Colleges and universities long have sought the seal of approval from accrediting agencies.
Now schools increasingly are being held publicly accountable for results as students and their families try to see if they are getting their money's worth.
Many schools are expanding the ways they measure their performance with sometimes elaborate systems of student and staff surveys, self-studies and databases in which thousands of factors are evaluated to support decision-making.
Losing accreditation is an extreme -- and extremely rare -- consequence in the range of possible outcomes for a college or university's performance evaluation, according to higher education administrators.
But for many schools, a desire for continuous self-improvement -- not the preservation of accreditation -- is the reason for the increasingly complex systems of evaluation and accountability, said Mike Dooris, executive director of the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment at Penn State University.
"We're defining those goals ourselves and accepting the responsibility to strive toward them and try to achieve them," Mr. Dooris said. "To the extent we achieve them, we become a better public research university."
The idea of holding schools publicly accountable has been a hot topic since 2006 when a report was issued by the U.S. Department of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which was commissioned by then Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
Some of the ideas have not gained traction, but the idea of using data for improvement and accountability has become increasingly important.
Some of the information is developed only for in-house use.
Still, students and their families can find statistics -- ranging from SAT scores to graduation and retention rates -- from every school in the federal student aid program online at http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator.
Many schools publish fact books or common data sets on their websites.
At its most basic, performance is assessed by their accrediting agency. In Pennsylvania and some other locations, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a voluntary membership association, sets the standards for and evaluates the performance of degree-granting colleges and universities.
Accrediting commissions examine each institution as a whole, rather than its specific programs, which can be accredited separately by their own associations. The Middle States reports can be viewed at www.msche.org.
At Penn State, administrators operate under a five-year strategic planning cycle, with the current plan ending in the 2013-14 school year.
As part of the plan, officials set seven university-level goals: Enhance student success; advance academic and research excellence; realize Penn State's potential as a global university; maintain access, affordability and enhance diversity; serve the people of the commonwealth and beyond; use technology to expand access and opportunities; and control costs and generate additional efficiencies.
Under each goal, university officials have established a set of strategies to achieve the goal, and ways to measure its achievement.
Under "enhancing student success," for instance, Penn State tracks students' four- and six-year graduation rates, and job placement and retention, among other measurements. Administrators looking to control costs and generate additional efficiencies examine research expenditures and awards as part of their assessment.
The assessment matrix also identifies offices and people responsible for coordinating, reporting and leading progress on those strategies according to a timeline.
"We do try to base decision-making on evidence when we can," Mr. Dooris said.
At the University of Pittsburgh, there has been a "notable increase university-wide in the use of assessment to help measure progress toward stated goals," such as retention rates, graduation rates, student satisfaction, and research and development expenditures, according to the university's self-study report published in April.
By looking at the data on what was working well and what needed improvement, the study states, the university was able to target its resources toward high-priority infrastructure investments such as information technology, facilities and the library system.
Instead of organizing assessment within one central office, as at Penn State, Pitt has decentralized the assessment process to allow individual departments and units to develop methods that make sense for them "while insisting nonetheless that the measures developed be rigorous, meaningful and tied to goals," according to the most recent accreditation report from the Middle States Commission.
As a result, each office or department is responsible for establishing its own goals and assessing progress toward them, the report states. The outcomes are then evaluated for how they could or should impact long-term planning and budgets, creating "consequences that matter" and "an impressive sense of ownership of the process, even among those who initially were skeptical about it," the report states.
At California University of Pennsylvania -- as at Pitt, Penn State and many other colleges and universities across the nation -- less easily measurable factors are gathered by asking students to participate in the annual National Survey of Student Engagement, said president Geraldine M. Jones.
The survey includes questions on dozens of topics, including students' civic involvement; evaluation of courses offered and their rigor; and the time students spend studying, participating in class discussions and joining in extra-curricular activities. The results are used in-house.
"That helps us to measure and see how we are doing next to other schools in the country of our size," Ms. Jones said.
Results of that survey, along with traditional measures such as graduation rates and enrollment, help the university make decisions about what needs improvement, she said.
When the university experienced a dip in enrollment last fall, for instance, university officials looked at whether the university was responding quickly to inquiries from potential students and worked to award financial aid as early in the year as possible to help persuade students to enroll at Cal U, Ms. Jones said.
"For every action, there's a reaction, so that forced us to take a look at ourselves to see how we could improve," Ms. Jones said of the enrollment setback. "We see that as an opportunity for improvement."
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or firstname.lastname@example.org