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Accountability and Opportunity in Higher Education: The Civil Rights Dimension

reviewed by Olubowale Emiola Oyefuga & Jeffery Wilson - October 01, 2018

coverTitle: Accountability and Opportunity in Higher Education: The Civil Rights Dimension
Author(s): Gary Orfield & Nicholas Hillman (Eds.)
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682531473, Pages: 224, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

The essence of Accountability and Opportunity in Higher Education: The Civil Rights Dimension by Gary Orfield and Nicholas Hillman is that it offers useful insights for anyone interested in understanding the issues affecting accountability in higher education, ranging from federal and state policies to financial aid and school choice. The book lays out the racial disparities observed in college admission, retention, and graduation rates. Many of these can be linked to inadequate pre-college preparation, especially for minority and underrepresented students. Also, the federal and state accountability structures do not pay adequate attention to issues of equity, which in some instances, as seen in a longitudinal study conducted in Texas in 2002 (Chapter Five), stem from a lack of financial means and inadequate academic preparation (p. 106).

The introductory chapter challenges one to think about what higher education policies are in place and why these policies may not always be helpful from a human rights perspective because of their unintended consequences. Chapter One underscores the fact that politics and education are inseparable, but not always beneficial to each other. It highlights the complexity of American society and its higher education system, and how it truly feels like comparing apples and pears when one tries to “compare colleges serving different groups on the same outcomes” (p. 38).

Chapter Two, “State Accountability Policies,” makes the case that accountability policies need to give attention to all institutions; not only to those able to graduate students on time, but also to those admitting disadvantaged students. Performance/Results-based financing (pay-for-performance) does not often look at the process of achieving the desired outcome, and many equity issues can be ignored, making things worse for the intended beneficiaries. Likewise, state plans/policies for achieving equity in higher education need to be agreed upon and coherent; if the rules are not made clear, any means may be taken to achieve them.

In Chapter Three, a case is made for Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), as MSIs may hold the key to resolving the imbalance with racial disparities in college attainment. Based on their potential, more attention needs to be given to them. The chapter makes some recommendations to policymakers, researchers, and practitioners, particularly the notion that MSIs need to build coalitions rather than work in silos. This will in return maximize their potential.

Chapter Four suggests that the use of the Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System (IPEDS) does not currently provide robust enough information on student characteristics that could inform good policymaking. Without proper and correct information, it is impossible to propose a one-size-fits-all solution to increasing graduation rates, especially since all institutions are not being accessed on the same criteria. Factors identified by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) regarding first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students can reveal what can be done in other institutions to achieve better outcomes.

In Chapter Five, a longitudinal study conducted in Texas in 2002 highlights the similarities and differences between Hispanic and White, and Black and White students’ completion rates across different higher education institutions. The results suggest that the problem of college completion could be financially influenced or a result of academic preparation depending on your race (p. 106).

In Chapter Six, accountability frameworks propose the application of regression-adjusted analysis in predicting institutional graduation rates. When data is adjusted based on different variables, different results are revealed, making the use of regression-adjusted data not quite suitable. Chapter Seven shows that “local higher education markets are unequal and are drawn along lines of race and class” (p. 137).  Chapter Eight shows how a HBCU (Dillard University) with modest tuition and fee charges still experienced high attrition due to financial aid issues experienced by its students, and the Katrina crisis. This study demonstrates how institutions, due to no fault of their own, can experience attrition and low retention arising from the financial needs of students. This in turn impacts budget issues and affects graduation rates, and has implications for accountability measures that use graduation rates.

Lastly, Chapter Nine, appropriately titled “Student Debt Accountability and Its Unintended Racial Consequences,” highlights the loan game. A spotlight is put on the vicious cycle that results from low graduation and student loans. The chapter shows how “default rates are rising because of low college completion rates, debt held by low-income families, and jobs not providing income sufficient to pay off debt” (p. 152). And yet these loans do not always meet the financial needs of students, so they drop out. Overall, the rising cost of higher education and the restrictions to accessing loans has had a disproportionate effect on minority students. The book concludes with the notion that accountability systems are mostly not equitable and can exacerbate problems rather than resolve them. Accountability systems need to be realistic and take into account existing societal realities, and civil rights are key to accountability measures/systems that work.

While not a criticism, as most of the studies in the book used the U.S. Department of Education’s aggregated student racial/ethnic categories, the addition of more racial/ethnic disaggregated data would have better reflected the growing diversity in American higher education institutions. In Chapter Three, for example, the assumption is that educational/professional outcomes attributed to Black/African American individuals also includes students who identify as Black or African, but are not American. The same can be argued for other groups. Further disaggregated data in some of the studies, in our opinion, would help reveal unconsidered disparities that could inform efforts to improve educational outcomes for all students.

One of the many joys of this book is that the essays do not just highlight the problems of accountability; they also suggest solutions to these problems. For example, Chapter Three, “Accountability and the Key Role of Minority-Serving Institutions,” notes that these institutions would benefit from building coalitions rather than working in silos to strengthen their advantage. The book is appealing to those with an interest in the public discourse on higher education policy and accountability. The authors have succeeded in providing an in-depth analysis of equity in the accountability systems of higher education on the national and local levels. The book will be of value to anyone who wants to understand accountability and opportunity in higher education from a civil rights point of view.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 01, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22516, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 2:06:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Olubowale Oyefuga
    Virginia Commonwealth University
    E-mail Author
    OLUBOWALE EMIOLA OYEFUGA is a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership, Policy and Justice track in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University.
  • Jeffery Wilson
    Virginia Commonwealth University
    E-mail Author
    JEFFERY WILSON is an associate professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. His research interests are centered on diversity and leadership in higher education.
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