Ensuring Academic Quality in Higher Ed

As higher education costs continue to rise and our national student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion, there is increasing concern over quality. The cost of a college degree has increased 1,120 percent since 1978, far outpacing price inflation for food or even health care, so we have to ask: Are we getting our money's worth?

What determines quality in higher education? How can we measure it? Who is ultimately responsible for ensuring it?

The federal government is taking an increasingly active role in regulating and assessing colleges and universities, largely due to its huge investment in financial aid. In the past, the government relied on accrediting commissions to certify quality and eligibility for financial aid, but the relationship between the government and accreditors has frayed. The government appears to be losing confidence in accreditors and is trying to ensure quality by imposing more regulations, such as a stricter definition of the credit hour and gainful employment regulations.

State governments have always played a consumer protection role in the regulation of higher education, focusing mainly on the solvency of schools in their jurisdiction, but today, they are also taking a larger role in the effort to ensure quality. Federal regulations now require states to be proactive in this area, and the states are incurring additional expenses as they duplicate the roles of accrediting commissions. State approvals require hundreds of pages of documents as well as site visits, and these expenses are passed on to the colleges and universities. State approval requirements are even more problematic for both public and private institutions that operate online across state lines, because every state has its own requirements.

These changes at both the federal and state level are dramatically increasing costs without adding to our ability to assess academic quality in a meaningful way.

One of the reasons accreditors have lost the confidence of federal and state governments is because they focus on inputs rather than outcomes. They evaluate criteria like curriculum, faculty, facilities, and the time students spend on studies rather than considering what students actually learn. Yet federal and state efforts to ensure quality are also focusing on inputs rather than learning quality.

When will we really focus on measuring what students are learning? Finding meaningful ways to measure student learning is a significant challenge. A standard test or testing system to assess the quality of all institutions won't work -- what universities and colleges teach is too diverse. The only answer lies with the colleges and universities. They must be responsible and accountable to define outcomes, measure them, and report them. When they use internal measures, they need to be prepared to defend their reliability and validity, and those internal measures should be used along with external measures like licensing exams, programs like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA, and employer feedback and ratings.

Using accrediting commissions is still the best way to ensure quality in U.S. higher education, and we should rely on these commissions to audit and validate institutions' learning outcomes. Instead of continuing to duplicate efforts and increase cost with no positive impact on quality assurance, we need to improve the effectiveness of these commissions. For this to happen, several key changes are needed:

• Colleges and universities must be responsible for measuring, validating, and reporting learning outcomes.

• Accreditors should be responsible to audit and validate these learning outcomes.

• Commissions and site visit teams should be expanded to include a more diverse membership, including state regulators and representatives from employers.

• Federal and state governments should hold accreditors accountable and accept accreditation as evidence of quality rather than trying to duplicate the process.

Regional accreditation has long been the gold standard in higher education. Let's do what it takes to re-instill government confidence in these commissions. When we do, we'll improve our ability to evaluate academic quality and eliminate unnecessary regulatory expenses for both the government and U.S. colleges and universities.