Accountability is much discussed by those making state and federal policies. Do colleges have enough “skin in the game,” is a frequently asked question, by many politicians, both Democrats and Republicans. Many states are moving toward tying appropriations to the success of a college’s students at graduating or succeeding after graduation. In the U.S. Congress, Republican leaders want to apply these approaches in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
A new collection of essays — Accountability and Opportunity in Higher Education: The Civil Rights Dimension (Harvard Education Press) — features arguments that try to change the conversation about accountability. The essays suggest that those making policy have paid far too little attention to the impact these approaches are having on minority students and the institutions that serve large numbers of minority and low-income students. Contributors include Stella Flores of New York University, Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania, Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University, Sylvia Hurtado of the University of California, Los Angeles, and a number of others.
Also contributing essays to the volume are the two editors of the book, Gary Orfield, Distinguished Research Professor of Education, Law, Political Science and Urban Planning, and co-founder and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, at UCLA; and Nicholas Hillman, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Orfield and Hillman responded via email to questions about their new book.
Q: Many of the chapters seem to suggest that accountability measures have overlooked the civil rights dimension. Why has this been the case?
A: In a society that is deeply polarized by race, the tendency is for the most privileged groups to see things as fair — to see few limits on possibilities and to attribute differences in outcomes to individual effort or failure of a group’s culture. It is convenient and even necessary for privileged groups to overlook structural barriers if they want to maintain their advantages. People in excluded groups are much more aware of the barriers, and they have the most to gain from eliminating them. Ignoring these barriers perpetuates and justifies inequality. This is why accountability policies must prioritize the experience of excluded groups in order to reverse inequality. This is also why a central requirement of civil rights policies calls for reporting on race, having plans to overcome structural barriers, prosecuting discrimination and assessing outcomes by race. But most accountability systems documented in this book are not designed to address deeply rooted racial or economic injustices, leaving us concerned that accountability efforts themselves can be part of the problem when they ignore unequal opportunities and resources.
Q: If you had to pick two examples of misguided policies cited in the book that have a negative impact on minority students, what would they be?
A: Chapters in the book were originally written during the height of the Obama administration’s college rating system proposal and later redrafted to cover state accountability issues and the early Trump period. Authors highlight a number of ways the proposed rating systems would have been misguided, such as the failure to promote input-adjusted measures that would have recognizing and rewarded colleges for serving students from highly unequal racial and economic backgrounds. Similarly, the study highlights how federal sanctions would have had particularly harmful effects in geographically remote communities where there are large and growing shares of Latino residents. The second misguided policy was the tightening of Parent PLUS Loan standards without viable alternatives to help students afford college. Due to a long legacy of disadvantage and injustice, black, Latino and Native American families have less wealth than white families. So when the federal government, in the name of greater accountability, restricted access to loans without expanding access to other lines of credit, this had a disproportionate effect on students of color.
Q: Proponents of accountability suggest that they are trying to help minority and disadvantaged students avoid institutions that may not serve them well. What would be your response?
A: Most colleges and universities, though they value diversity, do not adopt missions about serving minority communities or students ill prepared in unequal high schools. Colleges are too often measured and evaluated on selectivity and outcomes that ignore precollegiate academic preparation or economic inequalities of their student bodies. As a result, many colleges appear to be poor performers not serving students well when they may actually be doing quite well given their resources. This is why using input-adjusted performance metrics, accounting for differences in institutional resources (and not just missions), rewarding colleges for serving underrepresented students well and building capacities where inequalities exist are ways to improve existing accountability systems. Unfortunately, current state and federal accountability systems rarely, if ever, do this. As a result, current policies can make colleges even less able to deal with the enormous challenges they face in an extremely stratified society. To be clear, no chapter absolves colleges from accountability standards and none promote watered-down accountability efforts. The authors insisting on providing the data needed to do them fairly. This book aims to raise the accountability bar by adding much-needed nuance and fairness to existing accountability efforts.
Q: How do these issues play out at minority-serving institutions?
A: Minority-serving institutions educate millions of students of color and play a crucial role in achieving national college completion goals. They disproportionately serve students who come to college with unequal academic and economic resources. When accountability policies overlook these realities and use unadjusted performance metrics, they unfairly paint MSIs as underperformers. This is a problem because well-designed input adjustments would show these colleges perform just as well as — and in many cases better than — other institutions. It is also a colorblind approach to accountability that will only perpetuate and reinforce inequalities.
Q: Do you see these issues at play in the House Republican plan to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (the PROSPER Act)? If so, how?
A: Yes. A clear example is “risk sharing” proposals that, depending on their final design, aim to hold colleges more accountable for the loan repayment outcomes of their students. Chapters in this book provide guidance on how policy makers might design a fairer risk-sharing system that accounts and adjusts for the deeply rooted inequalities related to student loan debt and repayment. But there is a long way to go on this front, due in large part to existing bans on student-level data. The type of accountability outlined in this book will require significant improvements to the nation’s higher education data infrastructure, and this needs to be incorporated into federal policy. Policy makers cannot afford poorly designed systems if they truly want a society where all students have a fair chance and where colleges that help those whose lives can be most transformed get the recognition and support they deserve.