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Millions more Americans need to obtain college degrees and certificates, industry certifications, and other credentials after high school to ensure they are prepared for informed citizenship and success in a global economy. Existing approaches to quality assurance are often uneven, overly complicated, and fail to account for the myriad ways in which students now choose to pursue their education.
Lumina supports an expanded, integrated, and more effective system of quality assurance. Such a system is needed to expand opportunity across the landscape of education and training after high school. Under the approach Lumina and its partners envision, quality assurance at the federal, state, college, university, and provider levels will shift toward oversight tied to measuring what students are learning, delivering fair results across all racial, ethnic, and income groups, and aligning educational programs more clearly with workforce needs.
In this system, new and existing accreditors will play critical roles in ensuring clarity about what’s being learned and the ability of students to build on academic credentials and find meaningful work, including among people with no recognized learning beyond high school. This approach to ensuring quality could make use of Lumina-supported platforms, frameworks, and tools such as Credential Engine and the Degree Qualifications Profile, and tuning-like processes to determine what students need to know and be able to do to earn degrees and other credentials in specific fields and disciplines.
These resources can be used to transparently link credentials to demonstrations of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are easily understood by faculty, students, parents, business leaders, policymakers, and members of the public. These resources also allow credential providers to improve existing programs and build new programs that more intentionally develop the talent people will need to do well in work and life.
At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education monitors the financial health of colleges and universities and selects the accrediting organizations charged with ensuring the academic quality of institutions receiving federal grant and loan dollars. The requirements for authorization of accreditors at the federal level are too focused on institutional processes rather than on student learning. In turn, accreditors tend to give institutions leeway in defining and measuring what students know and can do. Too often, this means accreditors fail to require clear expressions about educational results. As a result, existing approaches to quality assurance, in practice, mask rather than uncover gaps in quality. The entire system needs to be more focused on making clear what students will need to demonstrate in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities before they receive degrees or other credentials. Finally, states play a consumer protection role, but states can vary in their approaches.
Most of the existing quality assurance system is focused on colleges and universities. But in the emerging landscape of credentials beyond the high school diploma, a lot of valuable learning occurs outside traditional higher education. Alternate avenues to students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills include military and corporate training as well as boot camps and badging programs. Existing approaches to assuring quality are not designed to account for these emerging providers. This shortcoming makes it more challenging to ensure fair education outcomes among people who are Black, Hispanic, and Native American or are from low-income families. Many of these students are the first in their families to pursue higher learning. Often, they lack a deep understanding of the market or how to evaluate the potential return on their investments of time, money, and effort.
Too often, the nation’s disjointed approach to quality assurance stifles innovation that could help these students. By far, the biggest problem is the lack of focus on what students are learning and the relevance of their knowledge, skills, and abilities. This approach can lead to poorly allocated public resources or unscrupulous institutions and providers preying on poorly informed students.