The Accountability Dilemma

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

As I’ve often reported and discussed, the age of accountability has dawned in higher education. For literally centuries, higher education has been a self-audited society that has decided if it is good and accountable. But those days are gone. Stemming in part from the pressures from K-12’s No Child Left Behind legislation and part from the pressure from former commissions and blue ribbon panels on college costs, the public is more interested in ascertaining the “quality” of higher education than at any other time in our history. Why? In part, because we have so much information at our fingertips, because so much is measured, rated, and ranked, we expect to know what’s going on in higher education. We get it in elementary and secondary education (to a point), we get it in business and industry, and we also see it in government to a certain degree. Why not in higher education? Well, the train has left the station.

On Tuesday, The American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing, Washington, DC think tank, held a forum on accountability in higher education (see As InsideHigherEd.com for a report). As reported, the conversations and focus were all over the place, but a few themes emerged from the conversation. The most notable is that more information would provide additional accountability by the public over higher education. Peter Ewell of NCHEMS noted that better data and data systems would be primary to holding institutions accountable. And George Miller, the former chairman of the Spellings Commission on Higher Education, also pushed the idea of more rankings for more information. Overall, I think they are largely right. More information can help us discern higher education quality. However, that will only occur if (a) data are of high quality and (b) people know what to look for. We all know former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s statement about data: “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It depends what data are available and what the wizard is willing to show. In this case, statistics and research methods serve as the Wizard’s Curtain.

So we get mired in the issues of what data for what reason. Most people agree with the accountability, but argue over the methods. Recently, in another EPI commentary, I called for a national organization to become the point center for accountability and quality in the US, and perhaps similarly in Canada. Interestingly, this was brought up at AEI as an important conduit for accountability. So I know something…

Not all, however, would agree. Judith Eaton, the President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), wants accountability and quality to remain in the purview of the accreditation organizations around the nation. Of course, one would have to ask why there exist seven separate accreditation organizations, each with different rules and processes on accreditation, to determine the quality of higher education in the United States. I could certainly justify seven “regions” to conduct this work, but I’ve never understand for separate organizations. Just doesn’t make sense.

Together, the data and the accreditation issue are significant barriers to increasing accountability and quality in higher education. Why? Too many moving parts. Too many separate rules and regulations. Ms. Eaton argued that too much federal regulation would act as a burden on colleges. If the regulation is poorly crafted, then she is right. But if properly crafted, then she is wrong. Otherwise, there would be an argument against any federal regulation in any field. Leave everything up the states. We don’t, obviously, because we understand that such issues as national security is truly a national issue and should be governed at the federal level with support and guidance at the state level. I argue that higher education is equally important to national security, economy, and governance. There should be a national or federal body that provides oversight into many, if not all, aspects of American higher education. Anything else and we’re just playing with the rules; we just change the color of the Wizard’s cloaking device.

I’m just saying…

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