Christina Ciocca Eller: Superficially Coupled Systems: The Organizational Production of Inequality in Higher Education


Thursday, November 21, 2019, 4:30pm


Sever 106

Mahindra Humanities Seminar - Universities: Past, Present and Future


Christina Ciocca Eller, Harvard University


The rise of accountability standards has pressed higher education organizations to produce and publish data on student outcomes at higher rates than ever before. However, it remains unclear whether the existing accountability standards governing American higher education are aligned with the goal of assessing organizational impacts on student performance. Extending scholarship in the new institutionalist tradition, I hypothesize that higher education organizations today exist as, “superficially coupled systems,” where colleges closely oversee their "technical outputs" in the form of data production and reporting, but where these technical outputs in fact provide limited insight into the direct role of colleges and universities in producing them. I first test the validity of existing data reporting standards in the United States as a tool for assessing organizational performance using administrative data from a large, urban, public university system in the United States, together with fixed effects regression and entropy balancing techniques. I then investigate heterogeneity of effects by student race and family income and conclude by detailing the theoretical basis for superficially coupled systems. My results provide evidence for the disjuncture between standard accountability metrics and the assessment of organizational performance, suggesting that inequality in college effectiveness exists both between colleges and within colleges. The results additionally indicate that institutionalized norms surrounding accountability have backfired, enabling higher education organizations, and other bureaucratic organizations like them, to maintain legitimacy without identifying and addressing inequality.