Does the “Accountability Juggernaut” Threaten to Pound Higher Ed into Homogeneity?

In the wake of President Obama’s announcement that institutions of higher education were officially “on notice,” the typical and predictable fear mongering began. David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities warned of “incredible consequences” (subscription required). He dramatically throws down the gauntlet, stating that if the Department of Education chooses to regulate "the issues that fundamentally determine our independence—our missions, our curriculum, the basis on which we admit and graduate students," he will oppose it.

Robert Steinberg penned a lengthy, but much more respectful open letter to President Obama. In it, he makes 10 requests, including one to “respect the differences of college missions and goals.” Steinberg says, “I worry that a one-size-fits-all measure of outcome quality will hamper colleges and the students in them from optimally achieving their own individual goals.”

Even Diane Ravitch joined in on the act, calling on college presidents to resist the “accountability juggernaut”. Considering public higher education has existed for more than 200 years and we still have not had any meaningful system of accountability, this must be the slowest moving “juggernaut” ever forged. 

The presence of Ravitch’s trademark hyperbole in the debate is none too surprising, since higher education now seems to be reading from the same playbook that K–12 has employed for some time. It all leads me to wonder, however, about one of the common refrains—that institutional diversity was far too valuable to destroy in the name of accountability. I asked myself two questions: first, when it comes to the kinds of things that we’d like for institutions to be held accountable for—such as student improvement in basic writing, math, communications, and critical thinking skills, along with graduation rates and employment outcomes—just how different are these institutions? And secondly, how exactly would measuring for outcomes either be a bad thing or lead to the horrific homogenization that’s been prophesized?

I began my investigation in earnest, checking the websites of 50 different public universities—one from each of the 50 states—to examine the general education degree requirements. One would assume that if institutional diversity existed at a level that would preclude common, independently-run assessments for basic skills, such as writing, mathematics, and critical thinking that you would find at least some variation of requirements in this sampling. I looked for three things: 1) Does the school require at least one writing course? 2) Does the school require at least one quantitative reasoning course? 3) Does the school make an immediately apparent statement of any variety about the need to develop a student’s communications, critical thinking, or analytical skills?

Unsurprisingly, all 50 schools in the sample do indeed require at least one writing course and one quantitative course. Despite cries of institutional diversity, there are no signs of it to be found here. There wasn’t much deviation from the script when it came to making a statement about the value of communications, critical thinking or analytical skills, as 36 out of 50 schools did make an immediately apparent value statement of this nature. Of the 14 that didn’t, I didn’t find any statement of any kind related to general education—just a list of requirements. That doesn’t mean such declarations don’t exist, just that I didn’t devote the kind of time required to make heads or tails of the jumbled mess they called a website.

Mind you, this was not an exhaustive study by any means. Still, I think we can safely conclude that even in a world that values institutional diversity, the vast majority of its inhabitants still greatly values the same basic skills employers do, and make it a point to impart them to their students.

This brings us back to the original questions—how is one school really different from another with respect to the kind of accountability the public deserves and how exactly would common assessments further homogenize higher education any more than it has already homogenized itself?

The answer to the first question is quite clear—for the intents and purposes of the discussion on accountability, there is virtually no difference between what schools claim to value from one institution to the next. And why would there be? Show me a college that doesn’t value producing students that are competent writers and adequate thinkers, and I’ll show you a school that shouldn’t exist. The answer to the second question about common assessments is far from clear, unfortunately. It doesn’t seem that it would tangibly change any general education curriculum. It might force schools to take general education a bit more seriously, perhaps prompting them to put better instructors in those classes or not holding said classes with groups of upwards of 500 students at a time. It might push professors to be a bit more rigorous in their demands of students. It might prod students to try harder in these classes, knowing the reputation of their school—and the value of their future degree along with it—weighs in the balance. Yet I think it would take a rather vivid imagination to believe that somehow measuring something that every school already does is going to drastically change anything or strip away the ability of one school to differentiate itself from another.

Finally, since we’re already playing with arguments held over from K–12 schools, perhaps we can be informed by what’s happened in that sector since No Child Left Behind became law. Despite cries of homogenization there, there seem to be no shortages of schools that are proud of their unique programs, and no shortages of new programs and initiatives. In fact, when the Department of Education announced their Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program as part of the stimulus, they received nearly 600 applications from schools and nonprofit organizations touting their fresh approaches to education. Anecdotally, I do quite a bit of travel around the country and regularly receive requests to go tour promising schools who all believe that they’re doing something better and something different than what anyone else is doing. This is all to say that it’s rather to difficult to argue that accountability in K–12 education has had any meaningful, negative impact on institutional diversity.

At the end of the day, the “accountability juggernaut” is simply not going to make every public school in the nation vanilla. It’s ludicrous to claim otherwise. It’ll take a lot more than caring about student outcomes and measuring what schools are already claiming to be doing to make something that colossal happen.