This report takes a look at how government officials have pressed college accreditors to focus more on "student outcomes" -- quantifiable indicators of knowledge acquired, skills learned, degrees attained, and so on. It then argues that it is not these enumerated outcomes that are the best way to hold colleges accountable, but rather the evidence of student engagement in the curriculum -- their papers, written examinations, projects, and presentations -- that holds the most promise for spurring improvement in higher education. Furthermore, this engagement is also a key factor in keeping students in school all the way to graduation. The report concludes that reformers seeking to enhance college performance and accountability should focus not on fabricated outcome measures but instead on the actual outputs from students' academic engagement, the best indicators of whether a college is providing the quality teaching, financial aid, and supportive environment that make higher learning possible, especially for the disadvantaged.
This report is the first of a series from The Century Foundation, sponsored by Pearson. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Pearson. The series grew out of an August 2014 conference at which researchers and several university presidents were exploring new paths to diversity in higher education in light of emerging legal constraints on race-based affirmative action. As participants discussed ideas to ensure access for low-income and minority students, university leaders were equally concerned about how to improve rates of college graduation by disadvantaged students.