Education Leadership Conference

The country is engaged in a significant debate about what counts as educational quality, Judith S. Eaton, PhD, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, told participants at APA's Education Leadership Conference in September. And educators have the tools to answer that question, she said.

While educators have traditionally thought of students' intellectual development as evidence of quality, said Eaton, others now argue that quality should be measured by student outcomes or job placements. And while faculty have historically been the ones to decide what a quality education is, some now argue that student evaluations should be the basis for such judgments.

The huge financial stakes — with $175 billion a year in federal student aid and soaring student debt — make the debate even more critical, Eaton added. Those financial concerns are "putting enormous pressure on every one of us in the room when it comes to showing higher education's worth and effectiveness within society," she said.

Fortunately, said Eaton, there are plenty of tools for ensuring educational quality. Three of them are under educators' own control: accreditation, institutions' own reviews and efforts by such groups as College Portrait of Undergraduate Education and Liberal Education and America's Promise.

Of course, there are other tools educators don't control, such as U.S. News and World Report's college rankings. "I've read that their rankings are the de facto quality standards in the United States," said Eaton. State and federal government also review educational quality, and in recent years, the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and other philanthropies have financed tools for examining quality.

Eaton urged educators to promote quality by setting expectations and requiring accountability for meeting them. Educators should establish goals for their program or institution, decide what counts as quality in meeting those goals and think about how those goals are focused on what students learn. "It's not enough to set goals in a vacuum," said Eaton, explaining that goals should be benchmarked so that evidence of quality can be compared with similar efforts at other institutions. Educators should then decide what evidence is needed to show that goals have been met, how to inform the public about what students are achieving and how to improve quality even more.

"Higher education has to justify the investment that is made," said Eaton. "Because we cannot any longer take for granted that the public will assume we're doing a good job, we have to tackle the issue."

—Rebecca A. Clay