The Practical Side of Higher Education Accountability

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Nicholas HillmanBy Nicholas Hillman

"Colleges need to be more accountable for their outcomes."

"Higher education operates in an accountability-free zone."

"Better accountability will lead to better outcomes."

These refrains are the undercurrents of nearly every higher education policy conversation taking place in Washington, D.C., today. Advocacy groups, membership organizations, congressional staffers, researchers, and elected officials are all wrestling with how to leverage accountability to meet the needs of students and taxpayers.[i]  

Given today's political polarization and interest-group politics, it is hard enough to improve accountability. But it is even more challenging when the higher education policy community disagrees on — and doesn't even define — what "accountability" means in the first place.

It is critical that we define accountability and then address some simple, but sometimes hard-to-answer, practical questions about how to do accountability well. These questions should be more central in accountability conversations than they currently are because answering them will help accountability advocates move from abstract ideas to practical actions.

Defining Accountability

At its core, accountability is all about answerability: who is answerable to whom, for what, and with what consequences?  The "who" and "what" will differ depending on which one of the four types of accountability are of interest: hierarchical, professional, legal, or political.[ii]

  • Hierarchical: Supervisors create internal rules, policies, and procedures that monitor and evaluate workers/subordinates in order to achieve organizational objectives (e.g., financial aid directors are answerable to their chancellor, president, vice president, or other executive officers). 
  • Professional: Community standards hold professionals accountable to one another for meeting those standards with fidelity. Failing to meet standards results in loss of standing within the profession (e.g., accreditation, peer review, and professional associations establish and ultimately judge how well members meet those standards).
  • Legal: Rules, laws, and regulations mandate or permit certain actions (e.g., program participation agreements require institutions to comply with Title IV of the Higher Education Act).
  • Political: Elected officials articulate policy objectives in response to external demands; failing to do so will result in loss of political office (e.g., Congress deliberates and decides how to respond to public concerns about financing higher education).

For example, faculty members are professionally accountable to their scholarly peers, hierarchically accountable to their department chairs, and legally accountable to federal and state laws. Within any college or university, its faculty, staff, and administrators will find themselves working in a multi-layered — and often contradictory — accountability environment that can put goals, resources, and stakeholders in conflict with one another.[iii]

Three Basic Questions

Accountability advocates who want to make positive and lasting change should wrestle with this complexity. One way to do this is by answering the following three basic questions articulating who is to do what, how they should do it, and with what resources:

  • Whose actions need to change?
  • What should they do differently?
  • Why aren't they doing it now?

Let's take student loan repayment, for example. Given the extreme racial and wealth gaps researchers have exposed, and in light of growing public concern, policymakers are understandably interested in holding colleges more accountable for loan repayment outcomes.[iv] They are even interested in holding academic programs within colleges accountable for loan repayment outcomes.

The entire premise of accountability — or answerability — requires an outcome to be linked directly to specific actions and actors on college campuses. Failing to make those links not only results in suboptimal implementation but also will likely leave the problem unchanged.

To help link any broad accountability goal with actionable steps, accountability advocates should first identify who is responsible for fixing the problem. In the case of student loan repayment, advocates should identify who is responsible for improving the repayment outcomes of students several years after they leave the institution. Some institutions may put that responsibility on the financial aid office, others on the academic program chair, and still others on the career counselors.

By identifying who (either individually or as a group) is responsible for taking action, accountability efforts can then make specific constituencies more aware and ultimately answerable for their actions. This exercise may even reveal a particular accountability outcome is beyond the direct and unambiguous control of any individual or group.

After answering the "who" question, accountability conversations should answer what specific actions, behaviors, or practices these actors need to change. Accountability conversations often identify problems that need to be solved, so advocates need to develop a good sense of the actions necessary to solve them.

For example, if we assume the financial aid office should do more proactive exit counseling to improve repayment metrics, then accountability advocates should be able to point to scientifically sound evidence justifying this intervention. They should also be able to identify specific practices and actions that matter for successful repayment. Without guidance, college officials may not know what to do to solve the problem and may turn to unproven practices, shortcuts, or other ways to game the accountability system, ultimately leaving the underlying problem unresolved – or perhaps even worse.  

Assuming there are clear answers for the first two questions, the third question requires an understanding and explanation behind why colleges might not be improving their outcomes. There could be two extremely different underlying reasons for non-responsiveness. One is that an institution is not intrinsically motivated or is simply unwilling to do so. Another is that an institution desires change but does not have the internal human, technical, or financial capacity to do so. Both cases are likely to result in suboptimal outcomes due to these underlying problems, which accountability systems should be able to detect well in advance. Each may require very different types of oversight and answerability.

These three questions are not designed to shield against accountability, nor are they here to protect the status quo. It is very much the opposite: these questions are an exercise in linking the chain of events from abstract policy goals to practical responses. Doing so should help accountability efforts make more sustainable and meaningful differences for current and future college students. 

Maintaining Healthy Pressure

College and university administrators are answerable to several different (and sometimes competing) stakeholders, resulting in a web of accountability. They often have limited time and money to adequately respond, yet calls for accountability are only growing louder. As a result, administrators may find themselves responding to questions they may not yet know how to answer.

This pressure can be very healthy for colleges where external accountability (i.e., legal or political accountability) can bring about desired changes. But this can also fall short or even backfire if external pressure is applied to the wrong places or is out of touch with internal practices (i.e., hierarchical or professional accountability).

To help apply pressure to the right places, any of the four types of accountability should go far beyond identifying a problem – it must also give guidance on who is responsible for solving it, how, and with what resources. Doing so will move accountability conversations away from abstract goals toward specific actions, providing the guidance and resources colleges need to improve outcomes and better serve both students and taxpayers.


Nicholas Hillman is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hillman's research examines how finance, policy, and geography shape educational opportunities in the United States. He also directs the Student Success Through Applied Research Lab, a research-practice partnership with the university's Division of Enrollment Management and Office of Student Financial Aid. Hillman is co-editor of the 2018 book Accountability and Opportunity in Higher Education: The Civil Rights Dimension and is a faculty affiliate with the University of Wisconsin's Institute for Research on Poverty and the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

[i] See Kelchen, R. (2018). Higher education accountability. Johns Hopkins University Press.

[ii] See Romzek, B. (2000). Dynamics of public sector accountability in an era of reform. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 66, 21-44.

[iii] See Brown, J. (2017). Leading Colleges & Universities in a New Policy Era: How to Understand the Complex Landscape of Higher Education Accountability. Change Magazine, 50(2), 30-39.

[iv] See Scott-Clayton, J. (2018). What accounts for gaps in student loan default, and what happens after. Brookings Institution and Houle J. & Addo, F. (2019). Racial disparities in student debt and the reproduction of the fragile black middle class. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5(4),


Publication Date: 3/24/2020

Jim E | 3/24/2020 11:7:53 AM

Dr. Hillman presents a useful framework for considering the broad accountability question. In my view higher education took a radical turn in an inappropriate direction when it appropriated concepts, terminology, and procedures from the world of private American business in redesigning how it manages its affairs. Enrollment "management, ""client services," the overemphasis on branding, Total Quality Assurance, etc. - all of this stuff was brought in because that is how the "business world" did things. This has only lead to where we are now, where as "businesses" we are held to the same accountability standards as manufacturers and retail shops, when arguably we manage and sell a different "product." Too late to push back, because that ship has sailed, the horse is out of the barn, and so forth? I think not -- it's never too late to reclaim the soul of one's endeavors.

Robert W | 3/24/2020 10:33:26 AM

Higher education is fertile ground for cost cutting and mergers. College CEOs are overpaid, in most cases, and administration and student services, including athletics, are top heavy. There is too much duplication of degree programs among institutions within small geographic areas. There can not be a serious discussion, in my opinion, about accountability, affordability, and student loan debt without including cost cutting, consolidation, and downsizing.

Bob Walker
Tupelo, MS

Julie D | 3/24/2020 8:44:07 AM

One thing that needs to change ASAP for the taxpayer....The NCAA went to Autonomy and award a full ride student athlete with a full cost of attendance. we should not ALSO pay them an additional $6345 in a Pell Grant! NCAA allows it, and Federal Government allows it. Needs to stop!

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