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Quality Assurance and Improvement In Higher Education: The Role of the States

May 28, 2019

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Higher education is facing a host of challenges, including external questions regarding its value and purpose. These questions cut to the core of the states’ role in higher education. Traditionally, states have the responsibility to ensure that institutions of higher education are operating in the public interest and that the institutions are good stewards of their public resources. Central to this responsibility is the question of institutional and educational quality. Concerns regarding higher education quality and the states’ role in quality assurance and improvement motivated the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) and the National Association of System Heads (NASH) to partner with Lumina Foundation to investigate current state and system practices and to work toward  recommendations for future action.

Using a variety of data sources, including two in-person convenings of relevant stakeholders, a survey of state higher education agencies and system offices, and qualitative interviews, the partners explored current quality assurance and improvement practices, challenges and limitations related to quality assurance and improvement at the state and system levels, and ideas for how current policies and practices might be improved.

The findings revealed that approaches are varied and limited by a lack of consensus around what quality means in higher education, and what the appropriate level and manner of state and system engagement regarding quality should be, and limited resources (staff, money,
and technology). Nevertheless, participants and respondents provided important insights into how states and systems might better engage in the question of quality and work to assure and improve quality in higher education. In that regard, we recommend the following:

Arrive at widely agreed upon understandings of quality. While state agencies and system offices will and ought to have their specific definitions of quality, developing shared understandings of quality would help individuals and entities advance our shared work in defining, assessing, and improving quality. A collaborative effort across states and with other stakeholders with
interest in and responsibility for aspects of quality assurance will be needed to arrive at a shared understanding. We believe the benefits warrant the effort.

Develop a greater understanding among all relevant actors of the state’s interest and role in educational quality. There is still some lack of knowledge and appreciation of the state’s specific role in quality assurance and improvement. This lack of understanding exists among institutional and faculty leaders, accreditors, the federal government, and state and system policy leaders and practitioners. Additional thinking and work are needed to properly articulate and defend this state role and to explain why and how states ought to be involved in this work.

Identify best practices in quality assurance. Additional efforts are needed to identify what works in quality assurance and improvement and to diffuse those efforts across states and systems. This will require engagement from state and system leaders, college and university leaders, faculty, academic researchers, think tanks, policy organizations, and funders.

Make program review and state authorization meaningful quality assurance processes. Essential roles of state agencies and/or system offices—program review and state authorization— are often treated as bureaucratic processes and even rubber stamps.  Making these processes substantive and focused on quality assurance is challenging but necessary. Ideas for improvement include requiring institutions to submit assessable learning outcomes, descriptions of how they will meet those outcomes in meaningful ways, plans for faculty development, engaging in follow-up reviews of authorized institutions and approved programs, and requiring evidence of the institutions’ or programs’ success in accomplishing the approved student learning outcomes. Continuing to assess the institution’s capacity and resources and other existing requirements will likewise be valuable. Further, state and system leaders, researchers, faculty, and other interested parties ought to consider what innovations in state authorization and program approval might help improve quality assessment and improvement efforts.

Treat equity as a quality consideration. Among participants and respondents, there appeared to be a coalescing around the need to close equity gaps and to treat equity considerations as quality considerations. However, better data, research, and political and institutional will are needed to properly address quality concerns from an equity perspective. Understanding gaps in
student resources and opportunities and measuring the ability of institutions to improve higher education access and outcomes for underserved students will be critical in considering how to address equity gaps. Such examinations need to be done within and across institutions. A quality system of higher education needs to be quality for all students, not just well resourced, white, and high achieving students. In that regard, states have a particular responsibility for looking out for underserved students and ensuring they receive a quality education. Quality public institutions should, in the state’s eyes, deliberately promote economic mobility and opportunity and work to close achievement gaps. Again, collaborative efforts between state and system leaders, college and university leaders, academic researchers, faculty, think tanks, policy organizations, and funders will be needed.

Actively engage faculty and institutional leaders. Ultimately, a quality education is dependent on what happens within our colleges and universities and in particular what happens in our classrooms. Actively seeking the participation of institutional leaders and faculty will be critical to the success of any quality assurance and improvement efforts. State agencies and systems ought to develop mechanisms for the inclusion of faculty and institutional leaders in the state- and system-level quality assurance and improvement efforts such as working groups and advisory boards. They ought to also develop relationships with individual faculty members and institutional leaders that allow for state and system leaders to seek ad hoc information, reactions, and advice. State agencies and system offices also ought to explore ways they might support faculty in their critical role.

Invest in data, tools, and people. State lawmakers will need to provide state higher education agencies and system offices with the financial resources to collect the appropriate data, implement the appropriate assessments, conduct the appropriate analyses, properly interpret the information, and design and implement the appropriate policies and practices. This will require hiring qualified staff and investing in the necessary infrastructure and tools.

Open lines of communication and real partnership between members of the triad. As described and authorized in the federal Higher Education Act, the U.S. Department of Education, approved accreditors, and state governments make up the program integrity triad. These three entities are supposed to work together to ensure the quality of providers of postsecondary credentials. However, the triad has not always functioned appropriately or lived up to its obligations. Opening lines of communication, developing agreed upon protocols for information and data collection and sharing, developing shared understandings and agreements regarding roles and responsibilities, and engaging in more collaborative work and peer learning would all help the triad function more effectively.



Higher education is facing a host of internal and external challenges, including constrained resources resulting from reductions in state support, competition from nontraditional providers of training and credentials, and in many states, a declining number of high school graduates. Further, since the beginning of 2016, at least 104 colleges and universities have closed, not counting acquisitions, consolidations, and mergers. Several of these have been large national for-profit chains affecting thousands of students in states across the country.

As a result of these challenges, there is a growing suspicion of and lack of confidence in higher education generally. Questions regarding the quality of the educational experience provided to students and the value of their credentials abound. Less than half (48 percent) of Americans express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. This represents a 9 percentage point decline from 2015, and among Republicans, confidence has declined by 17 percentage points. Central to these challenges and a primary concern is the question of quality and what students get for the money and time they commit to higher education. Likewise, growing evidence indicates that resources, opportunities, and educational experiences are not equally distributed, with low-income, students of color, and rural students segregated into lower resourced institutions, for-profit institutions, and institutions with lower educational outcomes.

States play a fundamental role in higher education, protecting both the investment of state dollars and their citizens as their consumers. Despite their central responsibility in this regard, states have struggled with how they might help ensure that students are receiving a quality educational experience. Definitions of quality in higher education are varied and contested, while measuring quality may be an even more difficult task. Even where definitions and measures exist, it can be challenging to know how states might use them in actual quality improvement efforts. To help address these challenges, SHEEO, NASH, and Lumina Foundation partnered to conduct an environmental scan of the existing landscape of approaches utilized to assess and assure the quality of higher education institutions and credentials at the state and system levels. This white paper reports on the findings of this project.

View the Report ›