It’s time to define quality – for students’ sake

Jamie Merisotis1_Dec2011As an organization whose sole mission is to increase college attainment, Lumina Foundation has always emphasized educational quality. True, Goal 2025, the goal that drives all of our work, is quantifiable: It calls for 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality degrees, certificates or other postsecondary credentials by 2025. But it isn’t all about numbers. By calling specifically for “high-quality” credentials, Goal 2025 makes clear that they must reflect rigorous and relevant learning.

You see, students don’t need just credentials. What they need — and what our global economy and democratic society increasingly demand — is the learning those credentials signify, the highly developed knowledge and skills that postsecondary education provides.

That’s why, in the drive to increase college attainment, it’s not enough to simply count credentials; the credentials themselves must count. This document, the Degree Qualifications Profile, is designed to ensure that they do.

In the drive to increase college attainment, it’s not enough to simply count credentials; the credentials themselves must count. The DQP isn’t exactly a secret. Authored by four eminent scholars and honed by input from experts from all over the globe, the DQP is gaining traction on campuses throughout the nation. In fact, after nearly four years of “beta testing” at more than 400 colleges and universities in 45 states, the DQP has already proven its value as a tool for fostering and ensuring high-quality learning at the college level.

Its specific, well-articulated learning outcomes have made educational pathways more clear and concrete for students at all types of institutions. Paired with the complementary, discipline-specific process of Tuning, the DQP has engaged faculty members in the vital work of improving courses and shaping programs of study at scores of institutions. At others, it has helped focus and streamline the accreditation process.

Even in its formative stages, the DQP showed great promise as a practical tool for meaningful change on America’s campuses. And now, bolstered by the lessons learned in its years-long “beta” phase, this new version is poised to fully realize that promise. In fact, we at Lumina see the DQP as a lever that can aid a vital and inevitable shift in American higher education: the shift from a time-based, institution-centric system to one that is based on learning and designed with students’ needs at the center.

This momentous shift shouldn’t be news to any of us. It’s been underway for years, propelled by several interrelated forces.

First of all, the nation’s need for talent — for individuals who are well equipped to succeed in the modern, global workforce — is huge and growing. Employers continually lament the lack not just of specialized technical expertise, but also vital “soft skills” such as critical thinking, communication and teamwork. In today’s world, everyone needs both, and higher education must be the major resource for developing these talented citizens.

Second, as higher education’s role becomes more critical to society and the economy, policymakers and the public call ever louder for the academy to be more accountable, more productive and more responsible. Today, as never before, institutions must be able to clearly and persuasively articulate the value — in terms of specific learning outcomes — that their programs add to students’ lives.

Third, as our economy and society demand more talent, the need to link all forms of postsecondary learning in a common system of credentials has become acute. All learning should count, wherever and however it is obtained, and credentials should clearly and transparently represent underlying skills and knowledge. In a knowledge-based world, everyone should have a path forward to further levels of education, whether it’s from an associate degree to a bachelor’s, from a workforce-relevant certificate to a degree, or from a degree to a career. By defining the learning outcomes that degrees represent, the DQP will help build bridges between all systems of postsecondary learning.   

Finally, students themselves need this change to happen. College-level learning has become vital to success, but more students than ever before are “nontraditional” in some way — working adults, low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, second-career professionals, you name it. All of them — and traditional students, too — need a clear path to success.

We believe these demands are clear, and that quality in higher education will be better defined. The only real questions are “How?” and “By whom?”

By using the DQP and its allied Tuning process, institutions can answer those questions in the best possible way. Specifically, the DQP empowers faculty to lead the process to clearly define degrees and credentials according to what really matters: the specific learning outcomes those credentials signify. In short, the DQP shifts the discussion from “What are we going to teach?” to “What should our students learn? What knowledge and skills do they need to thrive?”

That discussion has already shifted on hundreds of campuses. Now it’s time to change the national discussion — to scale up use of the DQP and Tuning and apply them broadly as tools to help build a learning-based, student-centered system. Now it’s time to go big; millions of students are counting on it.

We at Lumina are committed to that course — and to the success of those students. We urge you to join us.

Jamie P. Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation