Laws & Guidance HIGHER EDUCATION
Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965
Jeanne Adkins, Director, Colorado Student Loan Program Speaking on Behalf of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education
Archived Information



Testimony Regarding State Accountability Measures
Colorado Department of Higher Education
Kansas City, Department of Education Hearing
March 7, 2003


Assistant Secretary Sally L. Stroup, Office of Postsecondary Education
Deputy Assistant Secretary Jeff Andrade, Policy, Planning and Innovation
Deputy Assistant Secretary Will Bryant, Higher Education Programs

My name is Jeanne Adkins, current Director of the Colorado Student Loan Program, and previously Director of Policy and Planning for the Colorado Department of Higher Education. I am speaking today on behalf of Tim Foster, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE). Thank you for the opportunity to address the issue of measuring accountability in higher education in connection with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Colorado's General Assembly in 1996 implemented the Quality Indicator System, requiring the CCHE to establish benchmarks and begin collecting data in 1998 concerning seven quality measures it believed were important to evaluate the performance of the state's 28 public institutions. Although the legislation allows private institutions in the state to also submit data for publication on the same measures voluntarily, none have chosen to do so.

The state has since 1999 required institutions to submit annually data on the quality measures. These measures include:

  • Baccalaureate graduation rates after four, five and six years of attendance at the state's four-year schools and three-year graduation rates at the state's two-year institutions.
  • Student retention rates - measuring persistence from one year to the next at both four-year and two-year institutions.
  • Minority student baccalaureate graduation rates after six years, four-year institutions; minority graduation rates after three years, two-year institutions and minority student retention rates after one year, two-year and four-year institutions.
  • Achievement Scores of graduates in specific cohorts of four-year institutions on licensure, professional, graduate school admission exams and other similar exams taken by seniors graduating from four-year schools within defined cohort; for two-year institutions, measuring the graduates employed in related career and technical program fields or enrolled to continue toward a baccalaureate at a four-year institution.
  • Funds spent on instruction vs. non-instruction areas of the institution's budget measured both as a percentage of the total budget and on a per-full-time equivalent student basis.
  • Class size averages at the institution (20 or fewer students and 50 or more at four-year schools; 15 or fewer and 35 or more at two-year schools).
  • The Faculty Instructional Workload - based on a statewide definition encompassing the number of class preparations and actual teaching sessions - at each institution.

Points are assigned to each measure and readdressed annually. Benchmarks were established to accomplish the state legislature's goal of improving performance on these measures, not just setting a low bar for easy achievement.

The system has two purposes by statute - first to provide consumer information in an easily readable form for comparative purposes for the state's postsecondary students and their parents. The second correlates directly to new funding received by the state's higher education institutions. Each year since the 2000 state budget, the largest portion of new funding for institutions has been allocated via a performance formula based on these measures.

The Commission has viewed the program as a success for consumers and for institutions. For example, the statute set a goal of achieving a four-year graduation by the majority of students in four-year colleges and within two-years at the community colleges. Colorado schools, like those in other states, saw a rising number of credit hours to complete degree programs. Some degree programs - non-technical - at four-year schools were requiring credit hours completion of between 135 and 145 and higher. Certificate programs at two-year colleges were topping out at 120 credit hours. Students in degree programs beyond 120 to 126 credit hours have difficulty completing in four years. Obviously, the two-year schools' program requirements had increased to what normally would be four-year requirement.

The state legislature actually mandated a credit-hour reduction. As institutions have re-evaluated degree course requirements and changed them, four-year graduation rates have improved. In fact, some institutions have actually issued press releases touting these improvements, leading the Commission to the conclusion that despite initial institutional objections, the quality measures have yielded concrete results. Over time, the Commission believes significantly greater progress will be made in retention and graduation rates as institutions complete the re-evaluation of core class requirements and major requirements.

Why does this matter? What has Colorado learned?

Neither parents and students nor the state have infinite financial resources to stoke the higher education budget furnace. As elsewhere, rising costs have collided with a tight state budget. Since resources are finite, the state legislature wants its state financial aid resources to help as many students as possible. Each student on financial aid who fails to complete in four years keeps his/her financial aid dollars from recycling to new freshmen. The longer students stay in school, the more non-financial aid state resources - the state's current institutional subsidy - must grow to meet new enrollment needs.

The General Assembly, backed by the Commission and the Governor, believed the traditional hands-off approach to measuring institutions was actually a disincentive for institutions to retain students and ensure they graduated.

Not only were the state's financial resources at play longer, resources from parents and students were becoming more and more strained, generally resulting in higher borrowing levels for students. While you might think wearing my current student loan program hat that would be a desirable goal, quite the reverse is true. Both from a personal and professional perspective, the length of time students spend in school have a direct correlation in Colorado to completion rates. We have insufficient research to determine if the correlation converts to causation, but the department is examining ways to approach that research.

We do know that most students who default on their loans have two and a half loans. Generally, they are completing two years or less of a program. At that point, they enter the job arena somewhere between high school graduates and those who earn baccalaureate degrees. According to the census bureau the high school graduate at 25 earned an average of $30,400, the person with a two-year degree earned $38,200. But the person with the baccalaureate degree by age 25 had an average income of $52,200. (Source U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports via Internet)

If that same student who fails to persist and does not graduate subsequently buys a car and gets married and starts a family, the last personal budget item he/she will care about is the student loan payment due for an education he/she failed to complete.

Colorado's corresponding concern is that cost issues impact students in the bottom income quartile most significantly. With rising numbers of its citizens falling into those income categories, the Commission views increasing participation of low-income students across the board as crucial.

As a result, it inaugurated in 1999 the Governor's Opportunity Scholarship Program, which focuses resources on students for whom the idea of going to school seems impossible. In fact, for many of these 1,710 students, their contribution to family income - which they must forego to attend school - is a major issue. Through the program, the state requires participating schools to provide direct mentoring and assistance to these students. Simply providing financial resources is not enough. Take the example of one student at the University of Northern Colorado who was a first-year GOS recipient. He went for a week without food because he did not understand that his funding provided him the opportunity to eat in the dining hall.

The program also has significantly increased the number of minority students at both two-year and four-year schools since minority families in Colorado are disproportionately represented in the lower income quartile. The program requires that loans not be a part of the financial aid package for these students. Institutions seeking to participate in the program must offer institutional aid if there is a gap between what the state provides, federal funds and state financial aid available. The program is available for students attending the state's private non-profit institutions, where institutional resources almost always must be added to the student's resource pool.

I have submitted as part of the written testimony here today a copy of the assessment of this program's first four years. Measures of the students' performance included grade-point averages, credit hours completed, degree completion and retention as well as an assessment of race and ethnic factors.

The initial evaluation of the program shows that these scholarship students exceed overall institutional retention rates measured in the Quality Indicator Assessments at most institutions. For two-year institutions, these students surpass their non-GOS counterparts by 17% in the first cohort and by 13% in the second on the retention rate measure.

Again, the program represents Colorado's executive branch and legislative branch seeking to improve citizen access and participation in postsecondary education through programs that have accountability measures built in from the beginning.

Providing an objective, readily available comparison of the number of factors measured in the state's accountability effort is a key element of its success from both the Commission's perspective and the perspective of the General Assembly. In fact, the legislature required that the agency publish the quality measures annually.

The first Consumer Guide to Colorado Higher Education was published in 1999, aiding students and parents exploring college options for the 2000 academic year. It was shipped to every high school in the state and available at public libraries. An on-line version debuted in 2000 to accompany the published version. Currently, the Consumer Guide is updated in real time as information is submitted to the Commission and available for every public institution in several comparative formats at www.coloradomentor.org.

The state's higher education website received national recognition for its ease of access and the information it provides to potential postsecondary students - both traditional and adult. A paper Consumer Guide is still published, but its publication and distribution are more limited now that the on-line version is available and more current.

While we believe Colorado's venture into providing uniform accountability assessment, creating a resource for consumers - read parents and students - and connecting those measurements to financial incentives has seen measurable success, Colorado does not advocate duplicating our efforts at the federal level.

The administration and the general assembly have long histories in our state of preferring state flexibility over federal dictates. We are providing our testimony as an example of a state that has taken the initiative to tie performance to funding institutions. State financial aid is similarly tied to performance measures at the institutions, although allocations are not tied to the same measures. The state's interest is in ensuring that its finite financial aid resources are being allocated to the most needy students for need-based aid and on academic performance and achievement for merit-based state aid. The Commission does measure institutional performance in allocating the state aid for compliance with Commission performance policies.

Should the administration and Congress debate the accountability issue during reauthorization discussions; Colorado stands behind a policy that says accountability is possible, but that states should be charged with developing their systems. Flexibility, rather than rigid guidelines, brings far more good information - and potential change - in our view.

If Congress and the Department of Education choose to examine performance issues, the Commission has reached the following general conclusions at the end of the its sixth year of the program:

  • The most important measures are graduation rates and year-to-year retention rates.
  • Definitions must be uniform and agreed to by all parties.
  • Initial benchmarks must move at some interval. Leaving them static results in less improvement.
  • Measurements must be easily understood.
  • Results should be published so the students/parents can easily interpret them and make reasonable comparisons. The public distribution of the information improves performance.
  • All institutions must be measured in the same way.
  • Achievement that is tied to funding incentives yields results.
  • Programs to improve minority participation are less successful than income-based programs. Neither is very successful without expanded mentoring and attention to these lower-income students' different needs.

On behalf of Colorado and its Department of Higher Education, I want to thank you again for the invitation to address this issue. The Governor's Opportunity Scholarship assessment and the Performance Funding Report, both of which are being presented today to the Commission in Colorado, are attached to provide more detail on these issues.

Supporting Document 1 [PDF]
Supporting Document 2 [PDF]
Supporting Document 3 [PDF]

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Last Modified: 02/05/2009