Phi Beta Cons

My Doubts about Accountability

On the Pope Center site, Jesse Saffron has written a good overview of the “student learning outcome” movement, which is a broad-ranging effort to make colleges accountable for how much their students are actually learning.

I regret to say that I have never been enthusiastic about this movement. For one thing, it’s an artifact of the federal government. As Jesse points out, the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA) has languished, with only 300 colleges or universities providing public information about outcomes. The VSA only came into being when the Bush administration began warning that it wanted more information about student learning.

If schools really did reveal their academic value-added, I don’t think it would have much impact. My guess (and I would like to be proven wrong) is that if schools had to report their Collegiate Learning Assessment findings, most institutions would look about the same. Some students would have learned a lot, others not so much, and there wouldn’t be a lot of differentiation among schools.

Yale graduates might know more than Rutgers graduates, but would they have learned more during their stint in college? They knew a lot when they started out as freshmen; after that, some would have studied hard and others would have coasted.

Even if there were substantial differentiation among schools, I doubt that it would be all that important to parents and students. How the football team is doing and, for selective colleges, the ratings by U. S. News or Forbes probably carry more weight than what the schools are actually teaching. That may be a cynical view, but it’s mine.

Low CLA ratings, just like low graduation rates, would provide a clue about the school, but they don’t tell what a particular student will actually accomplish. As George Leef has said about graduation rates, “Whether or not a student graduates depends upon his or her willingness to do what the school requires.” Similarly, schools may teach, but it’s students who must learn. Every student is different and every school has a range of students. All in all, I’m not confident that this accountability movement will go very far.

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...


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