Chronicle of Higher Education
Pondering Higher-Education Accountability
July 2, 2009, 5:59 pm
By Kevin Carey
Let’s say you’re a governor or a legislator or a member of Congress or you run a large charitable foundation or you’re just generally interested in American higher education, and you have some kind of agenda or goal you want to pursue. Maybe you’re concerned about access for low-income students. Maybe you want graduation rates to be higher. Maybe you wish more people were getting degrees in math and science. Or something else entirely. Whatever it is, you wish things were different, that colleges and universities would collectively be more focused and diligent and effective at ...view middle of the document...
What’s left? In the end, incentives and not much else. If you want colleges to be different, make them want to be different. Higher education institutions are generally run by smart, accomplished people who wake up every morning with a lot on their plate. What’s the most important thing for them? What will they move heaven and earth to do? Make that thing your thing. Change incentives, and the world will follow.
That brings us to accountability. It’s an elastic word that means very different things to different people. As such, I think accountability is best defined broadly, as any process that (A) gathers information about success, and (B) uses that information in a way that will plausibly lead to more success. By that definition, formal No Child Left Behind-style regulatory schemes qualify as accountability, but so do college rankings, budgeting policies that tie funding to performance measures, or simply making information more transparent and accessible to consumers and the public at large.
There’s been a lot of talk about higher education accountability in Washington over the last few years. But for the foreseeable future, state governments will continue to provide the vast majority of direct public support...