By Sara Hebel
National conversations about the quality of higher education, as well as efforts to measure what students learn in their college careers, could be aided by developing a common understanding of what degrees mean in the United States, officials at the Lumina Foundation for Education say.
To that end, the foundation released today a suggested framework for defining the knowledge and skills students need to acquire before earning an associate degree, a bachelor's degree, and a master's degree. Lumina's framework, which it is calling the Degree Qualifications Profile, spells out reference points for what students should be learning and demonstrating at each degree level in five areas: broad, integrative knowledge; specialized knowledge; intellectual skills; applied learning; and civic learning.
Lumina officials say the degree profile is intended to help define generally what college graduates should know and be able to do, regardless of their majors or fields of study. The authors of the framework, though, were specific about how students should be able to apply what they learn, providing clear outcomes that can be measured. Under the umbrella of "intellectual skills," for instance, the document says that students should show fluency in communication. At the bachelor's level, that includes being able to "conduct an inquiry" in a language other than English with a non-English-language source.
Colleges and faculty members in individual disciplines could then add to the general framework, identifying additional outcomes specific to the college's mission and to particular fields of study. Lumina says it now plans to test and refine the framework, experimenting with it in a variety of settings.
Tests of the Concept
Two regional accreditors of higher education, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools' Higher Learning Commission, and a private-college association, the Council of Independent Colleges, have already agreed to test Lumina's proposed framework. Lumina says it expects to add more partners in coming months and to award grants to support testing of the framework.
The Western association, which accredits about 160 four-year colleges, plans to build the degree reference points into its handbook for institutions' accreditation reviews, Lumina said. The accreditor will use the degree profile to help outline what colleges should be demonstrating about student learning.
The Higher Learning Commission has offered to test the Lumina framework with a small group of institutions that are coming up for reaccreditation and are willing to try an alternative process for evaluation.
Sylvia Manning, the commission's president, said the cohort of colleges that agreed to the approach would take Lumina's degree framework and apply it to their programs. They would use the degree profile as a basis for their self-evaluation and for developing plans for improvement.
If it works right, Ms. Manning said, the institutions would learn a lot about how to move themselves forward, and Lumina would get feedback about how well the framework applies to varied types of institutions. The Higher Learning Commission will also be able to evaluate whether the framework could become an effective mechanism for quality assurance and be used more broadly.
"This is a wonderful opportunity to try something that has great potential," Ms. Manning said.
The Council of Independent Colleges, meanwhile, will also seek volunteers among its member institutions to test the feasibility of the Lumina framework on individual campuses and how it might be used to improve quality. Richard Ekman, president of the council, said the group hopes to select 25 colleges of various sizes and missions to experiment with the framework over a two-year period.
He has a number of questions about how well the degree profile will work, including how readily it will apply in liberal-arts fields and how meaningfully campuses will be able to improve upon a broad learning objective like civic learning. But he believes the Lumina framework is worth testing as a tool for prompting colleges to improve quality.
"A lot of this is pretty mushy stuff," he says. "We hope to thrash out what individual colleges can apply."
Architecture for Conversation on Quality
For Lumina, grappling with the question of what a degree signifies has become an important part of the foundation's broader effort to increase the proportion of college graduates in the United States. The foundation has focused its grant-making around a goal of getting 60 percent of Americans to hold "high quality" postsecondary degrees or credentials by 2025, a goal similar to President Obama's. About 39 percent of U.S. residents hold associate degrees or higher, a level at which the country has been stuck for four decades.
"We're interested in really putting our hands on what quality means," says Jamie P. Merisotis, president of Lumina. The degree profile, he said, "will provide some of the architecture for that conversation."
The degree profile is being unveiled a week after the release of the new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which presents a dim view of the rigor of undergraduate education. The book, which was based on a study supported by Lumina, found that more than a third of American college seniors are no better at crucial types of writing and reasoning tasks than they were in their first semester of college.
Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and a co-author of the Lumina degree profile, says the framework has the potential to transform the national conversations about accountability and quality.
"If higher education runs away from this," Mr. Adelman says, colleges "will continue to be criticized that their degrees are meaningless." Now, degrees are awarded when a student amasses enough credits and achieves a minimum grade-point average, he says, but the framework proposes a definition that guarantees that students gain at least a minimal, and measurable, level of knowledge and skills in the process.
This approach to accountability, Mr. Adelman adds, is also different from much current practice in that it measures quality by what a student can do, rather than by what an institution can show about its record.
In fact, Lumina officials say their framework could provide a useful road map for students as they plan their course of study. The foundation suggests that colleges could ask students to sign a "student learning agreement," acknowledging that they have read and understand the learning outcomes for the degree they seek, and pledging to commit themselves to qualify for the degree.
"Students who understand the purpose of the courses they take usually learn more effectively," reads the introduction to the Lumina framework. "Therefore, the Degree Profile seeks to create a transparent and intentional environment to guide their learning."