How to Assure Quality in Higher Education?
Focus on Innovation, Minimum Standards, and Continuous Improvement
The U.S. quality assurance system—focused mainly on accreditation as a threshold for federal financial aid eligibility—has done a poor job of assuring quality. Barely 60 percent of first-time students complete a bachelor’s degree and 40 percent complete an associate’s degree at the institution where they started. These overall results mask a wide range of outcomes across institutions. As a result, many students, parents, and policymakers question the value of their massive investment in postsecondary education.
Can the accreditation process be improved? Or do we need a fundamentally different system? Our new Ithaka S+R report argues that with some modest but important changes, the existing system can be repurposed to better monitor, reinforce, and communicate the quality of higher education offerings.
In “Quality Assurance in U.S. Higher Education: The Current Landscape and Principles for Reform,” former Ithaka S+R analyst Jessie Brown, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wendell Pritchett, and I outline a set of reforms to the quality assurance system focused on three critical goals: reducing input-focused regulations that inhibit innovative providers and models, removing eligibility from providers that fail to meet minimum standards for student outcomes and financial viability, and promoting continuous improvement by all providers.
The recommendations in the report are grounded in a “management-based” theory of regulation, which emphasizes organizational learning through a facilitated planning process and the use of outcome data for formative and accountability purposes. To formulate the recommendations, we reviewed more than a dozen examples of management-based regulation in other industries, in the US and abroad. This report also benefitted greatly from discussion of a draft at a convening of experts and stakeholders co-hosted by Ithaka S+R and the Penn Program on Regulation in February, with support from the Spencer Foundation.
We believe there are a number of ways in which the quality assurance system could be improved to better support educational innovation and student learning outcomes. How might our recommendations work in your environment? We welcome your perspective and invite you to comment below.