I recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation by Diane Auer Jones, the former Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education, on the importance of accountability in higher education.  This presentation was incredibly eye-opening to me on many levels, and has encouraged me to more deeply consider how assessment can improve the student experience at professional colleges and universities.

A Single Definition

A primary goal of Jones’ presentation was to advocate for a “single definition” in education through a rethinking of accountability and student success across institution types.  Early in the presentation, Jones argued that while a distinction is often made between so-called traditional schools and career or vocational institutions, in reality program offerings at these institutions are increasingly similar to one another.  For example, proprietary schools are offering an increasing number of degree programs, including advanced degree programs while at the same time, the majority of graduates from traditional, comprehensive universities are earning degrees in vocational fields like nursing, education and business.

In addition, when outcomes are assessed for all students, and not just the shrinking minority of traditional, “first-time-full-time” students, we see a similar convergence in outcomes among demographically-matched students regardless of where they attend college (including at a number of selective institutions).   As highlighted by the report, Time is the Enemy¸ when part-time students are included in the statistics, public institutions that boast of graduation rates as high as 60 percent among their first-time-full-time students show far more sobering results.   While the relative proportion of traditional versus non-traditional students might determine the overall graduation rate at a given institution, these averages may in no way represent the likely outcome for an individual student.

A Call to Action

In her presentation, Jones states that the research is clear in showing that student characteristics and preparedness, coupled with institutional selectivity, are far greater predictors of student success than is institutional quality.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t see such a large gap in success rates among traditional and non-traditional students who attend the same institutions – which was the focus of Time is the Enemy. Clearly both groups of students are receiving an education of similar quality, yet the outcomes are vastly different.

In order to accurately assess the impact of an institution on student outcomes, it is important to take into account student risk factors and demographic characteristics through disaggregated data reporting.  Even more importantly, for students to accurately assess their chances for success at a given institution, they need to know how other students with similar backgrounds and life demands have done, and not just the more privileged and shrinking group of first-time-full-time students who are the focus of the Department of Education’s IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) database.

While elite schools work to attract endowment and research dollars that allow them to compete for the brightest students and most talented faculty, thus boosting their US News & World Report rankings, open-enrollment institutions focus on trying to help those individuals who need higher education most to succeed against the odds.  The Department of Education has identified 8 risk factors that decrease a student’s chance for success, and it is clear that students who attend open-enrollment institutions – both public and private – tend to have more of these risk factors than do their more traditional peers at more selective institutions.  Yet student outcomes at selective and open-enrollment institutions are often times erroneously compared as if their missions, priorities and student populations are the same.

“Why should graduating a student who entered with an exceptional  GPA, high SAT scores, educated parents, and significant financial support ‘count’ as an equal success when compared to graduating a student who is poorly prepared for college, has few if any role models in the immediate family, has multiple out-of-school responsibilities and is financially independent?”

Through her presentation, it seems that Jones’ call to action was to agree upon a new definition of “success” that takes into account the achievements of all graduates – not just first-time-full-time students – and that adjusts the outcomes based on the risk factors associated with each student.  She also recommended that for a non-traditional student, incremental success points may be a more accurate indicator of success than is the single measure of graduation, which may be influenced more by work demands and life challenges than institutional quality or availability of student support services.

It is her hope that non-traditional  students who graduate from open-enrollment institutions, including many proprietary schools and community colleges, are recognized and congratulated for succeeding despite the  multiple risk factors that made success significantly more difficult to achieve.  She added that success needs to be determined relative to the student’s personal goals, which for many adult learners, may not include credential completion.

Conclusion

At Blackboard, we are proud to say that our solutions can play a role in improving higher education accountability and assessment across all institution types.  Blackboard Analytics, for example, can be paired with outcomes assessment tools to help university administrators identify patterns that lead to success, even for the most at-risk students.  With solutions like these, proprietary institutions will be better equipped with the tools needed to amplify student success as they continue to educate and prepare new generations of professionals.

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Update

If you are interested in viewing Diane Auer Jones’s presentation entitled “Toward a Single Definition: Accountability by the Numbers,” you can view it in the SlideShare below:

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