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Context and Rationale

The United States has been exceptionally well served by its varied, accessible, and intellectually self-directed colleges and universities. Our tradition of intellectual freedom and institutional diversity has made the American system of higher education the envy of the world.

As highly regarded as our system is, we face some formidable challenges. Other nations have surpassed the United States in terms of the percentages of their populations achieving postsecondary degrees. Our levels of attainment have remained static, primarily because college access and degree completion rates are still sharply stratified by income and ethnicity. As the demographic composition of our society continues to change rapidly, we must reverse these inherited inequities. Moreover, most Americans will need education beyond high school to prosper economically. The world is demanding more of college graduates than ever before, but students’ levels of achievement are not increasing accordingly. Finally, and perhaps most important, higher education has an obligation to our democracy as well as our economy. A college degree should ensure that graduates are well prepared to contribute to society as knowledgeable, engaged, and active citizens.

In order to meet these challenges, we in the higher education community must continually seek, and find, better ways to reach our common goal of helping all the students we serve realize their full potential. We need to make clear, for ourselves and our various constituencies, what our aims are, how we seek to achieve them, and how well we do so. This requires continuing efforts in many quarters to make higher education a challenging and rigorous experience for all students―for their benefit and society’s as well. To do so, we in higher education must constantly monitor the quality of student learning and development, and use the results both to improve achievement and to demonstrate the value of our work to the public. We must not settle for anything less.

For the past several years leaders in higher education have had ongoing discussions about how to meet these challenges. In January 2008, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Council of Higher Education (CHEA), with support from the Teagle Foundation, released a document, New Leadership for Student Learning and Accountability: A Statement of Principles, Commitments to Action, It described some of the challenges facing higher education, articulated some broad principles concerning setting educational goals, gathering evidence, communicating results, and the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders around these issues.

Equally important, it suggested a number of broad actions that “we” would take “to address the vital issues of transparency and accountability through rigorous attention to the performance of our colleges and universities.” These included disseminating and promoting the New Leadership document, promoting greater definition and clarity with regard to educational goals, encouraging the continued development of accountability templates, promoting and publicizing the range of assessment efforts, working with a variety of constituencies (philanthropy, government, business) on these issues, to “constantly monitor the quality of student learning and development, and use the results both to improve achievement and to demonstrate the value of our work to the public,” and to “regularly report to the public on the overall progress made in achieving these actions.”

As significant as the development of this statement was, there remains the challenge of moving from a statement of principles to the collective, collaborative actions called for in the document. Namely, how do “we” create some widely shared norms for putting these principles into practice in higher education? What kind(s) of shared expectations can be created, and how, for these principles that is consistent with the institutional and professional autonomy characteristic of American higher education? How do “we” create greater unity and coherence in the enterprise of higher education in ways that can be embraced by its many internal and external stakeholders and conveyed clearly and compellingly to the public?