The need for the DQP

shutterstock_58126537Postsecondary learning is becoming ever more critical in the 21st century. To succeed in the workplace, students must prepare for jobs that are rapidly changing, use technologies and knowledge in areas that still are emerging and work with colleagues from (and often in) all parts of the world. The complex challenges that graduates must address as citizens are increasingly global.

Recognizing the economic and societal importance of higher levels of learning, national leaders, policymakers, analysts and major philanthropies have called for a dramatic increase in the number and quality of degrees awarded in the U.S. But the press toward increased degree production has not been grounded in consistent public understanding of what these degrees ought to demand and mean. While some colleges and universities have defined their own expected student learning outcomes, what they have done has been largely invisible to students, policy leaders, the public and employers. Similarly, while higher education institutions have been under increasing pressure to “be accountable” for the quality of their degrees, colleges and universities have frequently responded by assessing samples of students in ways that say too little about learning — and even less about what all students should know and be able to do.

The DQP responds to these concerns by describing concretely what is meant by each of the degrees addressed. Focusing on broad areas of conceptual knowledge and essential proficiencies and their applications, the DQP illustrates how students should be expected to perform at progressively more challenging levels. Demonstrated performance at these ascending levels becomes the basis on which students earn credentials.

While clarity and consensus are goals of the DQP process, the DQP does not attempt to “standardize” U.S. degrees. The DQP recognizes the role and responsibility of faculty to determine both the content appropriate to different areas of study and the best ways to teach that content. Instead, the DQP describes generic forms of student performance appropriate for each degree level through clear reference points that indicate the incremental, integrative and cumulative nature of learning.

While the DQP offers reference points in five broad categories of learning for all associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, no outcomes framework can or should attempt to address every element of a college education. In particular, the emphasis of the DQP on assessable learning is not meant to imply that cognitive standards are sufficient to measure all desirable forms of student development. The DQP chooses not to define “affective” goals of learning that many colleges properly affirm — e.g., integrity, personal initiative, professionalism — because they rarely are specified as criteria for awarding degrees. But the DQP recognizes the value of such goals and encourages institutions to articulate and foster them.

Acknowledging and seeking to protect the rich diversity of postsecondary institutions in the U.S., the DQP thus invites adaptation within the context of varied institutional missions. For example, it can be adapted to serve an institution that emphasizes spiritual exploration, or fosters proficiency in the performing arts, or seeks to expand access to the educationally dispossessed. In short, any institution may expand the DQP by adding outcomes and objectives specific to its mission and by documenting student attainment of such outcomes.

Sustained use of the DQP over time should continue to yield several positive results, including:

  • An emerging common vocabulary for sharing good practice in degree granting by U.S. higher education institutions.
  • A foundation for better public understanding of what institutions of higher education actually do in their instructional and learning assessment roles.
  • Reference points for accountability that at least complement — and ideally, replace — less revealing measures of improvements in student learning such as test scores or tallies of graduates, research dollars, student satisfaction ratings, or job placements and average salaries.
  • Benchmarks for improving the quality of learning in terms of integration and application — because the DQP defines proficiencies in ways that emphasize both the cumulative integration of learning from many sources and the application of learning in a variety of settings.
  • Enhanced institutional assessment practices and resources — because every learning outcome should lead to and support a provider’s capacity to gather evidence that stated proficiencies are achieved.