The United States is widely revered for its presumed excellence in higher education, and it now seems commonplace to characterize our postsecondary system as “the envy of the world” (e.g., Khator 2011). In fact, according to the Academic Ranking of World Universities—which heavily weights research productivity—fifty of the top 100 universities globally reside in the United States (Shanghai Ranking Consultancy 2016). Few informed observers, however, would equate research prowess with educational effectiveness. Indeed, the educational quality of postsecondary institutions has been increasingly called into question as evidence periodically surfaces of marginal knowledge and skill acquisition among college graduates (Arum and Roska 2011; Kutner et al. 2007; Desjardins et al. 2013). For example, results from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy indicated that only 40 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients were proficient in prose literacy in 1992, a figure that fell to 31 percent in 2003 (Kutner et al. 2007). More recently, a national survey revealed that only 24 percent of employers agreed that college graduates were well prepared for “applying knowledge/skills to [the] real world” (Hart Research Associates 2015, 12).
Concerns about educational quality have also emerged amidst competing state budgetary priorities and low graduation rates, as colleges and universities are pressured to provide evidence of their value, effectiveness, and efficiency, thereby ensuring that taxpayer investments 4 Aaron S. Horn and David A. Tandberg in higher education are being utilized responsibly. Policy makers have thus issued a clarion call for greater accountability related to educational quality in the postsecondary sector, particularly the need to collect and publicize data on student learning outcomes (e.g., Reindl and Reyna 2011; SHEEO 2005; U.S. Department of Education 2006). This chapter seeks to inform policy discourse by providing an overview of performance indicators used to evaluate educational quality for purposes of public accountability and improvement in higher education.