Why Higher Ed Needs a Quality Assurance Revolution

Surging tuition costs and lackluster results have left students, employers and the public wondering about the return on investment they receive from higher education. After all, taxpayers underwrite the nation’s investment in higher education to the tune of $150 billion annually, yet student outcomes are stubbornly low, and the quality of college educations are increasingly questioned. At the crux of this problem lies the complex, but often ignored, system used by the federal government to assure the quality of postsecondary education.

The current system was well-intentioned in design: the federal government would oversee institutional finances and ability to operate student aid, accreditors would be a check on educational quality and reform, and states would ensure that institutions were not misleading or defrauding consumers and students.That design, often referred to as the triad, could work quite well with a limited and static set of players, clear lines of responsibility, and fully-engaged partners.

But a host of flaws exist within the current system, which has been modified from the original design without a long-term vision in mind and retrofitted to serve a higher education sector evolving at an increasingly fast pace. Instead of a cohesive quality assurance system operating in the public interest, higher education relies on a loose confederation of government and non-governmental agencies collectively responsible for validating the quality of institutions. The result is an overlapping and ineffective quality assurance mechanism that is confusing to institutions, opaque to students and incapable of delivering the quality policymakers expect.

To get better results out of the $150 billion in federal funds flowing to colleges and universities, the systems of quality checks on institutions of higher education who benefit from federal student loans and grants need a revamp. First, the nation needs a goal, or a benchmark, on which to judge quality. Second, each player in the system should have clear roles that connect, but do not overlap, with the other players. Finally, this system needs to produce results that students, families, tax payers and policymakers can trust.

That change won’t happen overnight, and federal policy is not the only avenue to enact needed quality improvements. But federal policy reform can begin to confront this problem head on. Here are three key strategies for building the 21st century quality assurance system today’s students, providers and employers need.

1) Reform the current accreditation policies to focus on outcomes, instead of compliance.

The modern accrediting agencies are an outgrowth of academic peer review consortia first organized in the late 19th century, but never originally envisioned to play the role of “gatekeepers” to billions in federal funds they do today. Compounding the problem, federal policies ask quality assurers to focus excessively on monotonous check-lists and compliance, instead of meaningfully assessing the quality and pace of student learning and outcomes.

Accreditation instead should be based on learning and centered on students and outcomes. While accreditors do examine these issues as a core part of their reviews, they also discuss the results and make accreditation decisions behind closed doors without full transparency for students and other stakeholders. More troubling, the federal government’s interest in accreditation has gradually become almost completely conflated with compliance, meaning that any findings around outcomes and student improvement are often an afterthought.

2) Create a pathway to recognition for innovators.

Sweeping technological and methodological changes have dramatically altered the world of learning and work, but our system of quality assurance has struggled to keep pace. Despite the maturing use of online and competency-based learning and growing acceptance of the variety of credentials that serve more than one in four Americans, the current quality assurance system fails to offer even the most successful innovators a pathway to the same funding and recognition that well-established providers can access.

Quality assurance needs to reflect the changing student population and how they experience higher learning by embracing the flexible and responsive approaches providers are using to serve today’s students. As the universe of new postsecondary education models—some of which have shown to be more responsive to the needs of today’s students—continues to expand, quality assurance reform needs to allow for these new actors and innovative assessment models to prove themselves on an equal playing field to traditional counterparts.

Experimentation in this area is beginning through the Department of Education’s Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP) program and voluntary standards created by employer groups and new players like the QA Commons and Entangled Solutions. It’s crucial that these third-party quality assurance checks are firmly grounded in student outcomes and nimble enough to work with all types of providers.

3) Support citizen-driven quality assurance: get students and consumers better data.

Assessing quality absolutely must start with a more sophisticated approach to using data on student outcomes to increase transparency. There is no more direct form of quality assurance than a prospective student learning about the outcomes they can expect from a program and wisely opting for another that better suits their career goals and financial circumstances.

But despite the paramount importance of using empirical student outcomes as the yardstick of institutional success, our quality assurance system still operates in a data-deprived environment. Existing databases and reports are incomplete, reporting methods antiquated and consumer tools inadequate—that needs to change.

Knowledge is power. Done well, stronger data systems can equip students and citizens with a powerful quality check of their own: when the public has higher-quality information on the ROI each college or program has to offer, they can make smarter choices about where to invest limited resources. Likewise, when important student outcomes are measured, institutions are in turn properly motivated to improve and adapt programming to better serve students.

While each of these approaches is important, documenting the problem isn’t enough. To create a higher learning system that offers all Americans a chance at economic success and upward mobility, we need a more transparent, agile and responsive system of quality assurance that serves all of today’s students and providers.

Read more in the Higher Learning Advocates policy framework.