A New Framework for Quality Assurance and Accountability in Higher Education

Students arrive at their undergraduate commencement in Massachusetts, May 2018.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Education spends more than $120 billion in financial assistance to help students pursue educational opportunities beyond high school. It is crucial that these investments be as effective as possible—not just because of the costs involved but also because students traditionally underserved by higher education are the most reliant on federal investments. Thus, these students have the most to lose if their support goes to institutions or programs that do not provide them a high-quality education.

Fortunately, there is an opportunity next year for Congress to rethink federal quality assurance and accountability in higher education as part of expected efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. This is likely to be the most substantive discussion of these issues in Congress since 2008—the last time Congress reauthorized this bill.

Recognizing this opportunity, the Center for American Progress and Higher Learning Advocates are releasing today a new framework for federal quality assurance and accountability in higher education. This document reflects substantial input from a wide range of national stakeholders who met over the course of six months.

The framework starts with a key premise: The federal government’s role in quality assurance and accountability should contain both a gatekeeping and a continuous improvement function. The gatekeeping element focuses on setting a minimum protection, or floor, for acceptable outcomes. Meanwhile, the continuous improvement function encourages institutions to work toward boosting the quality of their education over time. This is a departure from the current federal approach, which typically emphasizes only gatekeeping concerns.

This framework also acknowledges that federal quality assurance and accountability needs to recognize the three key parties involved: students; taxpayers; and institutions. To that end, it includes principles for what each of these groups should expect in terms of gatekeeping and continuous improvement.

For example, the student gatekeeping principle stresses the minimum expectation that a program or institution will “leave them better off after leaving school than when entering, help them gain access to professions that reward having a college credential, and lead to earnings that are appropriate for their field and level of experience. Further, students should expect a supportive and safe learning environment.”

By contrast, the gatekeeping promise for institutions stresses that “the overall reputation of higher education will be protected by judging schools on transparent measures that are valid, balance simplicity and nuance, and provide a fair assessment of their performance and that have clear thresholds.”

The next year is likely to see a lot of activity at the federal level around ideas for quality assurance and accountability in postsecondary education. The hope is that this framework can be used to evaluate those proposals to see if they are ultimately addressing the key goals and purposes of overseeing federal funding for learning beyond high school.

Ben Miller is the senior director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.