American Public University System has focused on assessment and learning outcomes since 2004. Dr. Jennifer Stephens, our Dean of Assessment, publishes our learning outcomes on the web at http://www.apus.edu/learning-outcomes-assessment. We are committed to continuous improvement and making sure that we are providing online programs that match our students’ needs. I asked Dr. Stephens to provide me with a guest blog article summarizing the trends in accountability and our participation in the Transparency by Design initiative.
As Congress and the U.S. Education Department are placing increasing public pressure on higher education institutions to publish significantly more information about their performance, accountability initiatives are on the rise. The need for greater accountability in higher education was formally recognized in September 2006, when Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued the recommendations of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Included in this report is language on the requirement of higher education institutions to use standardized assessments of student learning. Met by much criticism and derided as a “one size fits all” approach by many college leaders, higher education organizations and institutions have responded by forming voluntary accountability systems. Recognizing the importance of informing students and the public about the educational value offered by their institutions, colleges and universities have committed to releasing data about student learning outcomes and other data that have not been previously published. At the annual meeting of the Higher Learning Commission in Chicago this past April, commission representatives described three major accountability initiatives:
• University and Accountability Network (UCAN) – a college information website developed by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU)
• College Portrait Voluntary System of Accountability – a collaborative effort among the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), and the higher education community
• Transparency by Design (TbD) – launched by the President’s Forum at Excelsior College, a consortium of schools with a focus on adult learners who study at a distance
Each accountability initiative is designed to address the diversity of students and institutions represented and each have a unique mission. The American Public University System is a charter member of the Transparency by Design accountability initiative, a consortium of adult-serving higher educational institutions whose overall mission is to elevate accountability and transparency in higher education. Some of the participating institutions are exclusively online and others use online delivery in conjunction with other delivery modes. They represent a mix of institutional types including public, private not-for-profit, for-profit, community college, baccalaureate and graduate-only:
• American InterContinental University Online
• American Public University System
• Capella University
• Charter Oak State College
• Colorado Technological University
• Excelsior College
• Fielding Graduate University
• Franklin University
• Kaplan University
• Regis University
• Rio Salado College
• Southwestern College
• Union Institute and University
• Western Governors University
Beginning in 2009, Transparency by Design participating institutions will issue learning outcomes reports in the first quarter of each year. The reports will focus on the reporting of program level data, including student demographics, completion rates, costs, student engagement and satisfaction, knowledge and skills learned, and alumni information. Transparency by Design is partnering with WCET (formerly Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications) to serve as an independent third party aggregator and disseminator of the annual reports. WCET is an organization that promotes and advances the effective use of technology in higher education. Their role in Transparency by Design is to validate and publish the accountability data, making it readily available and understandable for prospective students, and to conduct and publish research using the data. Students and the public will be able to visit a website to evaluate how well programs prepare them for their professional pursuits and aspirations.
Charles Miller, Chairman of the Spellings Commission, said that Transparency by Design’s focus on results of individual programs is a positive step. “It will be a major advance if you can get more and more institutions over time to bring accountability down to programs, because that may be how you would smoke out some of the worst problems in how we utilize money,” he said.
With the recent development of these accountability initiatives, the question I would pose is:
Are higher education institutions adequately responding to the accountability demands of Congress and the US Department of Education?
Although there has been resistance from the higher education community on specific components of the Spellings Commission report, one can clearly see the impact of the report on national conversations in higher education. Attend any higher education conference around the nation and you will witness a focus of conversations on access, affordability, accountability, and assessment. On a panel discussion at the Association for Institutional Research conference this past May in Seattle, Linda Suskie, vice president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, stated, “We’re operating on borrowed time. If we don’t properly assess student learning and share our results with the public in ways that they understand, then someone else is going to tell us what and how to assess, and we’re not going to like it.” On the same panel discussion, Barbara Wright, an associate director of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, acknowledged the dangers of public reporting and that officials will fixate on out-of-context numeric measures, like a single year’s student-retention rate. “But I would rather believe in the public’s better angels,” she continued. “I assume that what they’re really after is improvement.”
Whether officials are striving for improvement, transparency, accountability, or all of the above, I believe these national conversations are good for our current and future students. Tomorrow’s leaders are smart consumers with one-click access to a world of information at their fingertips. They live in the digital information age where they are constantly wired to the Internet, Web 2.0, and social networking. The world is their marketplace, geographic boundaries are non-existent, and transparency is the expected norm. With distance learning, open enrollment, and financial aid opportunities, students have increasingly more options when it comes to attending college. Students want a good return on their investment, and it is our responsibility as institutions of higher education to be as transparent as possible so they can effectively evaluate their potential returns.
If colleges and universities can communicate to our students the potential value of their education, then students can make better informed decisions on their fit for a program and/or institution. Empowering students with this information will increase the likelihood of their completion and success, which is what all parties are striving to ultimately achieve, regardless of our position on the education spectrum. Whether you are from the U.S. Department of Education, Congress, an accrediting body, a higher education institution, or a student, all parties involved benefit from this national conversation.