Quality assurance in US higher education: one size does not fit all

Martin Kurzweil and Wendell Pritchett cast their eye over the possible future direction of quality assurance under Trump

June 10, 2017
The Quality Assurance Agency reviews UK higher education institutions

Americans want their higher education system to do more to help students fully realise their talents and develop the skills that will lead to lifelong success. We believe that the higher education regulatory system can be improved to help achieve these goals.

While president Donald Trump and secretary of education Betsy DeVos seem poised to reverse the Obama administration’s aggressive monitoring and enforcement of outcome standards at for-profit colleges, several proposals bubbling up in Congress would apply a similar set of standards to all colleges.

For example, a bill authored by senators Elizabeth Warren, Richard Durbin, and Brian Schatz would require the accrediting agencies that act as gatekeepers for federal financial aid dollars to evaluate colleges and universities on student outcomes such as graduation rates, student earnings and loan repayment rates. Senators Marco Rubio and Michael Bennet, concerned that the burdensome accreditation process not only fails to address poor-performing providers but also stifles innovation by existing and new providers, would bypass accrediting agencies and allow the federal Department of Education to contract directly with higher education providers.

Access to financial aid dollars would be contingent on meeting targets for student outcomes. And Warren has joined with a bipartisan group including senators Orrin Hatch, Bill Cassidy, and Sheldon Whitehouse to support repeal of a ban on the creation of a federal, student-level database, a move that would make both outcome-focused proposals more feasible. We strongly support these shifts, making student outcomes both a higher priority and easier to track. But linking financial aid dollars to meeting minimum outcome standards will not motivate the improvements in higher education quality that our nation needs.

Earlier this year, we convened a group of experts and stakeholders from across the higher education spectrum to consider the future of quality assurance. We are publishing a set of recommendations informed by that discussion and our research on quality assurance in the US and abroad, in higher education and other industries.

What we found is that the most effective systems are designed not merely to identify and remove the worst-performing providers; they also motivate and facilitate a process through which all providers continuously improve the quality of their offerings.   

Reorienting our higher education system to this goal would require several important changes to the way the federal government and accreditation agencies monitor and enforce standards of quality for access to federal aid dollars. Our recommendations include:

  • Eliminating requirements for accreditors to monitor colleges’ compliance with specific administrative regulations unassociated with educational quality and financial stability  
  • More frequent accreditor review (the current norm is every 10 years), focused on a set of peer-benchmarked student outcome measures and the planning, implementation, and effectiveness of colleges’ core educational processes
  • Allowing accreditors to assign a range of determinations and aligned consequences based on their review, and publicly reporting those determinations with supporting evidence.

The combination of flexibility and rigor reflected in our recommendations will create opportunities for innovative educational models and new providers, while also enhancing monitoring. A range of determinations, beyond approved/not approved, will provide more valuable consumer information, better formative feedback and allow tailored consequences. Conducting more frequent and focused reviews will mean that colleges have greater motivation to take feedback seriously, while also reducing the burden of each review. Greater frequency will also make it easier for reviewers to take action to address problems as they arise and before they accumulate.

This approach would ensure that the worst performers are denied financial aid eligibility. More importantly, it will engage all colleges in a cycle of self-examination and refinement of educational processes, iteratively improving student outcomes.

Improving students’ postsecondary outcomes, and ensuring that higher education is and remains relevant to 21st-century demands, are matters of urgent importance for students and their families, for colleges, and for our economy and society writ large. Yet one size does not fit all.

Enforcing programme designs and practices that fit a particular image of what postsecondary education should look like, as our current system often does, will not meet these priorities. Neither will an approach that merely polices the worst providers. What we need is a system that motivates, informs and supports all colleges to test new ideas, challenge and refine existing practices and learn how to educate their students better.  

Martin Kurzweil is director of the educational transformation programme at Ithaka S+R. Wendell Pritchett is presidential professor of law and education at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and will becomes provost of the university in July. They are authors of Quality Assurance in U.S. Higher Education The Current Landscape and Principles for Reform, published this week. 

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