THE BLOG
01/08/2015 11:31 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

Failure to Launch: The Federal Plan for Higher Education Accountability

Cathy Yeulet via Getty Images

Robert C. Pianta co-authored this post with Arthur Garson, Jr., MD, MPH, director, Health Policy Institute, Texas Medical Center, former executive vice president and provost, University of Virginia

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education finally released a framework for its college ratings system, its effort to hold higher education institutions accountable for outcomes -- graduation rates, employment opportunities, maybe graduates' personal income. We are educators, higher education administrators, and parents. We see firsthand the potential of higher education as a uniquely valuable experience to promote learning and development. We are also advocates for outcome-based accountability. But if this federal move into higher education accountability works as well as No Child Left Behind did in K-12, then learning opportunities for 18-22 year olds will be ground down into recitation and regurgitation and employers will still complain graduates are not prepared for work.

We are well aware of the critiques of higher education, and with the cost of college rising faster than health care, it should come as no surprise parents and taxpayers feel they are not getting their money's worth. However, we worry that reducing the value of four years' of learning to employment and income is a big mistake.

Parents send their kids to college for a degree that translates into a job, and also for exposure to experiences that help them grow up and mature. But when most employers' concerns about college grads are whether they show up on time, solve problems, get along with other people on a team, and persist on tough tasks, then maybe the government should have an interest in how college contributes to those outcomes too. In fact, we think setting the bar (too low) at graduation rates and employment is likely to drive colleges to produce only those outputs. While laudable, in the long run this effort may erode higher education's efforts to produce other meaningful outcomes that businesses and communities say they need.

The college years are formative for shaping adolescents' development of characteristics we associate with a "mature" individual. Colleges should indeed be held accountable for their contributions to outcomes to four specific facets of maturity: 1) Intellectual mastery of a broad body of knowledge that facilitates engagement as a citizen; 2). Deeper understanding of specific subjects and skills as groundwork for further study and professional roles; 3) Competence to work in groups, organize projects and see them through to completion; and 4) Skills related to communication, self-reflection, honesty, leadership, conflict resolution, and altruism.

These four domains should drive the design, delivery, and evaluation of a variety of educational experiences in the college years, each with unique objectives.

Every college graduate can master a certain body of knowledge appropriate to the learner, the institution, and society's expectations for its citizens. A starting place is the set of introductory courses that span various disciplinary domains and that many universities require -- increased accountability would force discussions of why they are required or the outcomes they are intended to produce. It is not easy to profile an "educated citizen" and design a curriculum to achieve that goal, but defining the basics is a good place to start testing hypotheses.

Once these areas of basic knowledge are defined, we propose delivery using the most effective and efficient means of online learning. Content can be leveled for depth and difficulty in a given knowledge domain. Content could be bundled into modules and courses taught by the best instructors, tested for their impacts on knowledge and distributed. Universities may choose to produce their own courses or buy from others. This basic curriculum should be provided by the very best teachers, and could even be offered to students in high school.

A college education must also provide students with opportunities to deepen and apply learning in one or more areas leading to a capstone learning experience -- an in-depth project that provides new, useful knowledge or innovation, or that develops a set of skills relevant to a specific profession. These "deep-dive" experiences would be taught in-person and graded for both mastery of the material and skills such as leadership and communication. These deeper, more focused learning experiences lay the groundwork for further study or professional preparation.

Students should also immerse themselves in social and service activities available at college and institutional advising systems should be redesigned to more intentionally help students select and monitor the impact of these experiences relative to personal and career goals. These co-curricular opportunities are one basis for a residential college experience and could be a core argument for the value of higher education, but most learning in this realm is ad hoc and colleges do little to intentionally plan or evaluate their contributions.

We have little doubt that colleges and universities must be far more purposeful in identifying their contributions to student outcomes; our worry is that by focusing on the low hanging, easy-to-measure outcomes such as graduation and employment, a federal system of accountability will fall woefully short of gauging the impact of higher education on key domains of student learning. To be sure, universities have to develop appreciation for and capacity to generate evidence for their claims and value. Such efforts to develop evidence for impact should be a central aim of the faculty as educators, not as a response to accreditors or Federal regulation.

Employers and professions count on higher education for workforce development; institutions that train graduates for jobs will no doubt have an edge in the years to come. By defining and producing a broader set of aspirations for 18-22 year olds, we in higher education become accountable to students, parents, and society in a much more complete way.