INDIANAPOLIS—As policymakers and college presidents respond to growing economic pressure to educate a larger share of the U.S. population, the nation has a strong interest in ensuring the degrees and postsecondary credentials awarded are of high quality, said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of Lumina Foundation for Education.
“Dramatically increasing the numbers of Americans with postsecondary education is essential,” Merisotis said. “But we must do so while ensuring that graduates are well prepared to participate in the labor market, their local communities and the country’s civic and cultural life.”
In meeting these objectives, the United States has a great deal to learn from a nearly decade-old effort in Europe called Tuning. Working with students, faculty members and education officials from Indiana, Minnesota and Utah, Lumina has initiated a year-long project, Tuning USA. The aim is to create a shared understanding among higher education’s stakeholders of the subject-specific knowledge and transferable skills that students in six fields must demonstrate upon completion of a degree program. Each state has elected to draft learning outcomes and map the relations between these outcomes and graduates’ employment options for at least two of the following disciplines: biology, chemistry, education, history, physics and graphic design.
Through the Lumina-sponsored project, subject-area teams from the states will apply the Tuning methodology, a faculty-led approach that involves seeking input from students, recent graduates and employers to establish criterion-referenced learning outcomes and competencies. Tuning is a key element of Europe’s Bologna Process for restructuring higher education, which affects 16 million students in 46 countries with more than 4,000 higher education institutions. The Bologna Process began in 1999 as a means of promoting transparency, coordination and quality assurance among Europe’s higher education systems.
Tuning involves creating a framework that sets forth clear responsibilities for institutions and establishes clear learning expectations for students in each subject area while balancing the need among programs to retain their academic autonomy and flexibility. The objective is not to standardize programs offered by different institutions but to better establish the quality and relevance of degrees in various academic disciplines. Potential benefits arising from the Tuning process include:
- Making higher education more responsive to changes in knowledge and its application.
- Establishing the relevance of postsecondary programs to societal needs and workforce demands.
- Aligning the roles of higher education institutions.
- Facilitating retention, especially among students from underserved groups, by creating clear pathways to degree completion
- Simplifying the process for students transferring credits between institutions.
- Increasing the emphases on lifelong learning and important-but-often-undervalued transferable skills.
- Increasing student engagement in the learning process.
In 2002, Europe completed the first round of Tuning involving nine subject areas at 137 universities in 16 countries. Through last year, at least 145 universities in 33 countries had participated. Faculty members have applied Tuning to business administration, chemistry, education sciences, European studies, history, earth sciences, mathematics, nursing and physics. Outside of Europe, the most noted adaptation of Tuning occurred in Latin America with 12 disciplines at 182 universities in 18 countries.
In the United States, efforts to benchmark learning outcomes at the discipline level have neither happened systematically nor on any significant scale. Widely applied to a range of disciplines, the Tuning platform could shift the focus in American higher education from consideration of generalized notions of what is indirectly taught at the associate’s, bachelor’s and other levels to specific knowledge and skills that students need to learn and apply, making the value of specific degrees more readily apparent, said Clifford Adelman, an American expert on the Bologna Process and a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C.
“When U.S. colleges and universities describe what students must do to earn a degree in a specific field, they list courses, credit requirements and a minimum grade-point average,” Adelman said. “They do not typically state what students with the degree should know and be able to do in ways that employers, policymakers and the public can immediately understand We need to embrace a more comprehensive approach to defining the learning that degrees represent or risk falling further behind our global counterparts.”
Adelman, several European higher education experts and Lumina representatives met Monday and Tuesday in Chicago with representatives from the three participating states’ higher education executive offices and more than