Finding a reasonable basis for comparison

March 22, 2004

The Joint Interim Committee on Higher Education listened to a proposed framework for a higher education accountability system at this morning's meeting.

The joint committee is finishing with its basic education and will breaking up into four working groups in the coming weeks, with the intention of making presentations in June on a number of major committee charges. This morning the committee finished up testimony on accountability systems, hearing from the Texas Tech and University of Houston systems, as well as a second round with the University of Texas system.

Sandwiched between the testimony from universities was a presentation by Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Don Brown and University of North Texas Chancellor Lee Jackson. The two are working together to compile the state's current data and suggest priorities for a possible future accountability system.

"Brown presented a framework of a possible statewide accountability system, possibly using some of the performance measures in THECB's "Closing the Gap" study. "Closing the Gaps" is THECB's effort to close the gaps in student participation, success, excellence and research among universities and across states by 2015.

Jackson, who heads a study group of public university presidents and chancellors working with THECB, presented a survey on what university leaders considered to be factors they wanted included in an accountability system.

The state currently collects approximately 200 different indicators on colleges and universities, Brown said. The goal is to simplify and clarify data reporting in order to provide an accurate apple-to-apple comparison among institutions. The group also wants the information to be easily accessible and easily understood by the public.

Brown urged the group to set a clear and limited number of factors. South Carolina, for instance, recently instituted an accountability system but found it difficult to maintain because success was measured on three-dozen different factors. The state also failed to set adequately challenging standards, Brown said.

In the end, lawmakers and the public must decide which factors are the most valid indicators of institutional success, Brown said. The success of the universities will rise and fall on those indicators, so those factors also should drive performance. If the accountability system drives improved performance, it is a good system; if it doesn't, it isn't.

"We also all know that people in organizations do pay attention with what is measured, especially when money is attached, unless so much is measured that it's hard to figure out the accountability system," Brown told the panel of lawmakers.

Jackson presented a survey of university leaders that was somewhat inconclusive. THECB had surveyed university leaders on-line. The results of those surveys were inconsistent, putting some priorities higher up the list than necessary and delisting others.

Sens. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) and Royce West (D-Dallas) questioned why the survey findings seemed to indicate a greater concern for Hispanic graduates than African-American graduates. Jackson said he probably needed to run the survey questions with the group in person next month so that everyone understood what the options meant. Jackson will return with a better draft, and a proposed accountability system, in May.

There is a difference between accountability measures and a performance system, Brown said. The state has many performance measures. An accountability system, however, measures how institutions perform against those measures. The consequences for both achievement and failure should be made clear in the system, Brown said.

Brown said the Legislative Budget Board audits of universities had provided some measure of accountability in the past, but Chair Sen. Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) disagreed. Sharp questions from lawmakers during a budget hearing is hardly be a serious consequence for universities when the funding formula remained static, she said.

In an echo of some of the testimony before the Joint Public Education Committee, Brown cautioned lawmakers against taking away money for low performance. Taking away money often removes the resources universities need to succeed, Brown said. A far better route is to provide incentives to those institutions that perform well.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) expressed some frustration that lawmakers often had a difficult time deciphering efficiency without a clear understanding of a university's entire budget. Brown agreed the system had to be simple enough to understand and provide enough information to satisfy the questions of both lawmakers and the public.

An accountability system should include comparison with peer institutions and benchmarks from peer institutions, Brown said. That practice was presented by the University of Houston system during its presentation. UH compares itself against a number of out-of-state institutions on performance, including Georgia Tech University.

Any system must have clear measurable goals that have universal support but are not "watered down too far" to make them meaningless, Brown said. The public should understand the goals and universities should be rewarded for meeting those goals. The emphasis should be on both improvement and meeting goals.

Finding a common denominator on university accountability is not easy. The open enrollment University of Houston-Downtown campus has a graduation rate of just 39 percent. On the other hand, the University of Houston-Clear Lake and University of Houston-Victoria cater to students in their junior or senior year of college, as well as those seeking post-baccalaureate degrees. On those campuses, the graduation rate is much closer to 80 or 85 percent.

Brown said the THECB's "Closing the Gap" study fits closely with those parameters, asking universities to show improvement on a small set of targets, with a measurable timeline for both short-term targets and long-term goals. The only piece missing, Brown said, was a measure of fiscal efficiency and effectiveness.

Brown presented an Internet-based scenario for accountability "report card" for the hypothetical Bluebonnet University, based on the goals set out in "Closing the Gap." The on-line graphic showed current achievement and goals, using red, yellow and green bars to denote progress in particular areas. The graphic makes it simple for people to understand whether the college was meeting its goals.

The interim committee, on the whole, praised the accountability data brought by the University of Texas, although Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) asked for the university's own goals to be incorporated into the document. Zaffirini also wanted to stress that 4 years, not 6 years, should be the goal for a degree in the university system.

Shapiro, who co-chairs the committee with Rep. Geannie Morrison (R-Victoria), said the interim committee would review community colleges in April and the THECB in May. Beyond that, members would be broken into four sub-groups to review incoming data: structure of institutions; equity and adequacy of higher education funding; the relationship between student characteristics and funding levels; and the function and activity of university system offices.

© Copyright March 22, 2004 by Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com, All rights are reserved