Accountability Higher Education History of education

Accountability Could Kill US Higher Ed

This is a new piece I wrote as the foreword to a book by J. M. Beach — The Myths of Measurement and Meritocracy: Why Accountability Metrics in Higher Education are Unfair and Increase Inequality — which will be published this summer by Rowman and Littlefield.  Two weeks ago, I posted the foreword I wrote for the first volume in this series, which looked at the impact of accountability on elementary and secondary education.

For me, this was a chance to provide a brief summary of my thoughts about the dire problems that accountability metrics pose for US higher ed.  See what you think.


In this book, J. M. Beach argues that the accountability movement, which has already done so much damage to American public schools, is now coming after higher education as well, and he shows that this effort is not only based on faulty measures but also promises to lay waste to a system that is the envy of the world.

The idea that a system of education should be held accountable to the public is in itself hardly problematic.  Of course it should.  We need to know that higher education is fulfilling the goals we set for it and having a beneficial impact of both the individuals who enroll in it and the society in which they live and work.  The problem is in the metrics used to measure institutional effectiveness, including such things as student evaluations of their teachers, tests of student knowledge acquisition, graduation rates, and income levels after graduation. 

A key problem with these metrics is that they narrow the aims for higher education to a few outcomes that are readily measurable but not very important.  We want this system to produce competent citizens for our democracy, productive workers for our economy, and social opportunity for people from all walks of life.  None of the current metrics captures these broader outcomes that we want to see from our system of colleges and universities. 

In the first volume of this series, Beach explores the problem of accountability for American public schools, and many of the dysfunctions that arise from holding these institutions accountable also apply to higher education.  One is that teaching and learning in colleges and universities, as in elementary and secondary school, requires the mutual cooperation of teacher and student.  Teachers can’t make students learn; they need to encourage them to learn, which is much more difficult to carry out and impossible to standardize.  Another is that the system of higher education is astonishingly complex and radically decentralized, with some 4,000 degree-granting institutions operating independently and largely under campus-level control.  These campuses vary considerably in governance, program focus, selectivity, funding, and degrees offered, which undercuts the likelihood that any standards of performance would apply to all.

But the American system of higher education has some core characteristics that mark it off from elementary and secondary schooling and further confound efforts to apply accountability measures across the board. 

First, whereas attendance at the lower levels of schooling is mandated by law, college attendance is purely voluntary.  A college can’t count on having students enroll; it has to induce them to do so.  And in a crowded higher education market, it has to compete effectively with other colleges who are also marketing their wares.  Exacerbating the stakes in this competition is the fact that public and private colleges alike are heavily dependent on student tuition and fees to maintain financial viability.  For most of US history, state funding has fallen far short of covering college costs, and this has become increasingly true in the last 50 years, as the share of college budgets covered by state appropriations has been steadily declining. 

A major consequence of this situation is that, much more than the school system, the higher education system has be highly sensitive to consumer preferences.  Colleges are compelled to be adept at figuring out what students want and giving it to them.  If they don’t, the college down the road will do so, so they need to keep attuned to current trends and keep ahead of the curve.  Think of how the college dorm room with bunk beds and a bathroom down the hall has turned into a suite of rooms with hotel amenities.  Look at the growth of food courts to replace the cafeteria and elaborate athletic facilities to replace the lowly gym. 

As early at the 1880s colleges realized they needed more than academics to keep the consumer happy, so they encouraged fraternities and sororities and intercollegiate athletics in order to rev up campus social life.  These elements not only attracted and retained students, but they also built a loyalty to the institution that would pay off in having loyal alumni who would send their children to the alma mater and make generous donations to the annual fundraising campaign.  Think of all of the ways that American students and alumni display the college logo, on sweatshirts and caps and bumper stickers and yard signs on game days.  Students at European universities don’t wear the brand the way that American students do.  The reason is that here college is not where you go; it’s who you are.

With the student-consumer as king of campus, colleges also need to be worried about demanding too much studiousness from their clientele.  Party schools build more loyalty than academic rigor and stringent grading.  With student course evaluations playing such an important role in college accountability, it’s no wonder that grades on campus have inflated so much, with the average grade moving from C to something more like A-.  Low grades don’t make for happy campers and future donors.

In addition to consumerism, the US higher education system has another trait that distinguishes it from other systems around the world.  It’s a system without a plan.  No one could have designed a system as fiendishly complex as this:  public, private, religious, and for-profit; associate, bachelor’s, master’s, professional, and doctoral degrees; residential and commuter; urban and rural; teaching-focused and research-focused; selective and open access. 

The present system emerged organically in the early nineteenth century as a collection of private colleges with corporate charters and only occasional state funding.  Each operated as an independent enterprise with a private board of governors and a president as CEO, whose job was  to negotiate a path toward viability through the crowded college market.  When states began opening public institutions, they followed the model of independence and self sufficiency laid out by their private predecessors, since they too had to function without reliable state funding. 

The result was the evolution of a system whose vulnerabilities in the nineteenth century turned into strengths in the twentieth.  The forced autonomy that came from underfunding made these institutions into a formidable array of competitors who figured out how to survive and thrive in a demanding environment.  Relatively free of control from the state, they were able to adapt quickly to changing market conditions, pursuing opportunities as they emerged – for new programs of study, lines of research, funding prospects, donor bases, and avenues for excellence, which would draw in the best students and faculty and enhance the brand.

What makes the system so effective today is that it has never had to be held accountable to a monolithic regime of metrics set by the state.  Emergent rather than planned, arising from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down, the system has assumed a dominant position in the global ecology of higher education.  Accountability could kill it.

David Labaree

Palo Alto, CA

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