Higher Education Falls Short in Efforts to Become More Accountable

Think tank scholars say efforts by colleges and universities to become accountable are flawed.

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Higher education's two most visible voluntary initiatives to become more transparent and accountable have not been successful, Andrew P. Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute and Chad Alderman of the Education Sector say in a recent article, "False Fronts? Behind Higher Education's Voluntary Accountability Systems." The article provides a highly critical look at the University and College Accountability Network, or U-CAN, launched by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in September 2007, and the Voluntary System of Accountability, or VSA, started by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (now known as the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities) in late 2007. 

In summarizing the shortcomings of these two systems, the article concludes: 

"A close examination of these two prominent efforts reveals serious flaws that undermine their utility as engines of accountability. The site for private colleges and universities, U-CAN, is not really new at all; it is essentially a re-packaging of data that are available elsewhere, and it provides almost no new information about costs, student experiences, or learning outcomes to parents and prospective students. In contrast, the VSA, which catalogs public schools, represents a legitimate effort to provide students with important information about how much college costs and the education students receive in return. But the VSA also suffers from numerous shortcomings. Not all institutions participate, particularly those at the top and bottom of the quality scale. The site does not allow for the easy comparison of institutions, despite the fact that the database was created to facilitate consumer choice. And many of the most crucial VSA data elements are incomplete, non-comparable, or selected in a way that often obscures differences between institutions." 

The report warns that consumers should not think that VSA and U-CAN are real accountability. The authors say that

"for these efforts and others like them to improve consumer choice and exert meaningful pressure on schools to improve, they need to be more complete, comparison-friendly, and designed to highlight institutional differences. If existing flaws are not resolved, the nation runs the risk of ending up in the worst of all worlds: the appearance of higher education accountability without the reality. As such, policy makers and consumers should not be persuaded that these systems satisfy the need for increased transparency and accountability in higher education until their flaws are addressed." 

The authors also explain why they believe the U.S. News rankings have been highly effective in providing higher education information to consumers. They conclude that the U.S. News rankings have been very successful in reaching students because they offer the ability for students to compare one school with another, one of the main things lacking in the voluntary accountability systems. The report says that the U.S. News rankings

"make very fine-grained distinctions across institutions that are otherwise quite similar. Is the student experience at Institution X (ranked 40th) that much different than the student experience at Institution Y (ranked 20th)? Whether or not it is, research has shown that higher rankings lead to increases in popularity. Popular magazine rankings probably go too far in making such fine-grained distinctions, as institutions are probably more similar than their rankings might suggest. But the lesson is clear: Consumers seize on information that allows them to distinguish one college from another, and they flock to schools that appear to promise better experiences and outcomes."

It's clear that prospective students and their parents need to be able to easily compare schools, using a variety of factors, to help them choose the best college for their needs. The U.S. News rankings offer one tool to achieve that goal. So far, the voluntarily accountability efforts are not giving consumers what they really want and need in their college search process. Besides the rankings, U.S. News has an easy-to-use college comparison tool that enables users to compare schools on a series on indicators.

What tools do you use to compare schools? What would you like to see on the U.S. News site? Post a comment to let us know.