Will Colleges Join the Voluntary System of Accountability?

The plan could be a breakthrough for reporting student engagement and outcomes.

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Public colleges have a golden opportunity to make a statement on the importance of releasing their educational data to the public. All they have to do is participate in a plan called the Voluntary System of Accountability, developed by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which combined represent 600 public schools that enroll 7.5 million students and award about 70 percent of U.S. bachelor's degrees each year.

The highlight of this plan is a common template for reporting institutional data on the Web. What is new and potentially groundbreaking about this template, called the College Portrait, is that schools that use it have agreed to make at least some of their student engagement results available to the public within two years. As part of the program, participating schools agree to release data from at least one of the following surveys: the College Senior Survey, the College Student Experiences Questionnaire, the National Survey of Student Engagement, or the University of California Undergraduate Student Experience Survey.

Equally promising is that within four years, the same schools will release their data on student learning to the public. There are three examinations schools can use for this information: the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, and the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress.

This plan is a higher education accountability breakthrough and should be applauded. Parents and students would have a rich resource of new data to determine what is really going on at these schools. But there are still some major questions that will determine whether the VSA succeeds. One wonders whether a school with relatively poor student engagement scores or learning outcomes will actually voluntarily disclose that information to the world. Also, we will all have to wait for up to four years to see how many universities will join, since they have that much time to implement the engagement and learning tests. So the jury is still out, but it's a promising beginning.