Why Higher Education Needs a Quality Assurance Revolution

This year, U.S. student debt hit $1.5 trillion. Through federal student loans and grants, taxpayers underwrite the nation’s investment in higher education to the tune of $150 billion annually. But just one in three college students are confident they will graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a workplace, and a growing number of Americans don’t believe that a degree will lead them to a good job or higher lifetime earnings. Amid higher costs and, perhaps, diminishing returns, growing skepticism among students, employers, and the public should give reason for concern, but not surprise.

It’s never been more important that students and the public are assured that higher education–in its many forms–is of high-quality and high-value. However, the system by which the federal government and higher education assures the quality of postsecondary education was not designed to keep pace with rapid changes now taking place in our nation’s labor market and the shifting demographics of today’s students.

It is a system that was well-intentioned enough in design: the federal government would oversee institutional finances and colleges’ ability to operate student aid, accreditors would serve as a check on educational quality, and states would ensure that institutions were not misleading or defrauding students. Often referred to as the triad, this three-pronged system does work well with a limited and static set of players.

But, over time, the system has been modified without a coherent or long-term vision, and a variety of flaws have emerged as a result. Instead of a cohesive quality assurance system operating in the public interest, today’s system relies on a loose confederation of government and non-governmental agencies collectively responsible for validating the educational and operational quality of institutions. The result is an overlapping and ineffective system that is burdensome to institutions, opaque to students, and incapable of delivering the answers students,  policymakers, and the public expect about higher education quality.

Quality assurance reform, and specifically accreditation policy reform, need not result in an elimination of the system’s tenets. Rather, it is in need of a redesign rooted in three fundamental priorities: First, the nation needs a clear goal or definition on which to judge quality. Second, stakeholders within the system should have clear roles that connect, but do not overlap, with the one another. Finally, this system needs to produce results that students, families, taxpayers, and policymakers can trust.

An ideal quality assurance system for higher education would allow stakeholders — most notably today’s students — to easily decipher and understand measures of quality to inform their postsecondary choices and their program of study selection. This system would evolve with new models of postsecondary learning, and give students access to the information they need to understand the relevance of their degree to their future endeavors.

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.

Being Clear on Quality

Much of the federal government’s involvement in higher education has long focused on two tenets: access and affordability. Quality has had its role, but questions of student outcomes and value to taxpayers have not been as central to the debate. That’s beginning to change, however, with value and quality more frequently appearing in hearings, proposed legislation, and other federal policy conversations.

As policymakers and other stakeholders look to reform the system of quality assurance, there must be a clear understanding of the parameters of the quality debate. While sometimes a hazy concept, quality — especially in the federal context — can be clarified through a stronger focus on students and their outcomes. Instead of focusing on inputs, postsecondary quality assurance should measure success in terms of completion, employment, equity, and value.

Focusing On Outcomes, Not Compliance

Modern accrediting agencies are an outgrowth of an academic peer review consortia that was first organized in the late 19th century. At its inception, this consortia was never intended to serve as gatekeepers to billions of dollars in federal funds. But that is exactly the role they serve today. When Congress passed the Higher Education Act of 1965, it expanded the role of accreditors and entrusted them with ensuring the academic quality of any educational institution that received federal student aid funds and were therefore subject to federal oversight.

As the federal government’s interest in accreditation has gradually become more and more conflated with compliance, so too has the focus of accreditors, meaning that any findings around outcomes and student improvement are often an afterthought. Federal policies ask quality assurers to focus excessively on monotonous check-lists, rather than meaningfully assessing the quality and pace of student learning.

Instead, accreditation, and related federal policies, should be focused on learning, and centered on students and outcomes. While accreditors do examine these issues to some degree as a core part of their reviews, they also discuss the results of those reviews and make accreditation decisions behind closed doors — and without full transparency for students and other stakeholders. Accrediting agencies should strive for greater transparency, with a focus on what institutions are doing to improve academic quality and student performance.

Recognizing 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. More than one quarter of U.S. students — 6.3 million, in all — now take at least one course online. And innovations like digital badging, coding bootcamps, and competency-based education offer even more ways for people to learn and demonstrate their skills.

Unfortunately, the current quality assurance system does not have a mechanism to offer even the most successful innovators a pathway to the funding and recognition that historically well-established providers can access.

Quality assurance needs to reflect the changing student population and their higher learning experiences by embracing the flexible and responsive approaches many providers are using to serve today’s students. As the universe of new postsecondary education models continues to expand, quality assurance reform needs to allow for these new players and innovative assessment models to prove themselves while implementing mechanisms to adequately measure educational quality and student outcomes.

There is some experimentation in this area through the Department of Education’s Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP) program and through voluntary standards created by employer groups and new players like the QA Commons and Entangled Solutions. While it is too soon to glean any full lessons from these experiments, it is crucial that these third-party quality assurance checks are firmly grounded in student outcomes and that they nimble enough to work with all types of providers.

Valuing Students

Assessing quality — and increasing transparency — must begin with a more sophisticated approach to using data on student outcomes.  When done well, strong data systems can equip students and citizens with a powerful quality check of their own: when the public has strong information on the return of investment that each college or program has to offer, they can make smarter choices about where to invest their limited resources. Likewise, when important student outcomes are measured, institutions are in turn properly motivated to improve and adapt programming to better serve students.

Having the ability to make informed decisions could have a lasting impact on how the quality of higher education is viewed by the public. Research has found that when students feel their coursework and college experiences are relevant to their careers, they are far more likely to think their education was of high quality and worth the cost. Currently, however, just one quarter of U.S. adults with college experience say they strongly agree that their college coursework was relevant to their work and daily life. Imagine a world in which a prospective student learns about the outcomes they can expect from an institution or program and then chooses to enroll in another that better suits their career goals and financial circumstances.

Using empirical student outcomes as the yardstick of institutional success is of paramount importance to a strong quality assurance system. Yet, our system still operates in a data-deprived environment. Existing databases and reports are incomplete, reporting methods are antiquated, and consumer tools are inadequate. That desperately needs to change.

In some ways, college leaders acknowledge this. In 2014, three-quarters of presidents surveyed by Inside Higher Ed said their colleges should “publish information on institution-level loan debt and job placement rates, program-level job placement rates for graduates, graduate school placement rates, and ways that students are living meaningful lives.”

While each of the approaches are 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 institutions.