- Concerns about the value and purpose of higher education could be quieted if states adhered to better and more consistent standards for educational quality, according to a new report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) and the National Association of System Heads (NASH).
- The pair recommend tightening up the program review and authorization process by developing a common definition of quality; clearly defining states' role in the process; and requiring institutions to submit plans for meeting specific learning outcomes, among other considerations.
- However, the report revealed key differences in how state officials and institutional leaders define and measure quality.
The insight into differing views on quality comes as debate churns over a potential reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and institutions are tasked with sharing program-level data on measures such as student loan debt and postgraduate earnings with prospective students.
SHEEO and NASH surveyed and interviewed representatives of the higher ed "triad," which encompasses state and federal government officials and accreditors. It found quality to be a "co-equal" priority "with other important functions and concerns" for half or more of respondents representing each group. A much smaller share, around 12% to 14%, said it was a "top priority" and thus "central" to their mission.
Additionally, "several" state and system respondents said their offices "had no operating definition of quality," the report noted.
It also identified key differences in how state agencies and higher ed system leaders identify and measure quality. For instance, states were more likely to use in-state talent development and retention as well as learning outcomes to define quality in higher ed, whereas institutions tended to focus on undergraduate degree production.
Additionally, states consider a broader range of measures, including graduation, retention and degree production rates by level of institution; field-specific degree production; licensure exams; student debt; and graduate employment. Systems, meanwhile, focused primarily on graduation and retention rates.
Yet questions remain over how best to assess quality, the authors explain. That includes what data should be collected, how and what measures might be derived from them, as well as what assessment tools could indicate quality.
However, a lack of consensus on standards that can "accurately and broadly" measure student learning will continue to be a challenge as institutions contend with new kinds of credentials and education providers, as well as mandates to provide more program-level data.