eager to see it pushed forward in the new year.

But as the Higher Education Act is reauthorized — before 2020 we hope — there must be serious thought on how to strengthen our accountability standards for higher education.

In North Carolina, we’ve been able to resist the systematic drift away from sensible accountability. But in the absence of a national focus on accountability — and strong incentives at the federal level — the patchwork approach is leaving too many students behind. We need a national push for strong accountability in higher education, and the Higher Education Act remains the best vehicle to get it done.

Far from being prescriptive or controlling, effective accountability must be flexible. We’ve found that our performance agreements empower, not limit, talented leaders at our institutions. It demonstrates trust in their capacity to get the job done, and in a way that best fits their circumstances and resources.

Regardless of the scale — at an institution, a state, or a nation –the same principles that underpin good management apply. People want to know what’s expected of them, and what the consequences will be if they meet their goals or don’t. Done well, accountability is a show of respect for the professionalism and capacity of the people who work for you.

We can take that same principle and apply it nationally. It’s on all of us to ensure that we do so in the new year and not squander the opportunity that HEA reauthorization affords us.

Dr. Margaret Spellings is the president of the University of North Carolina System and a member of the Higher Learning Advocates Board of Directors.