Why accountability efforts in higher education often fail

Students from 2015 graduating class of Texas Southmost College. Brad Doherty/AP

As the price tag of a college education continues to rise along with questions about academic quality, skepticism about the value of a four-year college degree has grown among the American public.

This has led both the federal government and many state governments to propose new accountability measures that seek to spur colleges to improve their performance.

This is one of the key goals of the PROSPER Act, a House bill to reauthorize the federal Higher Education Act, which is the most important law affecting American colleges and universities. For example, one provision in the act would end access to federal student loans for students who major in subjects with low loan repayment rates.

Accountability is also one of the key goals of efforts in many state legislatures to tie funding for colleges and universities to their performance.

As a researcher who studies higher education accountability – and also just wrote a book on the topic – I have examined why policies that have the best of intentions often fail to produce their desired results. Two examples in particular stand out.

Federal and state failures

The first is a federal policy that is designed to end colleges’ access to federal grants and loans if too many students default on their loans. Only 11 colleges have lost federal funding since 1999, even though nearly 600 colleges have fewer than 25 percent of their students paying down any principal on their loans five years after leaving college, according to my analysis of data available on the federal College Scorecard. This shows that although students may be avoiding defaulting on their loans, they will be struggling to repay their loans for years to come.

The second is state performance funding policies, which have encouraged colleges to make much-needed improvements to academic advising but have not resulted in meaningful increases in the number of graduates.

Based on my research, here are four of the main reasons why many accountability efforts fall short.

1. Competing initiatives

Colleges face many pressures that provide conflicting incentives, which in turn makes any individual accountability policy less effective. In addition to the federal government and state governments, colleges face strong pressures from other stakeholders. Accrediting agencies require colleges to meet certain standards. Faculty and student governments have their own visions for the future of their college. And private sector organizations, such as college rankings providers, have their own visions for what colleges should prioritize. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am the methodologist for Washington Monthly magazine’s college rankings, which ranks colleges on social mobility, research and service.)

As one example of these conflicting pressures, consider a public research university in a state with a performance funding policy that ties money to the number of students who graduate. One way to meet this goal is to admit more students, including some who have modest ACT or SAT scores but are otherwise well-prepared to succeed in college. This strategy would hurt the university in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings, which judge colleges in part based on ACT/SAT scores, selectivity and academic reputation.

Research shows that students considering selective colleges are influenced by rankings, so a university may choose to focus on improving their rankings instead of broadening access in an effort to get more state funds.

2. Policies can be gamed

Colleges can satisfy some performance metrics by gaming the system, instead of actually improving their performance. The theory behind many accountability policies is that colleges are not operating in an efficient manner and that they must be given incentives in order to improve their performance. But if colleges are already operating efficiently – or if they do not want to change their practices in response to an external mandate – the only option to meet the performance goal may be to try to game the system.

An example of this practice is with the federal government’s student loan default rate measure, which tracks the percentage of borrowers who default on their loans within three years of when they are supposed to start repaying their loans. Colleges that are concerned about their default rates can encourage students to enroll in temporary deferment or forbearance plans. These plans result in students owing more money in the long run, but also they push the risk of default outside the three-year period that the federal government tracks, which essentially lets colleges off the hook.

3. Unclear connections

It’s hard to tie individual faculty members to student outcomes. The idea of evaluating teachers based on their students’ outcomes is nothing new; 38 states require student test scores to be used in K-12 teacher evaluations, and most colleges include student evaluations as a criterion of the faculty review process. Tying an individual teacher to a student’s achievement test scores has been controversial in K-12 education, but it is far easier than identifying how much an individual faculty member contributes to a student’s likelihood of graduating from college or repaying their loans.

For example, a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree will take roughly 40 courses during their course of study. That student may have 30 different professors over four or five years. And some of them may no longer be employed when the student graduates. Colleges can try to encourage all faculty to teach better, but it’s difficult to identify and motivate the worst teachers because of the elapsed time between when a student takes a class and when he or she graduates or enters the workforce.

4. Politics as usual

Even when a college should be held accountable, politics often get in the way. Politicians may be skeptical of the value of higher education, but they will work to protect their local colleges, which are often one of the largest employers in their home states. This means that politicians often act to stop a college from losing money under an accountability system.

Take for example Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who was sympathetic to the plight of a Kentucky community college with a student loan default rate that should have resulted in a loss of federal financial aid. He got a provision added to the recent federal budget agreement that allowed only that college to appeal the sanction.

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