The rise of accountability standards has pressed higher education organizations to oversee the production and publication of data on student outcomes more closely than in the past. However, the most common measure of student outcomes, average bachelor's degree completion rates, potentially provides little information about the direct impacts of colleges and universities on student success. 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 but where those technical outputs provide limited insight into the direct role of colleges and universities in producing them. I test this hypothesis using administrative data from the largest, public, urban university system in the United States together with fixed effects regression and entropy balancing techniques, allowing me to isolate organizational effects. My results provide evidence for superficial coupling, suggesting that inequality in college effectiveness exists both between colleges and within colleges, given students' racial background and family income. They also 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.
accountability, organizational effects, higher education, college completion, race & social class