J. Brown

University of Virginia (UNITED STATES)
Since the late 20th century, colleges and universities have had to respond to persistent calls from multiple social sectors about the expansion of accountability in American higher education. The increased reporting measures are the result of multiple contextual factors that have influenced the system of higher education. In part, the substantial increases in the cost of obtaining a college education have catalyzed the American public to question the value of a post-secondary degree and to call for greater transparency regarding college outcomes. Additionally, many sectors of modern society, such as government, insurance, healthcare, and banking, have been subject to rising levels of standards and standardization as the primary form of regulation, a phenomenon higher education has been unable to avoid. Finally, lawmakers have increasingly emphasized that resource allocation be awarded based on the performance of the organization, necessitating that the college or university give an account of its educational output. The many drivers of accountability have resulted in a complex system of higher education accountability that is comprised of many disparate fields and approaches.

The compounded impact of decades of expanded accountability policies and measures is that universities annually collect multiple types of data at multiple levels in the organization to satisfy multiple regulatory agencies. Administrators and researchers coordinating these efforts within universities have collectively organized into multiple professional fields that advance “best practices” within their respective areas. Seven identified fields function as specialized silos, each with a unique rationality and approach toward matters of higher education accountability, they are: assessment, accreditation, institutional research, institutional effectiveness, educational evaluation, educational measurement and higher education public policy. Within the literature, the seven disparate silos lack engagement with one another and possess conflicting definitions of foundational terms. Thus, an important challenge that remains is comprehending both the complex social context and the many disparate approaches to higher education accountability. In this vein, the aim of this article is to develop a conceptual model within which the persistently different accountability approaches may be understood. Moreover, I argue that future accountability efforts must integrate by examining the knowledge domains of other silos in order to successfully navigate the changing environment of higher education.

This article purports that the differential approaches to higher education accountability can be systematically understood through the lens of institutional logics. Institutional logics is a framework from organizational theory used to understand the responses of actors—organizations and individuals—which operate in complex social environments. The framework gives consideration to both the internal aspects of organizations, as well as the external forces by which they may be influenced. By employing an institutional logics framework to examine the literature on higher education accountability, I situate the seven accountability silos within their broader context that is comprised of the market, state, and profession. I map the complex social context of higher education accountability and thereby systematize the disparate silos into a single conceptual model.