As frustration with higher education grows, states have to step up
By Debra Humphreys
For years, opinion polls have suggested a declining confidence among the general public about higher education. One recent poll found that fewer than half of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education — a 9 percentage point drop since 2015. Behind these polling numbers, of course, lie a number of different concerns.
Fueled now by the admissions scandal, this skepticism continues to rise. Americans increasingly wonder whether the higher education system is really fair. They get that credentials beyond high school seem now to be required as the only ticket to opportunity. They ask the question: Are these credentials really worth students’ time and money, or is this new requirement just part of a rigged economy?
It’s clear that, on average, college-level credentials pay off. As Pete McPherson, president of the National Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, recently put it in a powerful Medium post, “A college education is more important than ever….[S]ince 2008, 96 percent of all new jobs have gone to individuals with at least some college education.”
Americans understand that the changing economy demands more of them and of our institutions of higher education. They’re less sure about what exactly is being required by this new economy and these new jobs. I believe that people are right to ask tough questions about the quality of degrees and other credentials — especially given the time and money it takes to pursue these credentials.
They’re also right to ask whether we are doing enough to assure that those who pursue degrees and other credentials are having quality learning experiences. Quality programs that lead to credentials of value support students and propel their success, positioning them for the greater economic opportunity, social mobility, and meaningful lives they seek.
These questions are what drove Lumina Foundation to push for a more integrated and effective system of quality assurance.
The good news is that our work builds on the efforts of many who are trying to improve the quality of degree programs and to change the systems and policies that assure quality. However, much more work can be done to assure quality, particularly at the state level.
In a recent article in Forbes, Alison Griffin notes: “States play an often forgotten — but increasingly critical role in ensuring quality for millions of students and accountability for thousands of institutions across the nation. State economies are the ones that benefit most directly from improved higher education outcomes. And it may be states that have the greatest potential to craft a definition of higher education quality centered more on student outcomes than inputs.”
She also points out that “states are closest to businesses and employers. They hear first-hand which skills are needed most and are well equipped to close gaps in training and workforce development.”
It is for these reasons that Lumina recently supported the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) organization and the National Association of System Heads (NASH) to conduct research on the state role in assuring quality in postsecondary education. These organizations have just released a report of their findings.
The report notes that, while most state leaders say quality is an essential priority, there is little consensus on exactly how to define it — and some state agencies lack even a conceptual or operational definition of quality on which to build sensible policies.
Despite this, states are indeed collecting data and tracking results related to the quality of public systems of higher education. SHEEO and NASH report that nearly all states track graduation and retention rates at their public institutions of higher education. Many, but not all, also examine other important issues such as students’ debt upon graduation and levels of employment for graduates.
For broader issues of quality assurance, however, the authors point out that many “state agency interviewees…defaulted to accreditors when it came to quality assessment, feeling that the state ought not to involve itself directly in matters of academic quality.” On the other hand, others report that “accreditation served as a minimum threshold for quality, and they believed states and institutions have a responsibility to assure quality above and beyond accreditation.”
States are clearly working to define their role in assuring quality and determine how that role fits with those of other actors such as accrediting organizations and the federal government. Still, a few issues of concern seem to be shared across states. Authors of the study note that “there appear[s] to be a growing recognition that equity concerns, including achievement gaps, are quality concerns.”
The report quotes one expert whose view on this issue is unequivocal: “Quality assurance and the furtherance of equity are interdependent. Authentic quality assurance must promote equity.”
This recognition seems to me to be the report’s central finding. To blunt public skepticism about the value of higher education, we must address concerns about equity and about post-graduation employment outcomes. Recognizing and addressing inequities in access to high-quality credentials is essential if we are to regain the public’s trust.
We simply must improve our collection and tracking of relevant data about the quality of students’ experience in higher education institutions and the relationship between what they are learning and their post-graduation outcomes. There is no other way to make good on the promise of opportunity that we make to students as they pursue learning beyond high school.
The SHEEO/NASH study — in addition to mapping the current landscape of state attitudes and actions on quality — presents some recommendations for further action.
The authors suggest, among other things, that:
- States and state systems “make program review and state authorization meaningful quality assurance processes.” They suggest that state leaders see these required roles as more than mere “bureaucratic processes…and even rubber stamps.” Instead, they recommend that states and state systems require “institutions to submit assessable learning outcomes, descriptions of how they will meet those outcomes in meaningful ways, plans for faculty development.” They can also engage “in follow-up reviews of authorized institutions and approved programs, and [can] require evidence of institutions’ or programs’ success in accomplishing the approved student learning outcomes.”
- States do much more to “treat equity as a quality consideration.” They suggest that we must better understand “gaps in student resources and opportunities” and measure the “ability of institutions to improve higher education access and outcomes for underserved students.”
- States “invest in data, tools, and people.” They can and should build the capacity of state agencies and system officers to “collect appropriate data, implement the appropriate assessments…and design and implement the appropriate policies and practices.”
Leaders across the country can and should use this report and its recommendations as a starting point for dialogue and action.
This work is urgent not only because of declining public confidence, but because we must fulfill our broad commitment to the public good — a commitment to students and to our shared future.