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A New Definition of Quality, and a New Tool to Shape It

Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
Opening Keynote Speech, CIC/DQP Consortium, Indianapolis

Thank you. And welcome to Indianapolis ― Lumina Foundation’s hometown. My Lumina colleagues and I are very pleased to be part of this inaugural meeting of the CIC/DQP Consortium. We’re excited about the potential of the Degree Qualifications Profile, and we’re thrilled to have your institutions and the Council of Independent Colleges as partners in shaping this work.

I also have a personal interest in having CIC partner with Lumina on this work. I have a connection to CIC that goes back more than a decade; indeed, Rich Ekman and I met while serving on a CIC advisory board together. And as many of you know, I am the product of a liberal arts education at an independent institution. My experience at Bates College was a defining one. I not only obtained content knowledge in my field of political science, but I also learned how to learn and how to apply knowledge across multiple disciplines. From my personal experience I know that those who are part of this CIC project approach learning in the same way I do and share the value that a quality education is about what students know and are able to do. It is wonderful to have you as part of this work.

Lumina’s relationship with CIC has been a long and fruitful one. In fact, it stretches all the way back to Lumina’s second year of existence ― 2002, which was well before I came on board at the Foundation. Through all of the intervening years ― if I may borrow the title of a 2004 Lumina report that highlighted the good work at several CIC institutions ― the Council and Lumina have forged a “Powerful Partnership.” Very early on, Lumina recognized the vital role that CIC institutions play in improving student success in higher education. Your role has become even more critical in recent years.

Early in my tenure at Lumina some of my colleagues and I met with Rich and some of his team—my goal was to find the right work that Lumina and CIC could partner on that could leave a lasting mark on American higher education. Frankly, this DQP work that you are undertaking is that sort of key work I firmly believe CIC and Lumina are ideally positioned to work on together.

The simple fact is that independent colleges—your institutions—are an integral part of the Degree Qualifications Profile project. All of you are here today because you have a role in improving student success and because 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. Let me list just a few examples of that special role:

  • First of all, you’ve worked steadily ― and for years ― on student learning outcomes. Because of this sustained work, CIC institutions have built a deep well of relevant knowledge about how students learn and what institutions and instructors can do to enhance that learning.
  • Second, CIC institutions 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.

We are pleased that you have chosen to work with the DQP, that you’re willing to help us refine it and that you want to have a role in shaping the work. Today, as we set out together on this fascinating group project, I want my brief remarks to accomplish two things:

  • First, I’ll 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 will seek 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? I know that your agenda gives you some time with two of the authors as well as some of my Lumina colleagues, but I think some basic background might help—so you can understand why we think this work is so essential.

It all begins with what we at Lumina call Goal 2025; namely, that by the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees and credentials.

We believe Goal 2025, or the Big Goal, addresses an urgent national need. This nation needs far more college-educated citizens than the higher-ed system is currently producing. We need them to rebuild our economy for a global era, to strengthen our democracy, to empower millions of citizens. And we’re not alone in that belief. Labor experts … employers … researchers and social scientists … policymakers in Washington and in virtually every state—they all agree: College attainment must increase significantly if we are to ensure the nation’s economic prosperity and social stability.

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.

And that is what led us to the DQP. The Degree Qualifications Profile is an architecture for crafting that shared definition of quality, a framework that can be used to clearly define learning outcomes. In short, it is a baseline set of reference points for what students in any field should be able to do to earn their degrees.

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 best-known experts on assessment of student outcomes; Paul Gaston, Trustees Professor at Kent State, and author of The Challenge of Bologna; and Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and a leader in the learning outcomes movement.

Two of those authors ― Paul Gaston and Peter Ewell ― will talk to you tomorrow to fill in the details about the DQP. They will provide you with great information on the details of the DQP. In the meantime, let me point out a few things the DQP isn’t.

First of all, it is not 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’s why all of you are here. You’re part of a growing group who 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 other national organizations in addition to CIC. These organizations include the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and two regional accreditors: the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the Higher Learning Commission. You are part of a broad learning community committed to quality.

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.

Finally, the DQP is 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, the liberal arts institutions that make up the bulk of CIC’s membership have always taken the approach that is inherent in the DQP. That is, recognizing and developing different areas of learning, including 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 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. The blank column in the DQP is very important to your work—it is where the authors invite you to incorporate what makes your institutions and programs distinctive. CIC’s partnership in this effort involves 25 colleges and universities, representing a broad range of specific projects. 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.
  • And finally, keep in mind that this combination of institutions, the Consortium itself, has enormous intrinsic value. What you are becoming is a network of learning that you will build as each institution pursues its individual efforts. Though your institutions are separate and singular, your shared interest in the DQP gives you a priceless opportunity to communicate with each other … to talk about your successes and shortcomings … to share the lessons you have learned. And in doing this you will also teach us at Lumina and inform the field about the value of the DQP. Together we can apply those lessons where they matter most: to the task of serving students.

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, CIC schools 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.

We at Lumina are very confident that CIC and the two dozen schools represented here are the right partners for this work. We know from long experience that we can depend on you to be thorough, thoughtful, and committed to quality.

And so, I encourage you to embrace this challenge. Be creative in your approach to using the DQP, and be forthright in your assessments of its strengths and weaknesses. 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 ― and we all have much to learn from this process.

Thank you again for your committed partnership. We’re excited to learn with and from you.

Lucia Anderson Weathers
Stronger Nation 2017 demonstration
Stronger Nation 2017 demonstration
June 19, 2017

A Stronger Nation 2017 report uses Census data to track progress in degree attainment at several levels – nationally, in metropolitan areas, in all 50 states, and down to the county level. It also contains national data and state-specific estimates that show attainment of high-quality postsecondary certificates.