Quality Assurance in Other Sectors: Lessons for Higher Education Reformers

By James, Kevin J. | AEI Paper & Studies, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Quality Assurance in Other Sectors: Lessons for Higher Education Reformers


James, Kevin J., AEI Paper & Studies


Executive Summary

In response to growing concerns about the US higher education system, policymakers have launched a range of efforts to improve the system's quality. But this is easier said than done. The system is populated with a diverse array of programs offered through a mix of public, nonprofit, and for-profit providers. Furthermore, the outcomes that students and the public care about are frequently difficult to measure and are integrally tied to the characteristics and behavior of students themselves. All these factors confound efforts to improve quality.

In reality, however, numerous sectors suffer from these challenges in one way or another. Policymakers should, therefore, look to learn from efforts to ensure quality, accountability, and consumer protection in these other sectors. In that spirit, this paper examines four sectors that face many of these same challenges: health care (with a focus on transparency efforts), workforce development (specifically, the system's long-standing emphasis on outcome measurement and accountability), charter schools (a model of deregulation and delegated oversight), and housing finance (an example of risk sharing).

First, in the health care sector, scholars have been conducting research on the efficacy of transparency efforts--typically referred to as report cards--as well as any unintended consequences that might arise as a result of them. These efforts in health care are similar to efforts such as the College Scorecard that are taking place within the higher education system.

The data are mixed in terms of how report cards impact consumer behavior in health care. But regardless of the impact on student behavior, research in the health care sector suggests that increased transparency would change the behavior of institutions. This could simply reflect schools' anticipation of how students might respond or could reflect other concerns, such as those related to an institution's reputation among its peers. Note, however, that as part of this response, institutions would likely take steps to change the types of students they are willing to serve. To the degree that policymakers are concerned about this, they should take steps to include on report cards risk-adjusted measures or, better yet, measures broken out by specific subpopulations.

Second, the federal government has for decades held service providers in the workforce development system accountable for educational and employment outcomes, making it a helpful example of performance-based accountability. Researchers have found evidence suggesting that providers in the workforce development system engaged in "cream skimming"--that is, choosing those participants who are most likely to be successful over ones who are harder to serve but might benefit more--as well as gamed outcomes measures to enhance their performance. Therefore, higher education policymakers must recognize that any performance-based accountability system can create incentives for providers to change who they serve.

Policymakers must also be cognizant to invest in data that are easily validated and in measures that are clearly defined and not easily gamed. At the federal level, repealing the unit record ban--which prevents the Department of Education from collecting information on student enrollment--could enable the federal government to do most of the legwork around collecting and publishing a number of relevant outcomes in a way that avoids these challenges.

Third, the burgeoning charter school sector provides a good example of delegated oversight that higher education can learn from. A growing body of research on effective charter authorizing shows that organizations that see authorizing and accountability as part of their core purpose tend to be the most effective. Authorizer independence from the entities being regulated, and from politics, is also essential, as is creating some kind of accountability mechanism for authorizers on the basis of the performance of their school portfolios. …

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