An Accountability Framework for California Higher Education: Information Public Policy and Improving Outcomes

November 2002

Implementing statewide accountability for higher education is a complex undertaking that has been attempted by most states with only some success. California has the opportunity to learn from the experiences in other states as well as from numerous national initiatives aimed at increasing statewide accountability for higher education. The “culture gap” that exists between the worlds of policy makers and educators complicates the effort, but the gap can be bridged with careful attention to key distinctions and definitions, including:

  • The goal of state-level accountability is to promote discussion and improvement of key educational outcomes for Californians, not to assess the performance of individual institutions or segments.
  • Accountability and assessment are not the same; state-level accountability is for policy goals such as educational opportunity, affordability, and economic development, while assessment focuses on student learning, which is best addressed at the department and campus levels.
  • Accountability and performance budgeting are not the same; performance budgeting is but one way to implement accountability, and one that has met with limited success at best.

Legislative interest in improved accountability for higher education appears to be motivated by a sense of appropriateness, given accountability efforts in K-12, rather than a sense of urgency. However, there are discomforting trends in California with respect to disparities among subpopulations in educational success at a time when higher education is increasingly necessary for individual economic security and state economic well-being. The reputation of the 1960 Master Plan and the state’s public universities may be providing a false sense of security. A statewide accountability framework can promote needed discussions about the status of educational outcomes in the state.

Formal accountability in California consists of the Partnership for Excellence for the Community Colleges, partnerships with the Governor for UC and CSU, and CPEC’s annual report of performance indicators. These segment-specific efforts do not form an accountability system by which policy makers can track progress toward key state priorities. Other shortcomings include a lack of specificity and consensus on performance indicators, lack of legislative buy-in to the UC/CSU Partnerships, and lack of consequences for under-funding by the state or under-performance by the segments.

The recommendations of the Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan that pertain to higher education accountability would not improve the situation. The committee’s recommendations are seriously flawed by the urge to replicate in higher education the content-based learning outcomes assessment of K-12.
A number of national initiatives and state accountability efforts do provide guidance. Consensus has formed around principles of effective accountability, including a focus on improvement, broad involvement of stakeholders in the program’s design, and a careful choice of performance indicators that reflect mission and avoid perverse incentives. National efforts to measure student learning are years away from creating instruments that could reliably assess college-level learning across institutions or states. Policy makers will need to rely on indirect measures, such as student and employer satisfaction ratings, and on the integrity of campus-based assessment and accreditation processes.

Designing California’s accountability framework involves choices about the audiences to be served, the level of aggregation at which data will be reported, the kinds of data to include, the means for interpreting the data, the strategy for linking performance to consequences, and the venue for the review of the data.

There will be enduring challenges faced in implementing even the recommended alternative. Most measures are imperfect, and attempts to measure learning elicit philosophical debates. Most people want budgetary consequences but performance budgeting is fraught with problems. Segments want consistency in the policy goals for which they are accountable, but an accountability framework cannot prevent legislators from raising new, particularized issues. Finally, maintaining an appropriate balance across cultures and values and between autonomy and accountability will be a continuing test.

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