Why all the talk about accountability in higher education in recent years? The days of the isolated "ivory tower" distanced from the rest of society seem long gone. Although this chagrins some, upon reflection it is hardly surprising. The globalization of fierce economic competition focused on quality, rapid innovation and cost, and fueled by the stunningly fast pace of technological change, have had a profound impact on American business and, more recently, on thinking in government.
This has raised expectations sharply for outcome-based performance by all kinds of publicly supported programs, including human services such as health, welfare and K–12 education. At the same time that performance expectations are ratcheted up, societal tolerance for high costs of operation per unit of output has declined. Increasingly competitive global markets ensure this in the business sector, and market elements play a role in parts of the public sector now as well, but primarily individual and corporate taxpayers are sensitive to taxes. High costs in public services mean high taxes, and taxes are decidedly out of favor.
In this climate one could hardly expect higher education, which still derives a large share of its revenues from tax sources, to be exempt from the pressures and expectations at work in the larger society and economy. Moreover, in higher education the costs taxes do not cover are largely met by students and their parents, and these groups have become highly sensitive to the long climb in prices, which have nearly tripled (after adjustment for general inflation) over the two and a half decades since 1980. The fact that the tax share of total higher education costs is down over this period, while the student/parent share is up, widely lamented by higher education insiders and analysts, only enhances the political pressures on the enterprise to find ways to be more cost-effective.
As in the other sectors mentioned, public officials and business constituencies seek both lower per-student costs (or reduced cost growth) and better results. Indeed in higher education there are some special reasons for heightened interest in these because: (a) in many states demand for higher education is growing simply because the "baby boom echo" is swelling the ranks of high school graduates, and (b) these leaders have begun to get the message that postsecondary education-and academic research and development-are strategically important to the economic competitiveness of their regions and states, and higher levels of participation are needed.
These facts plainly point to the need for increased investment in higher education capacity, but leaders facing tax resistance, constricted budgets and many difficult-to-resist spending pressures from sectors like health care, criminal justice and K–12 education, look for indicators of efficiency and accountability as a quid pro quo. Policymakers want to see more graduates as well as greater enrollments, and business leaders often call for better-prepared graduates and more in the fields where workforce needs are greatest. Other outcomes, such as contributions to the competitiveness of local industries and to improving schools, are of interest to states as well.
In this context, the old mechanisms for ensuring social accountability of American higher education no longer seem fully up to the task. One key mechanism for this, dating back to the colonial colleges, and much admired elsewhere in the world as an alternative to direct political or bureaucratic control of academe, has been the lay campus governing board of trustees. (Note that the word itself conveys their position of social trust.) This hoary accountability device has been supplemented since the 1950s and 1960s by similarly conceived statewide policy and governing boards for higher education made up of leading citizens. These mechanisms have certainly had some success historically in buffering the campuses from the worst of political interference and micromanagement, and for a long time they seemed to provide generally adequate assurance that someone other than the academics alone was minding the store.
Professionally based accreditation has also played an important role in institution- and discipline-level quality assurance with federal and state governments long requiring that institutions pass this test to be officially recognized or eligible for various government programs, most prominently financial aid to their students. Now, however, trustees and state boards are often seen as too infused with their charges' perspectives to be capable of fully assuring public accountability, while accreditors are regarded as similarly partially captured and unable to push hard enough for quality, now seen primarily as ensuring better student outcomes.
These tried and true accountability mechanisms can surely be criticized but they have shown signs in recent years of being capable of responsiveness to societal changes. Boards of trustees, with their heavy tilt toward influential business people, are certainly paying more attention to outcomes and efficiency, and accrediting bodies have been in the main urging colleges and universities to focus on assessing student learning and other outcomes. A leading example is the recent, widely acclaimed effort by the engineering accrediting group, ABET, to shift much of the focus of its accreditation reviews to student outcomes. These arrangements surely continue to serve an important purpose in the overall social accountability regime for higher education.
State boards of higher education could play a continuing role too. They can produce useful statewide data and can serve as a convening authority for coordinating activities among the institutions. They can also play a role in documenting the results of accountability efforts. Although hampered if too beholden to institutional interests, not supported well enough to keep quality staff, or if not fully representative of all postsecondary providers, at their best these bodies can provide credible policy analysis and advice to policymakers independent of the institutions. Most of them, however, seem to lack even at the board level the clout, and perhaps the perceived independence, to exercise true policy leadership in and for higher education. Something new is needed in many if not most states.
Turning to the specifics of accountability, the focus over the past decade has been largely on just that—institutional persistence and graduation rates, internal efficiency indicators, and such partial outcome measures as passing rates on occupational licensure exams and, for universities, acquisition of extramural research grants. Also, some states' accountability efforts have given attention to enrollments or graduation of underrepresented students, and a few to tuition containment.
Quite a few states became fairly aggressive about all this in the late 1990s, but empirical studies—notably the series of annual surveys on accountability by Joseph Burke and colleagues at SUNY-Albany—show there has been a retreat in the present decade from efforts at linking performance on these indicators to substantial amounts of state funding. Indeed, there are sound reasons for not linking large shares of schools' basic funding too tightly to such inevitably partial measures.
Yet this has plainly not meant that generous state funding has been easy for institutions to come by recently in the absence of a clear demonstration that they are serving well and efficiently the interests and needs of those who support them. Instead a kind of stalemate seems to have developed. On the one hand there is a growing acceptance that more broadly accessible higher education is critical in the modern economy and society but also a sense that neither simply funding the current structure better nor bludgeoning the current denizens of it with narrowly conceived efficiency mandates are attractive strategies.
A capacity to articulate authoritatively statewide public needs regarding higher education, some of which go well beyond the scope of any single institution, and to envision systemic efficiencies—including the K–12 sector and community colleges—seems called for at this point if necessary new investments in higher education are to be catalyzed. Crucial also are new, broadly acceptable approaches to affordability of higher education for students and to more stability of both tuition and state funding in the face of the inevitable ups and downs of state economies.
One possibility for encompassing the full range of pressing issues and the need for policy leadership in a novel way revolves around an idea circulating across the country under various names, here called the "performance compact." While there is some variation across states, the basic idea is that state higher education and finance agencies, colleges and universities, other relevant stakeholders such as K–12 education, workforce and economic development agencies, business and other key community interests, and most importantly the governor and key legislative leaders, come together to hammer out goals and performance expectations (and indicators) for higher education, as well as a commitment to adequate plans, support and stability to reach the goals.
Goals and measures-in addition to institution-specific measures like improvement of student retention and graduation rates-would encompass matters that span across institutions and even sectors, like assuring better pre-college preparation of students via alignment of curricula and testing that should reduce the need for remediation at the postsecondary level; creating more efficient linkages between two-year and four-year college curricula including preparation for specific majors; improving services to underserved communities and regions where a new campus is too expensive; and reducing skills shortages in local labor markets.
Participants must also confront frankly the related problems of higher education capacity, affordability, cost and funding stability, for recent patterns do not facilitate accessibility. A broadly participative, authoritative arena for addressing performance and resource requirements simultaneously may make it possible to get beyond the usual disjointed gamesmanship and short-term thinking that plagues higher education policymaking now. Typically also steps would be taken in a performance compact to free up institutions from cumbersome state controls on management decisions, as has been done in the recently negotiated Virginia compact. This step is based on the idea that public institutions functioning in today's fast-moving environments need the freedom to be nimble in responding, and need to be able to seek their own efficiencies, but at the same time must be publicly accountable for results.
The crucial outcome of the process should be a new compact among the parties that codifies updated and specific understandings about what results will be achieved, by whose (often interdependent) actions, and with what resource expectations. If well led (probably in most cases determined gubernatorial leadership is required to move beyond business as usual) such a process has the potential to accomplish several purposes. It should educate the parties to see that current institutionally focused efforts often create a whole that is less than the sum of its parts. It should convey and build common ownership around the interdependent measures required to establish and achieve state goals for higher education, which in turn are derived from goals for the economy and society. And, it should push all parties to confront realities about state finances.
In the end the goal is to produce mutually reinforcing commitments that have some hope of surviving inevitable economic cycles and political turnover. External stakeholder involvement can play a particularly important role on this last point as they can help hold all sides to their commitments. The challenges and constraints facing American higher education, and indeed the states themselves, in the modern world seem beyond the reach of current institutional structures and standard venues for policymaking. Something new is required, and the contemporary performance compact idea at least provides a framework and an arena to begin creating what is needed.
William Zumeta is a professor at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs and the College of Education at the University of Washington-Seattle and is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.