At the annual meetings this past November  AASCU and NASULGC unveiled the College Portrait as part of the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA).* This new voluntary informational tool was developed in response to the Spellings Commission recommendations for greater accountability and transparency among higher education institutions.
. . . accurate institutional information will almost certainly enhance the confidence of the public and legislators . . .
As “voluntary’ entities, public universities have a choice whether to participate in this important new initiative. During the last couple of months a few public institutions have even made a point of publicly acknowledging their refusal to join the VSA College Portrait citing primarily faculty concerns about comparative uses of standardized testing and other issues related to student personal data. Other universities including Iowa, Tennessee, the California State University, the University of Wisconsin System and the University of North Carolina System have made strong cases for participating in this new approach as a means to increase transparency and accountability. The California State University has even taken the College Portrait a significant step further by adding additional categorical material to the template for its 23 universities that highlight particular outcomes-based information that is of particular interest to legislators, business leaders and taxpayers. The “public good” section of the Cal State plan includes data that highlight the number of degrees granted in high demand fields such as nursing, engineering and education, while also providing critical data regarding the diversity of each graduating class. The Cal State approach assumes that it is a self-evident public good to render forth information that demonstrates the contributions of institutions to the economic and social well-being of a region. In this light, the “public good” aspect of the Portrait also features comparative student loan debt figures of graduating students, as well as important socioeconomic data such as enrollment and graduation facts of Pell Grant recipients and lower-income students. This information is vital to fully understand how well institutions are succeeding in providing value-added education experiences to students while enhancing the standard of living of all society through the economic spillovers and externalities of higher education.
An ancillary and important benefit of providing a consistent template of this kind for all institutions is that this tool can be used to help address one critical problem in American higher education: market failure. Markets work best when information is available to the consumer and transparency is the rule of the environment. The College Portrait provides an opportunity to not only demonstrate greater accountability and performance, but it further contemplates a system that will place reliable information in the hands of the consumer, or in this case the student. Verifiable information about institutions allow parents and students to be more knowledgeable and thereby reduce reliance on existing unreliable and unsophisticated information that now boosts the sales of various commercial magazines. Such commercial sources while providing some useful data, have very little value in identifying important and relevant aspects of public institutions or their missions. Good, solid, reliable information about actual costs, benefits, educational opportunities and socioeconomic differences among student populations will paint a more accurate portrait of both public and private institutions while also helping to correct false impressions that now reward some universities for increasingly inefficient behavior. Furthermore, accurate institutional information will almost certainly enhance the confidence of legislators in institutions resulting in the possibility of increased funding to those universities that broaden their missions for the public good.
Moreover, to set before the public reliable information about institutions will be an immeasurable benefit in blunting unfounded assertions of quality made by many institutions that now prey on an uninformed public. Often these kinds of assertions associate high price and inefficiency with high quality. AASCU institutions have much to gain by revealing all relevant information regarding their roles in human capital production for the nation and their respective states. The College Portrait gives us a public forum to convey this message in a way that could enlighten legislators, taxpayers, business leaders, students and parents to future educational investment decisions. After all, it is primarily our AASCU universities, along with community colleges, that form the bedrock for higher learning for the masses of Americans.
*AASCU refers to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and NASULGC is the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.
For information about the Voluntary System of Accountability, visit the VSA website at www.voluntarysystem.org