Access, Affordability, Accountability – Stasis or Progress?

For many years the same key issues – accessibility, accountability, and affordability – have been at the center of American higher education.  A trend or crisis may distract us, and the media may tell us that this technology spells a sea change or paradigm shift.  All true enough. But if you look closely, the driver of change – be it a MOOC or a new funding model, usually relates to accessibility, accountability, and affordability.

Since the end of World War II we have known that these were the critical issues. Published a dozen years ago, editor David Heller‘s The States and Public Higher Education Policy: Affordability, Access, and Accountability provided a comprehensive overview of policy focuses on these issues. The chapters in Heller’s volume are still relevant today.

David Breneman, in his forward to the book,  observed that affordability, access, and excellence are code words freighted with political meaning. They are understood and used by the key stakeholders differently. Politicians, academic leaders, and those speaking for the public shape academic policy through the prism of these issues. Some time ago access meant choice and policies increased student access to different sorts of institutions. With rising college costs, however, access has steadily morphed into affordability. But what does affordable mean? The book makes a compelling argument that affordability policies in higher education are grounded in helping middle class families pay for the college. It is difficult to prove that affordability and access are about helping poor Americans succeed in college.

Accountability is both a specific action, often understood as reporting to the government and the public, and a way of conducting business. With an ever-growing list of data points and reports, institutions find themselves under a public microscope. We are reporting constantly and all this data collection and analysis can lead to meaningful change. However, at some institutions, even those with strong reputations, the threat of accountability results in false reporting. The scandal at Wake Forest stands as a dire warning.

Accountability is more than reporting – it is a personal and institutional commitment to the value of an education. It is about the return on an educational investment. Was the activity, assignment, course, program, minor, major, or college education worth the investment and cost? It is a hard question to answer. So many different kinds of costs and benefits are wrapped up in a college education. The student, who changes through the process, is an extraordinarily important part of the equation.

Some believe that the best way to measure the value of a college education is by looking at what happens to the students after they graduate. In Virginia, lawmakers have required that post-graduate information be made public as part of a larger data collection effort. A site reports wage and enrollment outcomes at all levels of degree by state institution. The Virginia measure of post-graduate salaries rests on an underlying assumption: that the value of a college education is an individual, or private, good.  Supporting this is neoclassical economic faith in the rationality of individual choice. The approach assumes that individual students, informed by data, will make educational choices that maximize their income. But all students do not major in finance. Does a salary 18 months after graduation really capture the worth of higher education degree? Even the people who oversee Virginia’s longitudinal data set are not sure:

There is unquestionably much more to life and education than getting a job. Individuals pursue postsecondary education for a variety of reasons, including lifelong learning and personal skills development. They pursue higher levels of education to benefit their community, the Commonwealth, and the nation, as well as themselves. There is also no question that some individuals  pursue a career as the primary focus of their educational pursuit. This is especially true when one considers the breadth of degree and certificate opportunities the public and independent colleges and universities of the Commonwealth have to offer.

 The warnings and caveats should be heeded, as should the assumption that students are informed actors maximizing outcomes. Remember, for example, who might be using the data set:  a high school student or graduate in search of a college education. By definition this student lacks the knowledge and context to make an informed rational choice. Students may and they may not. Perhaps a different philosophical model needs to be considered, or perhaps we should start to think of higher education as a public good.

In fact, considering public education as a public good as well as a private good might spark some exciting discussions and provoke some alternative ways to think about access, affordability, and accountability. Something different is needed. We have not made enough progress on increasing access to higher education, making higher education more affordable, and being accountable to the public and each other. It is time to be open to new ideas.

David Potash

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