The American Federation of Teachers believes that accountability and student success should be about making sure students have resources to learn and succeed: rich curricula, excellent facilities, talented—and well-supported—faculty, and robust academic standards that are devised and improved by the people who deliver them. This section of our website is designed to serve not only as a clearinghouse of accountability initiatives at the international, national, state and local levels, but also as a starting point for discussing accountability systems that best help our students succeed.
Beginning in the 1960s, the federal government and states began to embrace the concept of extending higher education access to all citizens, regardless of their financial circumstances. For about twenty years after that, most states greatly expanded funding for public institutions and built many more. The same era witnessed the creation of the federal student assistance programs, although the funding for these programs never matched their aspirations. College enrollment skyrocketed and United States leadership in higher education teaching and research was unmatched.
Expanding the Definition of Accountability and the Role of Accreditation
With the rise in dollars and citizen participation, of course, came an expansion of the concept that institutions of higher education need to be "accountable," particularly to state and local government, for spending public monies responsibly and wisely. Virtually everyone in and outside higher education subscribes to this concept. Over the next thirty years, the federal government became more and more concerned about holding higher education accountable for sound fiscal management, placing more responsibilities directly on the institutions receiving public funds. At the same time, both the federal government and the states relied primarily on private accreditation agencies, particularly a group of regional accrediting agencies, to certify that institutions met standards of quality. Both state licensure of institutions and access to federal aid were made dependent on accreditation by accrediting agencies "recognized" by the federal government.
These accrediting agencies carried out this responsibility in two ways. The first required participating institutions to undertake "self-studies" and site reviews periodically, often ten years or so. The self-studies enunciated the institution's goals and the path it saw to reaching them. Second, the accrediting agencies looked at institutional "inputs" such as well-endowed libraries, excellent physical facilities, credentialed and talented faculty, and rich and diverse curricula. Faculty, of course, were considered central to the process of defining academic quality through their roles in shared governance, shaping the content of curricula and academic standards, developing new programs, and several other things.
Inputs to outputs
In the late 20th century, however, the attitude toward accountability began to shift. Funding became tighter at just the time when a college education was seen as significantly important to individual success, embarrassing news stories about issues as diverse as poor fiscal management, loan default rates and student graduation rates propelled government, in particular the federal government, to move to play a more direct role. Increasingly, the federal government began to intervene directly with institutions participating in federal aid programs to enforce fiscal discipline. In terms of quality, more and more questions entered the public debate shifting concern from institutional inputs (like the number of library holdings) to examining "outputs," specifically about how well students are performing. For example: how many students are enrolling at institution X, and how many of those students graduate within four years? Are students able to quickly secure jobs in their field post-graduation? What about transfer rates, attrition and retention? Are measures of accountability such that outside stakeholders can use them to compare institutions and, potentially, augment or diminish funding on the basis of this data?
The federal government, through recent laws and regulations, began requiring institutions to produce more output-based data (like graduation rates) and began to pressure the private accrediting agencies to monitor student learning outcomes more closely. Big debates raged in and out of government about the appropriate range of such regulation, especially when the federal government seemed on the verge of requiring some form of standardized student assessments at the college level. Accreditation remains under great pressure to move more directly into this area. At the same time, state governments spend $70 billion annually in support of instruction, research, public service and student aid, and a number of them began using mechanisms such as performance funding, performance reporting and "report cards" under the banner of accountability. State-level demands are also fairly prescriptive, with the expectation that higher education institutions will meet state needs and goals for economic development.
Accountability and student success
So, in today's context, no one denies the basic premise of accountability but there is vigorous debate about how it should be conducted and, for faculty members, about the degree to which faculty control over curriculum and teaching will be maintained. In the eyes of many educators, accountability should be about making sure students have the resources to learn and succeed: rich curricula, excellent facilities, talented—and well-supported—faculty, and robust academic standards that are devised and improved by the people who deliver them. To others, it has become a discussion of what to measure, how to measure it and how to punish institutions that fall short on the measurements.
Eaton, Judith S, "Higher Education, Government and Expectations of Academic Quality and Accountability: Where Do We Go from Here?" American Academic, 2006: 74-75.
State Higher Education Executive Officers, National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education. Accountability for Better Results. 2005.