Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
WASC Accreditation Redesign meeting, Annual conference of the Hawaii Assoc. of Independent Colleges and Universities (HAICU), Honolulu, HI
Good morning. I’m delighted to be with you for this conference and only sorry that I couldn’t be with you in person. I hope my virtual presence adds to what I’m sure will be a lively and productive conversation.
I’m truly excited by this chance to speak directly with a group of like-minded people … that is, committed educators who understand and share the goals of the organization I am privileged to lead. What’s more, I know that you can have a major impact on the work we all share: the work of student success.
Many of you are already familiar with Lumina Foundation, but for those who aren’t, let me offer some background. Lumina’s mission is to enroll and graduate more students from college—especially low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners. We pursue our mission in a very targeted way. All of our energy and resources are focused on achieving one ambitious but specific goal for college attainment, what we call “Goal 2025.” The goal, simply stated, is this: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees and credentials.
That goal drives everything we do … but it also goes well beyond us at Lumina. It has to. The goal is too big—and far too important—for any one organization to tackle. In fact, Goal 2025 is fast becoming a national goal … because it addresses a critical national need.
We all know what that need is: As a nation, we desperately need more college-educated citizens. We need them to rebuild our economy for a global era, to strengthen our democracy, to empower millions of citizens and ensure a better future for all Americans.
I want to talk today about your role in helping make that happen. As college educators and administrators, you know perhaps better than anyone how challenging the college-attainment quest can be. The students and the communities you serve face an array of social and economic barriers. They—and you—are fighting battles on several fronts. And let’s face it, those battles are raging at a very difficult and divisive time in this country.
In a world where government has often been treated with suspicion, we are seeing record-low Congressional approval ratings. Wall Street abuses and shortcuts have undermined fundamental beliefs about corporate integrity. Many media outlets have been accused of abandoning their role as objective watchdogs. In short, even in this age of incessant action and instant communication, no one seems to be doing or saying things that we can truly trust.
As members of the higher education community, we all may like to think that we have avoided mistrust … that we are somehow immune from this contagion of no-confidence. With enrollments up, and with many economists and labor experts extolling the benefits of postsecondary education, it’s easy to assume that colleges and universities hold—and will always hold—a special place in the public mind.
Frankly, I fear that is a very dangerous assumption.
If you want proof, just look at the increasing number of naysayers who question whether higher education is always a good investment … whether its benefits will, over time, continue to outweigh its costs. With college tuition and fees increasing by more than 400 percent since the early 1980s, these questions are not entirely out of line.
Look next at what researchers are telling us about what students are learning. For example, in their recent book, “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa offer a stern and well-timed warning about inadequate levels of learning on today’s campuses, at least in terms of how learning is measured through the Collegiate Learning Assessment.
Finally, read the recent news stories that point enviously to countries with college-attainment rates that are rising rapidly—countries like Canada and Japan … and especially South Korea, which, in just one year, increased the college attainment rate among young adults by an astounding 5 percentage points, to 63 percent.
Looking at all of this evidence, it’s clear that, even though the reservoir of public trust for higher education remains deep, it certainly isn’t bottomless. And you know what? It shouldn’t be.
Higher education professionals and advocates are very much a part of civic society and stewards of the public trust.
After all, as higher education professionals and advocates, we are very much a part of civic society, and that makes us stewards of the public trust. If we claim that higher education is a major contributor to the public good—an assertion I believe more firmly every day, as I’m sure you do—then we must act accordingly. We must do all we can to bolster and ensure the public’s confidence in higher education.
And one of the best ways to do that is to focus on the task that forms the basis for this meeting today: that is, ensuring the quality of your programs and institutions. I’m here today to talk about a new tool that we feel shows great promise in that quality-assurance effort: the Degree Qualifications Profile.
I won’t go into great detail—in part because Ralph Wolff and his WASC colleagues are there with you and can give you a front-row perspective on what the DQP can do. Ralph will be holding a Q&A session during your working lunch this afternoon, and I hope my remarks will prompt a few questions and set the stage for that discussion.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge WASC’s leadership on the DQP work. WASC has been incredibly valuable in being a thought partner—one willing to truly test the DQP and test what our assumptions are as to quality in higher education. And while this work is only just beginning, we are very grateful for the commitment of intellectual energy and personal support.
One thing I hope emerges from that discussion is that independent colleges—your institutions—must be an integral part of the Degree Qualifications Profile project. All of you bring a vital perspective to the task of ensuring quality in higher education. That perspective is deepened by decades of relevant experience and sharpened by the special niche you occupy in the higher-education arena. At the risk of telling you what you already know, let me list just a few examples of that special role:
- First of all, independent institutions have worked steadily ― and for years ― on student learning outcomes. Because of this sustained work, you’ve built a deep well of relevant knowledge about how students learn and what institutions and instructors can do to enhance that learning.
- Second, independent colleges and universities have a proven record in helping at-risk students succeed. You’ve led the way in making sure that low-income and first-generation students succeed on your campuses. You’ve also helped students of color earn their degrees more quickly than is the case at public four-year schools.
- Third, your independent governance structures allow you to think outside the usual box. You embody institutional uniqueness, and your independent spirit allows you to take risks … to embrace innovations that lead to real breakthroughs in teaching and learning. In short, because you’ve been free to do so, you have put student learning where it belongs: at the center of the academic enterprise.
- Finally, you’ve always been about the business of preparing students fully. You make sure that your graduates are primed for success ― in the workplace, in graduate and professional programs, in democratic participation … in life. In other words, your institutions have always looked beyond mere scholarship and prepared your students for genuine leadership.
For all of those reasons, we are pleased that, by working with WASC, you’ll soon have a role in helping us refine and shape the Degree Qualifications Profile.
Today, as you approach this important task, I want help set some context in two ways:
- First, I’d like to briefly explain how we at Lumina see the DQP; I’ll try to put the Degree Profile in the context of all of our work and show why we feel it is so important to Lumina’s overall mission.
- Second, I’d like to try to explain ― as clearly and specifically as possible ― how you can be most effective and most beneficial as partners in this effort.
So, let me begin by focusing on the DQP itself: What is it and why does it matter so much to Lumina? Not surprisingly, it all goes back to that Big Goal I mentioned earlier. Remember: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees and credentials.
Again, we believe Goal 2025 addresses an urgent national need. This nation needs far more college-educated citizens than the higher-ed system is currently producing. But of course, merely increasing the number of college graduates isn’t enough. We must also ensure that these millions of new graduates emerge from the postsecondary system armed with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in the 21st century.
Look again at the Big Goal statement. It’s not just focused on a 60 percent target. It calls specifically for “high-quality degrees and credentials.” Our goal—our shared goal—is to increase educational attainment while ensuring quality. In fact, ensuring quality in postsecondary education is a topic of utmost importance, not only for us in the higher education community, but for the future of this nation.
That quality imperative is the underlying reason for the DQP’s existence. When my Lumina colleagues and I began to unpack the concept of quality, we realized very quickly that traditional “input measures” of quality weren’t very helpful. Things like admissions selectivity, faculty credentials, class size, physical facilities, institutional prestige … these just didn’t make sense as proxies for quality ― not in a world where actual student outcomes are what matter.
All of the evidence we have seen about the need for increased attainment points to the fact that the underlying skills and knowledge are more important than the credential itself. What matters most is what students actually learn … how they can use what they gain in their programs of study. We knew, then, that what was needed is a shared definition of college quality that focuses on student outcomes ― especially learning.
At Lumina, we believe the learning that any postsecondary credential represents must be explicit and transparent to all concerned. There must be a clear and widely shared understanding of the learning that is expected. Faculty must agree on—and students must clearly understand—what skills and knowledge a graduate should possess. Policymakers must be able to allocate resources based on those required outcomes. Employers must be able to hire graduates with confidence, knowing what skills and knowledge are embedded in a two-year degree in applied arts or a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.
And that is what led us to the DQP. It was drafted by experts in American higher education ― four names you know well:
- Cliff Adelman, senior associate with the Institute of Higher Education Policy.
- Peter Ewell, vice president of NCHEMS and one of the nation’s best-known experts on the assessment of student outcomes.
- Paul Gaston, Trustees Professor at Kent State, and author of The Challenge of Bologna.
- And finally, Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and a leader in the learning outcomes movement.
What they have drafted in the Degree Qualifications Profile is an architecture for building that shared definition of quality, a framework that can be used to clearly define learning outcomes. In short, the DQP is a baseline set of reference points for what students in any field should be able to do to earn their degrees.
So, I’ve told you a bit about the DQP is … and I’m sure Ralph will provide even more information later in the Q&A session. But let me point out a few things the DQP isn’t.
First of all, it isn’t done yet. In fact, it is by no means a finished product. We are calling it a “beta version” ― and that language is used very intentionally. We’re relying on those who are on the front lines of instruction to test it and improve it … and that includes you. Working with WASC, you will be part of a growing group that will help shape and refine the DQP in coming years.
Second, despite the fact that the DQP is relatively new on the scene, it is not a marginal or “boutique” experiment. In fact, it is being tested by faculty-led teams at more than 100 institutions in 30 states, representing virtually every sector of nonprofit higher education. The work is being done in partnership with several national organizations—not just WASC, but also the Higher Learning Commission, the Council of Independent Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
We believe that the level of interest in this work from a wide array of stakeholders in higher education not only signals the need for a new definition of quality, but also that the academy wants to lead this transformation effort. We believe the DQP represents a critical step in charting the future course for American higher education. To us—and to the institutions and partner organizations that have joined us in this work—the Profile responds to a fundamental shift in defining and assuring educational quality.
And one final thing that the DQP isn’t: It’s not something that can be imposed on higher education—by Lumina or anyone else. To really work, it must be adopted willingly by institutions and faculty at the ground level, adapted and refined through use in the real world. Faculty engagement with the Profile is essential, because this work isn’t about checking off items on a list; it is ultimately about how faculty members design and implement their courses to produce learning outcomes.
The DQP is not rigid or monolithic. It’s not a one-size-fits-all document or process. In fact, no institution can really use the DQP unless it crafts the process specifically to meet its own unique circumstances. From the very beginning, the Profile was designed to be institution-specific and flexible.
The DQP is often referred to as a “tool” or “template,” and those terms are probably accurate at this stage of the work. Still, the terms can be misleading if they bring to mind one specific application or define some sort of fill-in-the-blanks process. In reality, the DQP is much more akin to the templates and processes that organizations use for budgeting—a commonly accepted worksheet and a set of practices that enable strategic decision making and comparisons. So, don’t think of the DQP as a prescribed set of standards that must be met or a specific process that must be followed. Rather, it is the guide the helps organize the concepts in a transparent and explicit way.
The beauty of the DQP is that it combines flexibility and broad utility. In effect, it can serve as a useful tool in the effort to define the meaning and relevance of postsecondary credentials. And again, that effort to define the meaning and relevance ― the true quality ― of degrees … that effort is critically important to us at Lumina, because it has huge implications for the Big Goal we seek.
So, that’s what Lumina sees in this effort. What is it that you should see? How can you, as partners in this effort, really help to move the project forward? Let me offer some suggestions, recognizing that you must make this your own.
- For one thing, you can apply what you’ve already learned and adapt that knowledge to this new effort. By doing this, you can be true leaders in this movement ― a self-directed movement aimed at improving higher education by focusing on learning outcomes. After all, independent, liberal arts institutions have always taken the approach that is inherent in the DQP. That is, recognizing and developing different areas of learning—including those that are specified in the DQP: broad, integrative knowledge; specialized knowledge; critical thinking and other intellectual skills; applied learning; and civic learning. In this sense, the DQP will be nothing new to you. In fact, the DQP testing process will provide a mechanism to encourage a broader adoption of the principles you have always championed.
- The second thing you can do is provide honest, critical feedback on the integrity of the document and the DQP process. Again, this is an effort that cannot be imposed from the outside. To be effective, it must be a faculty-driven, grassroots, bottom-up effort. That means it has to be tested in a variety of real-world settings, and the testers must be forthright, thoughtful and sincere in their assessments. We—and our partners at WASC—sincerely want and need to know what works on your campuses … and what doesn’t.
- Third, and perhaps most importantly, as you put the DQP to work, don’t shy away from your own individuality as an institution. In fact, we urge you to embrace the things that make your institution unique. There is a blank column in the DQP that should be very important to your work. It is here that the authors invite you to incorporate the learning goals and outcomes that make your institutions and programs distinctive. At this stage in the process of exploring the DQP, it is not only important to find the common ground on what degrees represent in terms of learning, but equally important to note variety.
In short, you are in the position of being exemplars, as individual institutions and as a group … focused on learning. And you can extend that learning, not only to your peers and to other sectors of higher education, but also out to the next level of influence: to the employers and other difference-makers in the communities you serve.
As I said earlier, institutions such as yours have always been geared toward leadership development; they take promising young students and help shape them for positions of leadership in the community. Your work with the DQP can enhance that role even further. It can give you an opportunity to work even more closely with those external stakeholders ― business leaders, policymakers and other influencers ― to forge a truly shared definition of quality in higher education. It can be a mechanism to help you ensure that your institution’s goals and practices align with and fully meet the needs of those you serve: first, your students, and, by extension, the larger society that depends so much on the success of those students.
And so, I encourage you to embrace this challenge. Show us ― and show each other ― how it can work best, and where it needs to be improved. Most of all, put your own special spin on it, and share what you have learned.
After all, it’s all about the learning. We all have much to learn from this process … and those lessons can do a great deal to benefit your students and society as a whole.
Thank you very much for this opportunity to share some thoughts as you begin this discussion. I wish you great success at the conference, and am truly looking forward to hearing about the results of your deliberations.