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The Higher Education Act: Possible Implications for Accountability and the Assessment of Student Achievement

By Sharon L. Weinberg Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs;
Professor of Quantitative Methods and Psychology New York University

I want to begin by complimenting the members of the Faculty Resource Network who chose the topic of assessment and its closely allied counterpart, accountability, as the focus of this year’s symposium. The topic is relevant to all of us, it is controversial, and, it is timely — timely because this is a year in which the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act, the primary federal law dealing with post-secondary education, is under initial consideration by Congress. It is also a year in which we have been bombarded by headlines, editorials, and the like addressing what have been termed the “exploding” costs of college, and demanding that institutions of higher learning be accountable to parents, students, and taxpayers—especially given reports in the press of questionable spending on such amenities as super-size Jacuzzis, sunbathing decks, massage facilities, and rock-climbing walls (The New York Times, October, 2003).

This is also a year in which in a series of hearings organized by the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce will lay the groundwork for the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act. Dr. Frank Newman, director of the Futures Project, a higher education think tank based at Brown University and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, told members of Congress that regular assessment of student progress is quite possible in higher education, just as it is in elementary and secondary schools. And finally, it is a year in which more is being learned about the harmful impact of large-scale, standardized, high-stakes assessment programs in elementary and secondary schools, the analyses of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) being a primary source of such information.

Taken together, these points underscore the importance of this Faculty Resource Network national consortium. It is an opportune moment for the member institutions of the Faculty Resource Network at New York University and the Leadership Alliance to look beyond the accountability rhetoric and to advance the debate on the role of assessment and accountability in higher education.

My remarks this afternoon are intended to set a framework for the topics that will be discussed during this symposium over the next two days. Toward that end, I would like to begin with a brief description of the Higher Education Act.

The initial passage of the 1965 Higher Education Act was introduced as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the broader social agenda of making the dream of college possible for low-income students who otherwise had little chance of a post-secondary education. As shown in Table 1, the current Higher Education Act (HEA) programs and activities fall into four main categories:

  • Student financial aid [Title IV], including Pell Grants; Stafford, William D. Ford, and Perkins loans; and work-study funding;
  • Services to help students complete high school and enter and succeed in post-secondary education [Title IV, Title VII];
  • Aid to strengthen minority institutions [Titles III and V]; and
  • Aid to improve K-12 teaching training at post-secondary institutions [Title II].

These four categories are further subdivided into seven titles:

  • Title I: General Provisions (includes rules and regulations)
  • Title II: Teacher Quality Enhancement Grants
  • Title III: Institutional Aid
  • Title IV: Student Assistance in the form of grants (Pell) and loan programs (Stafford, Perkins and William D. Ford]
  • Title V: Developing Institutions
  • Title VI: International Education Programs
  • Title VII: Graduate and Post-secondary Improvement Programs

The importance of the Act comes in large part from its comprehensiveness, as well as from the magnitude of aid it makes available each year. At the heart of the Act are the student aid programs that are listed in Table 2, along with their award amounts for 2003.

To date, the Higher Education Act has been re-authorized seven times — in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1986, 1992, and 1998 . The most significant changes to the HEA were made in 1972, when Congress expanded the student assistance programs to include students at proprietary institutions and created the Pell Grants to provide direct assistance to students. Few new programs have been added to the HEA since 1972, but notable programs which appeared in the 1990’s include GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness for Undergraduate Program), to help motivate middle school students in low income areas pursue a college education, and the Federal Direct Lending Program, which introduced a great deal of flexibility in loan repayment and consolidation. The student aid programs, as noted in Table 2, grew to significant levels by 2003. Nationwide, approximately 75 percent of full-time students receive federal student aid, as do approximately 40 percent of part-time students.

Collectively, the Higher Education Act, as amended, is designed to advance our national interest, conceived as being served by an educated workforce and a society that is broadly diverse.

The opportunity of the reauthorization process enables legislators, the Department of Education, and the higher education community to debate the purposes of the Act, the extent to which the Act currently meets its purposes, and new directions posed.

To date the Act has been divided into a series of smaller bills, each with a focus on a specific issue or issues such as teacher education and affordability.

As John Boehner, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce made clear at the first in a series of recent Committee hearings entitled “State of American Higher Education: What are Parents, Students, and Taxpayers Getting for their Money?”, accountability and the assessment of what students actually learn are likely to be other specific issues of focus.

According to Boehner, “Accountability is the hub of the higher education wheel. Previously mentioned tenets—accessibility, affordability, and quality—are the spokes that keep the wheel in motion. Before we move the reauthorization legislative vehicles through the House, I want to explore how post-secondary institutions are accountable to students, parents, and taxpayers. I am aware that institutions report volumes of data to the federal government and others, but I guess the question I am asking myself is, ‘Does that reporting provide valuable accountability?’ Moreover, is the data reported the right data, is it enough data, or is it too little or far too much?”

Said differently, we may ask, “How can we measure, in a valid and reliable way, the success of our nation’s investment in higher education?

Do we concentrate on skills and abilities that are easily measured, or does that approach compromise our efforts and create other unintended consequences? What benchmarks should we use to signify the value of a higher education? Should we use such tangibles as a graduate’s financial standing, leadership roles, and professional advancement, or should our perspective be broader as it applies to changes in society over time?

One of the basic assumptions of a liberal arts education is that an education of the mind, heart, and soul of an individual constitutes a social good that increasingly serves to reward society at large. We become a more democratic nation, we believe, because we offer our citizens the ability to explore ideas, develop critical thinking, and strive to meet their full potential. Yet how can we measure whether the learning environments we offer are appropriately tailored to meet the needs of the many and varied students who enroll in our classes and entrust themselves to our educational care?

Motivating these questions of accountability is the issue of cost. What have tuition increases been over the last 20 years, and how do such increases compare to inflation over the same time period?

During the 1970s, according to the College Board, there was little, if any, real growth in college costs. During the 1980s, however, tuition and fees began to grow much more rapidly, and the cost of attending college rose over three times as fast as the median family income. Figure 1 presents the average undergraduate tuition and fees paid by full-time-equivalent students in four-year, public and private degree-granting institutions over the 20-year period from 1982 to 2002. It should be noted that of the 9.7 million students enrolled in four-year institutions of higher education, 6.3 million (or 65%) attend public institutions and 3.4 million (or 35%) attend private institutions. And Figure 2, based on information from the College Board and Census Bureau compares these actual averages to what tuition and fee costs would be if they were based solely on increases in the Consumer Price Index, or inflation. According to Figure 2, the percent increase in college costs over these two decades is 310 percent, whereas the percent increase due to inflation alone is only 85 percent. On an annualized basis, the percent increase for actual average college costs is 7.32 percent as compared to only 3.14 percent for inflation, indicating that over the last two decades tuition and fees have increased more than twice the inflation rate on a per-year basis.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that a strategic planning report for the Education Department (March, 2002) “set a goal of reducing the average national increases in college tuition to 2.6 percent by 2007.”

How are institutions of higher education poised to face these new challenges? How might the discussion surrounding the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act affect the ability of colleges and universities to respond? Is accountability the answer?

As different as the issues are from those facing higher education, the current heated debate over assessment in K-12 may be instructive, especially in view of Frank Newman’s testimony to the members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Dr. Newman stated that colleges and universities ought to begin to make available information that would serve their constituents by systematically tracking student achievement. Of the debates on K-12 testing, perhaps the most controversial concerns the TAAS system of testing in Texas. That system is based on the notion that changing behavior—notably the behavior of teachers— through increased accountability will raise the educational quality of the schools. While politicians claim that this testing system is saving the Texas schools, the reality would appear to be quite different. Analyses by Haney , McNeil, Valenzuela , and others suggest that especially in situations where administrator pay and teacher tenure is tied to test scores, and where test scores have been historically low, the TAAS system has led to inappropriate coaching or even cheating on the part of some teachers and schools, and to a strong emphasis on test preparation activities over the regular, substantive curriculum. In addition, it has been reported that groups representing minority students have claimed that these tests have worked to deepen the disparities between majority and minority success rates in education, ultimately driving minorities out of the educational system altogether.

What can we learn from the TAAS case for higher education? Simply that colleges and universities cannot be governed by the need to meet prescribed, federally mandated educational benchmarks in terms of retention, for example, as these might have the effect of threatening to undermine the very learning that such colleges and universities are intending to foster.

At the same time, many if not all of us would agree from our own experiences that assessment, when used properly, can move an educational process forward in positive ways. But what is appropriate and what is proper? Tomorrow, in smaller workshop settings, we will have the opportunity to focus on the appropriate use of assessment in specific contexts, in terms of student assessment, the assessment of faculty performance, and assessment in grant writing.

Today, we will continue to address larger policy issues beginning with a panel discussion concerning the possible outcomes of the legislative process surrounding the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act, with Jane Oates, senior education adviser to United States Senator Edward Kennedy, and Alicia Hurley, director of NYU’s Office of Federal Policy, moderated by Catharine Stimpson, dean of NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science.

Table 1:
Four main categories of the activities and programs of the Higher Education Act (HEA)
  • Student financial aid
  • Services to help students complete high school and enter and succeed in post-secondary education
  • Aid to strengthen minority institutions
  • Aid to improve K-12 teaching training at postsecondary institutions
The HEA: Titles I through VII

Title I: General Provisions

Title II: Teacher Quality Enhancement Grants

Title III: Institutional Aid

Title IV: Student Assistance

Title V: Developing Institutions

Title VI: International Education Programs

Title VII: Graduate and Post-secondary Improvement Program

Table 2:
Breakdown of Federal Student Aid Available (Title IV) in 2003 Through the Higher Education Act
Pell Grants $11,466,000,000
Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants 962,000,000
Perkins Loans1,201,000,000
Leveraging Educational Assessment Partnerships170,000,000
Loan Forgiveness for Child Care Providers 1,000,000
Federal Family Education Loans31,536,000,000
Ford Direct Student Loans12,763,000,000

Figure 1 –
Tuition increases 1982- 2002

Figure 2
Tuition increases versus the rise in the Consumer Price Index