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The Executive Officer’s Column

An “Accountability Squeeze” on Higher Education

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer In September 2006, U.S. Department of Education (DoE) Secretary Margaret Spellings unveiled an ambitious plan—perhaps “campaign” better captures its complexity—to implement the recommendations of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The Commission’s much-anticipated report—and ensuing year of debate and research— was intended to present to the higher-education leadership, policymakers, and the public suggestions to help improve American public higher education. The multifaceted plan has been both controversial and provocative, and sociology education has a serious stake in its fate. Conflict arises as educational institutions are driven increasingly by market forces, as well as state and federal regulations, while stakeholders try to maintain core academic missions and values.

Public drafts of the report, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education(see www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports/pre-pub-report.pdf), have fomented much discussion about higher education’s role and efficacy. With but one dissenting vote, the Commission’s members voted last August to approve the report, one of several recent assessments that constitute a mounting “accountability squeeze.” By now, it is the rare faculty member or administrator who is unaware of the report’s primary emphases on affordability, student access to higher education, and assessment of student learning. But it is important that sociologists in higher education educate themselves about the details and implications.

Five-Step ProgramThe Commission proposes a combination of federal laws, regulations, and financial incentives for various higher education stakeholders to implement the recommendations. Last fall, Spellings specified her plans for five immediate steps:

  • Expand the No Child Left Behind Act to secondary schools, thus providing a measure on how many high school students graduate unprepared for college-level work.
  • Streamline the process by which students apply for financial aid to help families. This will necessarily entail congressional legislation.
  • Develop a national higher education “unit records” information system that protects student privacy while permitting an assessment of student learning. Despite DoE assurances, many fear, among other things, the privacy-violating potential of this system.
  • Provide matching funds to colleges, universities, and states that collect and publicly disseminate measures that describe their students’ learning.
  • Convene accreditation organizations, higher education leaders, and other types of policymakers in the fall of 2007 to move the country’s college accreditation system toward measures of student achievement.

High Stakes

DoE leadership considers the accreditation process—a self-regulatory process consisting of private- and public-sector players—as a strategic entryway into higher education through which the federal government can achieve many of the recommendations. Accrediting organizations oversee quality control at the majority of U.S. colleges and universities, but DoE, through its NACIQI (the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity), oversees accreditors. Furthermore, DoE has undisputed leverage over receipt of federal financial aid by students at higher education institutions.

Many assert that DoE has fueled a “false crisis.” The stakes have increased, however, for scholars/educators concerned with the integrity and independence of higher education. For example, the DoE wants to establish a standardized set of federally monitored student learning outcomes that would be applicable to all institutions. The DoE also wants a flexible transfer of credit requirement. If DoE is successful, higher education will move quickly toward a federal system of accreditation, significantly altering current relationships among accrediting organizations, educational institutions, and the DoE. Sociological research strongly suggests that it will be less financially viable smaller colleges and two-year colleges—where the majority of students from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds and many students of color begin their higher education careers—that would be most vulnerable to losing accreditation as a federalized system begins to require expensive curriculum reforms and more extensive student assessment focused on quantitative measurement of educational outcomes.

DoE did respond to educational community concerns about the highly controversial Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and regulations proposed for monitoring student learning. ASA members need to be attentive to and offer comment on future regulatory proposals and to work collectively at their home institutions and professional associations to present elected federal officials with their concerns.

Other Opportunities to Influence

At the March 2007 DoE summit of national-level participants, a range of matters surfaced related to the affordability-access-accountability triad that now inextricably identifies the Commission. DoE is hosting a series of June summit meetings to gather information—in roundtable format—from local- and regional-area educational institutions. The summits are in Kansas City (June 5), Seattle (June 7), Phoenix (June 12), Boston (June 14), and Atlanta (June 19). Vickie Schray, DoE Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary, seeks informed individuals in higher education to discuss student success indicators in all fields, including sociology, and how such indicators could be integrated into accountability systems. In addition, the DoE plans to meet this summer with representatives of disciplinary societies, including ASA, to discuss how student success indicators can be made comprehensive and visible. ASA members interested in contributing to this issue of national student outcome indicators in higher education should contact the ASA Public Affairs Office (Lee Herring at herring@asanet.org).

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer