• August 30, 2015

Educators Zero In on What Lumina's Degree-Qualification Template Would Mean

The Lumina Foundation for Education's new blueprint for college degrees has been a source of fascination (and some skepticism) at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which opened here Thursday.

Hundreds of administrators and faculty members filled a plenary session that focused on the document, "The Degree Qualifications Profile," which was released on Tuesday. The document is meant to serve as a template for listing the broad skills that every college student should acquire at each degree level.

The audience seemed generally open to the concept, but there was also some puzzlement about what exactly the template is meant to accomplish.

The profile—which is referred to by its authors as a "beta version"—is based loosely on "quality assurance" frameworks that have been adopted in Britain, Australia, and other nations. It sketches broad skills that should be universally acquired at each degree level. No matter what bachelor's-degree students major in, the document says, for example, they should be able to construct "sustained, coherent arguments and/or narratives and/or explications of technical issues and processes, in two media, to general and specific audiences."

So what is this long list of general skills good for? What problem is the creation of the degree profile supposed to solve?

The speakers at Thursday's panel offered a long list of answers. Their answers were not necessarily incompatible, but they were so wide-ranging that they raised the question of what the project's ultimate focus and constituency will be.

The panelists' answers about the purposes of the project included the following:

The profile would encourage faculty members to collectively ensure that students are acquiring the skills they need.

"This is not an invitation to standardize degrees," said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, who is one of the Lumina document's four authors. "It's an invitation for faculty members to be more intentional about how they construct degrees."

Faculty committees could, for example, think more systematically about whether students are getting enough training in writing, Ms. Schneider said.

She cited the experience of her own son, who recently withdrew from a 400-level sociology course that required three papers and two exams. He preferred to take a course that he thought would be less demanding, she said, so he switched to another 400-level course in the same department that required only a midterm and a final.

"Why hasn't that faculty come together to define what a 400-level course means?" Ms. Schneider asked. If her son's college made a public promise that every student would acquire a certain set of writing skills, she suggested, the faculty might decide that every upper-level course in the humanities and social sciences should include essay assignments.

The profile would serve as a "learning contract" between students and colleges.

The idea here is that students would be constantly reminded of the list of skills they are supposed to be acquiring. A public contract might have two healthy effects, said Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, who is also an author of the document, in an interview Thursday. First, it would encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Second, it would give students more leverage to insist that faculty members give them the tools they need to learn.

The profile would make it easier to manage transfers between institutions.

Community colleges and four-year institutions could build stronger articulation agreements if there were a broad universal understanding of what associate-degree recipients should be able to do, said Holiday Hart McKiernan, vice president for operations and general counsel of the Lumina Foundation, during the panel. More controversially, Ms. McKiernan said that the profile might ease the way for new, unorthodox providers to enter the higher-education marketplace.

The profile would make it easier for regional accreditors to assess colleges' work.

Among other things, Mr. Ewell said, accreditors might perform "curricular audits" to make sure that all students are actually being assigned tasks that would help them acquire the skills listed in the profile.

The profile would make college degrees more legible to policy makers and employers.

Fledgling graduates entering the job market would be better off, Mr. Ewell said, if employers had a broad understanding of exactly which broad skills college graduates are expected to have gained.

More importantly, Mr. Ewell and Ms. McKiernan said, the profile would give colleges a way to resist any demands from policy makers to dumb down the curriculum or to make it too easy to graduate. The Lumina Foundation famously wants to boost the number of degree-holders in the United States, but Ms. McKiernan said that "if we do not defend quality, increasing the number of college graduates will be absolutely meaningless."

Mr. Ewell said that he and his colleagues have no expectation that colleges would rely solely on national tests to assess students' skills. The healthiest path, he said, would be for colleges to use many different assessment tools, including portfolios of students' course work.

All of the speakers emphasized that the current document is an early and imperfect effort. If everything goes according to plan, the profile will be test-driven at a few dozen institutions during the next two years.

Members of the audience said they were confused about how much flexibility colleges would have to modify the degree-profile template to suit their individual characters. The panel's answers did not necessarily add much clarity. "You can color within the outline," Mr. Ewell said, "but you can't color outside the lines." Another speaker pointed to a "spider web" graphic on Pages 6 and 7 of the profile document, which illustrates how three different types of institutions might emphasize different families of skills.

Audience members also wondered whether the degree profile might herald an era when students can graduate after they demonstrate a certain set of skills, regardless of whether that takes them one year or seven years to accomplish. One person asked, "Are we witnessing the end of the credit-hour system?" The panelists generally said that they did not intend anything so radical, but Mr. Ewell said, "If taken seriously, this does represent a shift in that direction."

Whether the project eventually is taken seriously is far from guaranteed. The last 20 years have seen several such efforts come and go, Mr. Ewell noted.

One person who has watched those projects rise and fall is George D. Kuh, a principal investigator of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, where Mr. Ewell is a senior scholar. In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Kuh said that he supports the degree-profile effort, but he predicted that it might have trouble reaching critical mass.

"We shouldn't underestimate the political challenges connected to something like this," Mr. Kuh said. "Especially when people can say that it was something drafted by four people in a room." Everything will depend, Mr. Kuh said, on what happens in the pilot projects during the next two years.


1. mteshome - January 28, 2011 at 06:44 am

A commendable move in the right direction to assess the connection between academic instruction and student outcome.

2. maltesesx - January 28, 2011 at 07:00 am

this is a really interesting information.

3. 11167997 - January 28, 2011 at 08:40 am

What the Chronicle reporter missed--but folks in the audience did not---is that whatever version of the competencies proposed is adopted by a consortium of colleges or a state system or individual institutions will constitute a set of criteria for awarding degrees (in addition to credits, GPA, course X, etc.). A competency-based framework of this type is a transformational challenge to U.S. higher education. In this respsect, George Kuh's observation about "similar efforts" fading into the fog over the past 20 years is nonsense. There hasn't been a "similar effort." The others have been wish lists with no teeth.

4. cirencester - January 28, 2011 at 08:43 am

3. Long overdue. The AACSB recently announced a toothless "Assurance of Learning" initiative, that provides as examples a listing of inputs. More appropriate would be "Assurance of Knowledge (or Competence)" with a focus on outputs.

5. frrussell - January 28, 2011 at 09:17 am

I am completely intrigued by this and welcome intellectual dialogue around the whole area of defining academic rigor.

6. rkleine - January 28, 2011 at 09:22 am

Interesting. However, it is unclear to me how this "degree qualifications profile" is distinct from an outcomes based general education program coupled with a major field of study.

7. vdolgopolov - January 28, 2011 at 09:26 am

This is a great first step towards a national qualifications framework (NQF), which might bring some coherence to the disjointed US higher education system. Australia, Singapore, and many European have done this, with terrific results. I can only hope that a US NQF will extend to the secondary level as well, and serve as an accountability instruments for both higher education institutions and secondary schools.

8. cdwickstrom - January 28, 2011 at 10:03 am

The comment about the senior changing classes to find a less demanding course (two exams versus three papers and two exams) speaks volumes about the problem. Student needed a senior level (400) course. Any course would do, just let it be 400 level and no work. The student wants a credential (BS,BS,etc.)not an education that prepares him to succeed in the "real world". He likely also shopped around for the school and degree program that allowed the path of minimal expectation to get the credential in the first place.

I wholeheartedly support the qualification framework, and the criteria approach. It will go a long way toward moving post-secondary education from the numbers game that is played today to one where real skills, basedline knowledge and demonstrated competencies become the basis for degree conferral. It will also go a long way toward increasing the place of teaching in the priorities of post-secondary institutions, particularly if accreditors apply evaluation criteria based on the attainment of recognized skills, knowledge and competencies as the basis for degree conferral, not a tally sheet.

9. jffoster - January 28, 2011 at 10:22 am

Im not sure whence the headline writer got justification for the term "eagerly". I didn't see it in the actual posting. Perhaps the headline writer was at this conference of management and management wannabes having presented them a report on how to manage better, or at least with more control. And notice that the emphasis in the actual article is almost exclusively on "skills" and job training. I have only skimmed the original report but my impression is that it does suggest that ideas might be included in higher education somewhere.

The unreserved kowtowing before essay exams and term papers is something we ought be wary of. Obviously we can't teach students to write without having them do some and several of the courses I taught over the years entaild frequent _focused_ essays, usually data based. But a general paper or essay question actually lends itself to curriculum downdumbing because they are open to dispute and quibbling about grading. A well crafted well designed multiple choice and/or short answer exam can sample a great deal of ignorance and ineptitude and is much less open to dispute or quibbling about. They can also test for understanding of ideas, relatinships, relevance of data and ability to draw significant conclusions therefrom. One cannot of course design such an exam the night before it is given, so such an exam takes about as much faculty time as a general essay exam, but in the design more than the grading. And with them junior and more timorous senior faculty are less susceptible to administrative and direct student pressure to upgrade unwarrantedly.

10. mfortuna - January 28, 2011 at 10:54 am

@cdwickstrom We are not going to change the fact that students have limited time -- some are involved in community service, athletics, and/or work to help support themselves -- and know that some courses will overwhelm them. I am also not clear that a course with a couple of papers is harder than one without. I, myself, assign six (6) papers and two exams, but this does not mean my course is "harder" than one with only two exams. (Harder for me to grade, perhaps.) One course may assign 400 pages of reading a week and the other half that. Student choice is a good thing in my opinion and I don't think standardizing 400 level courses in terms of assignments is a good thing.

11. clarkstonbus - January 28, 2011 at 11:26 am

I wholeheartedly support this initiative. The numbers game is great, but each degree should represent increased competency from competencies learned in high school. Oftentimes the bachelors degree is so dumbed down its contents begins to resemble what is taught in high school. Indeed, some international holders of the equivalent of our high school diploma are way ahead of holders of a first degree in this country!

12. deepwater - January 28, 2011 at 02:54 pm

How exactly do you control for individual student differences? I am definitely in support of standards. Identifying appropriate ones is a challenge I am not sure is addressed. However, I am curious if the academy believes that in this era of mass education that student individual differences (cognitive, emotional, demographic etc.) are somehow accounted for within the admission or the learning process? Our educational model is still a throwback to the 19th century factory model. Can we impose enlightened outcomes methodology to what is still an unenlightened educational process??

13. 11167997 - January 28, 2011 at 04:04 pm

Misread! Sorry! Peter Ewell said it (about past efforts like this),
not George Kuh. Both of them, though would agree that the actual implementation of a degree profile with teeth will be a tough path, and that the next 2-3 years will tell us how far down that path U.S. higher education is willing to travel.

14. phyllis_stein - January 29, 2011 at 08:01 pm

That something comes from the Lumina foundation does not give me mounds of confidence (my institution having been through five years of Achieving the Dream and its mixed bag of "achievements," if any). But okay, a degree template would be something. Much of this sounds like truly implementing WAC on a campus, and faculty across campus can often be found to stand in the way of that as grading writing is very labor intensive. So one can imagine this "skills implementation" being shifted to contingent faculty and graduate students.

The main trouble as I see it though isn't faculty, who often long for better, more knowledgeable, more able students. The rub will be getting a parents culture that sees a degree as a paid for good, deliverable upon payment, and a student culture that sees college as a time away from the world of work and a time to explore extracurricular achieving. Shifting that view to being one where learning and the skills attached to it are something avidly pursued by the 18 to 22 year old crowd, with its ingrained consumption orientation and love of texting and Facebook profiles, will be the challenge.

Faculty don't need convincing; consumer culture needs changing. Good luck with that.

15. entwife - January 29, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Rignt on, #15 - student and parent consumer culture is not going to be happy about having to work for those diplomas.

From the article: "said Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, who is also an author of the document, in an interview Thursday. First, it would encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Second, it would give students more leverage to insist that faculty members give them the tools they need to learn".

Um, what instruments, beyond detailed study guides outlining exactly what will be on the test, and not one item more, are they going to be asking for? I am willing to assign more critical analysis papers, as well as papers they could write in a foreign language, but are they really going to ask me for that, Mr. Ewell? If you ever meet students who ask for such things, please do send them my way.

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