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Exploring Accountability for American Higher Education Institutions

The EvoLLLution | Exploring Accountability for American Higher Education Institutions
Rankings and ratings, as they currently stand, are based on limited information. Institutions that can own and explain their ratings, regardless of the score, will be in a better position than those that try to ignore them.

Moxie, specifically institutional moxie, is a critical need for two- and four-year institutions that do not rank well in one or more categories on the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) College Scorecard. These data trends are for first-time, full-time students (FTFT)—traditional undergraduates—so the available information is not a complete look at an institution. A more complete understanding of institutional performance at the U.S. national level is available at the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). Sometime in 2016, when segmentation is expanded to first-time, part-time students; non-first-time, full-time students; and non-first-time, part-time students, this obvious shortcoming will be addressed by including data sets more germane to adult undergraduate profiles.[1]

Presently, the NCES provides a deeper data look with segmentation across public, not-for-profit, and for-profit institutions for FTFT students. Reviewing and understanding NCES data ought to shift perceptions of the Scorecard data. For example, the Scorecard indicates a single U.S. national graduation average across six years of attendance rather than aligning actual averages specific to a type of institution. For some, this undermines the verity of the data because some institutional outcomes are being underrepresented and others overrepresented.

Regardless, the Scorecard data ushers in a level of consumerism that is quite pronounced with big, bold data presentations.

In a nutshell, the entire world can now quickly drill into graduation rates, tuition costs and earnings of undergraduates after 10 years in the workforce and much more. There are rollovers for more information as well as supplementary data sets for review with additional clicks. The Scorecard website is a faster, more graphical view on higher education than websites comparing cars, appliances and other consumables. Will prospective FTFT students review this data and ask questions about them when they visit a campus? Are adult and graduate students reviewing the information and asking questions? Absolutely! Institutions with one or more weak rankings should not ignore the information nor is a defensive posture to explain away anemic results to prospective and current students wise. Such a position is likely to be duplicitous and awkward, triggering unintended consequences.

In reality, the layer of transparency being placed on U.S. higher education to see an institution’s undergraduate performance should have bearing on the decision to attend one campus or another. Going beyond rhetorical questions, the prospective student ought to ask, “If I am a typical student at the university, how likely am I to graduate from there, how much money will I earn after I graduate, and how much will I spend to earn a bachelor’s degree?” Isn’t this the point of the Scorecard? Who would sign up to commit tens of thousands of dollars of future earnings with an institution that graduates one or two in ten FTFT students over a six-year time period? The risk is obvious. An institution can obscure the rankings, but owning shortcomings and communicating the action plans that are improving the data on the Scorecard is important if not essential.

At a personal level owning the data and being honest and forthright regarding the findings are attractive organizational qualities and meet the generational expectations of Millenials.[2] Second, the carryover effect of such information could provide segue for conversations among recruiters, faculty members and prospective students in adult undergraduate and graduate programs, enabling a positive from a negative. All in all, weak rankings expose institutional needs to better support student learning through scholarships, time to graduation, and/or post-graduation earnings. While the Scorecard relates specifically to FTFT undergraduates, better support for traditional students may transcend student support systems for adult undergraduates and graduate students attending a given institution.

Another factor driving the need to own a weak ranking is Millenials’ access and use of technology is pervasive.[3] Their communication is 24/7; they are mobile, social, and seek success for everyone.[4] The youngest members of this generation were born in 2004 and are just now sizing up where they may go to college. Consequently, owning the information—whether it is positive or negative—would be viewed as an admirable trait, especially when the ranking is weak. Leaders, organizations and countries—actually, each one of us—face situations where there is a gap between expected and delivered results portraying a shortcoming. At the very instance when the gap needs to be explained, blundering through suggests a lack of transparency and enables others to formulate their own attributions about the information without it being shaped with an explanation. If performance gaps are not addressed, conclusions will be drawn that might not be fair or accurate.

In its efforts to address longstanding concerns with higher education, the U.S. Department of Education wrote, “With such great variation in the types of educational opportunities available throughout the country, it is increasingly important for students and families to have the best information about the educational experiences and outcomes they may expect at different institutions.”[5] The Scorecard intends to disrupt what some may view as established practices by making difficult to obtain and read data readily available. In doing so, prospective students can review critical data points with a quick view on how well one institution stacks up to another on noted measures.

Information is power and how the information on the Scorecard influences decision making is reasonably predictable as prospective students determine where to go to college.

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[1] U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Better information for better college choice & institutional performance. Retrieved from

[2] Eisenhauser, T. (2015) How to Communicate with Millennials at Work – 23 Surefire Tips to Retire the Stereotypes. Retrieved from

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] U.S. Department of Education (2015)

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