Quality Assurance in US Higher Education

The American higher education sector is diverse and creative. In 2014-15, the sector produced over 1 million associate’s degrees, nearly 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees, over 758,000 master’s degrees, and over 178,000 doctoral degrees. The world leader in innovation for decades, the sector continues to produce cutting edge research and contributes mightily to the American economy. Recent estimates concluded that the United States spends a larger percentage of GDP on higher education than any other country.

But while the sector continues to be vital to the U.S., over the last decade it has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism. Among the many statistics that capture the challenges facing higher education in the U.S., a few stand out: the one trillion dollars in student debt that students have accumulated and fact that, among first-time, full-time students, only 60 percent complete bachelor’s degrees and less than 40 percent complete associate’s degrees at the institution where they started. A third revelatory figure is the nearly $160 billion in federal higher education investment in 2015-16.

Fifteen years ago the question of higher education quality assurance was one only a small number of insiders concerned themselves with, but today it is a major topic of national media and political campaigns.

The massive public and private investment the country is making in higher education, combined with increasing concerns about the success of the sector in promoting positive outcomes for students, have raised the issue of quality assurance to one of prominence. This has led to an intensifying debate among government officials and policymakers about the best ways to regulate the sector to increase its productivity. Fifteen years ago the question of higher education quality assurance was one only a small number of insiders concerned themselves with, but today it is a major topic of national media and political campaigns.

The purpose of this landscape paper is to organize some of the current debates about higher education quality assurance and to present a possible path forward to enable higher education leaders, policy makers, and the twenty-plus million current students to achieve their common goal of improving the success of the sector.

We elaborate and advocate a “management-based” approach to higher education quality assurance. In a management-based approach, institutions document their own outcome goals and plans for achieving them, subject to ongoing third-party monitoring of progress toward goals and the quality and implementation of plans and processes, as well as achievement of standard, minimum performance thresholds. All evaluation is contextualized and benchmarked against the experience of peer organizations. When implemented effectively, such a management-based approach weeds out the poorest performers, while motivating and facilitating other institutions to reexamine and improve their processes and results continuously.

We draw examples from management-based quality assurance systems in other sectors and countries to illustrate features like the combined assessment of standardized outcomes and program-defined outcomes; monitoring of targeted quality improvement plans; frequent interaction between regulators and providers; and differentiated reviews, consequences, and ratings. Applying a management-based approach to U.S. higher education quality assurance, we identify several high-level design principles to strengthen the current system:

  • Initial approval and a probationary period should focus on provider track record, program coherence and value proposition, student outcome goals and a plan for achieving them, and exit strategy in the event of failure. This is similar to the current system, though a management-based approach would encourage more opportunities, even if on an experimental basis, for different models to be given a chance.
  • A more significant departure from the current system is the principle that there should be standard and program-defined measures for both organizational efficacy and student outcomes. Both should be peer-benchmarked with greater coordination around measuring student learning.
  • Also unlike the current system, we recommend annual review of a small set of student outcome and financial stability measures that are standard for a peer set of programs and appropriately account for conditions of operation.
  • In addition, programs should be assessed every three years on evidence-based, provider-defined goals for planning, implementation, and effectiveness of core educational processes, with a focus on processes identified as areas for improvement in prior years.
  • Results of reviews should be differentiated, not binary, and conclusions and the evidence supporting them should be reported publicly, in an accessible format, by the reviewer.
  • Finally, we recommend an escalating series of supports and consequences based on institutional performance. High-performing institutions should receive designations of excellence or extended periods between reviews. Institutions that fail to meet benchmarks, implement improvement plans, or repeatedly fail to achieve improvement should receive tailored supports for organizational learning, and may be subject to more-frequent or -detailed review, externally imposed goals, loss of funds, or loss of accreditation for some or all programs.

Many of these are subtle variations on the existing system, in some cases consistent with reforms already being piloted by accreditors; some are more significant departures. In general, our view is that the basic infrastructure of our current system of accreditation is consistent with a management-based approach. Mainly what is needed are some changes to the focus, standards, and timing of review, and to consequences and reporting, as well as a more streamlined initial approval process. Notwithstanding their apparent modesty, the changes we suggest have the potential to open the door wider to innovative providers, while doing a better job than the current system of ensuring minimum standards and promoting ongoing improvement in quality.

Importantly, these design principles . . . are grounded in a theory of change that views institutional learning as the primary mechanism for sustained improvement.

Importantly, these design principles—and our broader focus on management-based quality assurance—are grounded in a theory of change that views institutional learning as the primary mechanism for sustained improvement. The goal of the process is not merely to ensure that minimum standards are met, or to enforce program designs and practices that fit a particular image of what postsecondary education should look like. Rather, it is to reinforce an institution’s own examination of its practices and their effects on outcomes of social value, in a cycle of continuous improvement.

The paper proceeds as follows. We begin with an overview of the accreditation system and other quality assurance mechanisms for higher education in the United States, including their history, processes, and shortcomings. We review how some recent efforts to improve quality assurance that emphasize performance-based assessment have sought to overcome some of these shortcomings, but, ultimately, poorly accommodate institutional diversity and do little to support improvement. We then introduce management-based regulation and offer a number of examples from the U.S. and International approaches to quality assurance , in higher education and other fields. Drawing on these examples, we conclude by elaborating on our broad design principles for reforming the higher education quality assurance system in the U.S to make it more rigorous, consistent, and supportive of innovation and improvement.


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