From Inputs to Outcomes: Decoding ‘Quality Assurance’ in Higher-Ed

What does “quality” in higher education look like? That’s the top-of-mind question for higher-ed leaders as the US Department of Education dangles the prospect of making financial aid available to students engaged in nontraditional academic programs, designed in partnership with third parties—including for-profit companies.

Collaborations between traditional universities and third-party organizations are not new. But for students to use federal aid to attend, these programs have had to abide by the “50% rule.” That rule prohibits schools that receive Title IV funds from relying on the other party to create more than half of the content and instruction of a program.

The Dept. of Education’s Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) pilot proposes to waive that restriction. In return the partnerships must include a “quality assurance entity” (QAE) that will evaluate and attest to the rigor of the programs. (Here’s a handy cheat sheet explaining the details of EQUIP).

Defining what “quality” looks like is both a nebulous and gargantuan responsibility. But it’s an opportunity to define what gets measured in higher education and therefore, as the saying goes, what matters.

From inputs to outcomes

Although the federal government has not defined “quality,” it is nudging organizations to identify and measure outcomes that matter to students, institutions and employers. Accreditation, the time-honored way to recognition quality, “was not built to assess these kinds of providers,” noted Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell in July. He added that he hopes the new measures of quality will “focus on outputs and evidence,” in contrast to the “input”-centric accreditation system.

Yet even traditional universities and colleges have struggled to figure out how to value, quantify and measure the learning that takes place on their campuses in ways that go beyond the “input” of the credit hour and “output” of the transcript and GPA. Over the years, higher education has proposed tools, including digital badges and e-portfolios as alternative—and perhaps more accurate—methods for capturing both what students know and what they can do with that knowledge.

Rethinking what quality and accreditation mean reflects students’ changing needs. Nearly half of all students who earn a postsecondary credential take courses at two or more institutions. Seventy to 80 percent of college students work while studying. Students are moving from a four- to a forty-year relationship with higher education.

EQUIP offers “an intriguing experiment,” says Jonathan Finkelstein, founder and CEO of Credly. “The excitement is a realization that the full story of one's education is not always defined by a single degree, but by a collection of learning experiences.”

What is the role of a QAE?

At this point, there are plenty more questions associated with the QAEs than answers.

“The Department is very interested in stimulating innovation in the quality assurance process,” Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell tells EdSurge. “These QAEs will play a leadership role in learning about using outcomes-based quality measures.”

The task before any QAE is enormous: translate a long list of guiding questions provided by the Dept. of Education into standards; develop a process to evaluate against these standards; monitor the program; and report out to all parties at regular intervals (such as at the start, midpoint, and completion of the program, as well as at some pre-determined time after completion).

“From an evaluation standpoint, there are two components: the design of the protocols and monitoring the fidelity of these protocols,” says Ben Wallerstein, founder and CEO of Whiteboard Advisors. “What results should programs be held accountable for producing? More importantly, how should those outcomes be measured?”

No single entity is likely to have the right answer. The Dept. of Education is consequently allowing multiple QAEs to work together to fulfill EQUIP’s requirements (although a single QAE must take responsibility for affirming the quality of the program overall). In addition to existing accreditors, the department will consider new entities, including accounting firms, employer associations, or organizations created just for this purpose.

Also in play is who will cover the cost of the QAE work. The department is unlikely to provide any direct assistance. Likely options include tapping foundations, baking the cost into student tuition or convincing a newly emerging QAE to absorb the cost to position itself as a market leader.

This will undoubtedly be a messy affair as institutions redefine their relationship with students, articulate what outcomes matter, and figure out how to measure them. But that is why EQUIP is a pilot, not a fully formed policy. There will be many approaches to defining and measuring quality and a variety of program designs suited to the specific needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

The EQUIP pilot forces education stakeholders to ask long-standing questions over how program quality and student outcomes should be measured. But by leaving the door wide open to a new group of stakeholders to provide answers, many people will feel uneasy. The Department of Education may have unleashed a force much bigger than most initially thought.

QAE Short List

Here’s a starter list of groups that could serve as QAEs for EQUIP. EdSurge will continue to update this list. Want to be added? Send a note to feedback@edsurge.com.

Groups Confirming Quality

Existing Regional Accreditors

Possible Newcomers

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