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Defining quality in higher education with the DQP

Jamie P. Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation
National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI)
Alexandria, VA

Thank you, and good afternoon, everyone. I’m very pleased to be here, and I want to thank NACIQI’s executive director, Melissa Lewis, for inviting me to speak with you today. This Committee has before it an important responsibility and I hope that my remarks can be helpful as you approach your work. I plan today to talk with you in more detail about some of Lumina’s work, particularly the Degree Qualifications Profile, and after my comments I hope we will have time for some questions and discussion.

Being with you today gives me a chance to explore with you a topic that is of intense interest to us at Lumina, and I know to all of you as well: ensuring quality in postsecondary education. It’s a topic of utmost importance, not only for us in the higher education community, but for the future of this nation.

I believe most of you are familiar with Lumina Foundation, but for those who aren’t ... Lumina is a private foundation whose mission is to enroll and graduate more students from college — especially low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners.

At Lumina 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.

This 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. Even in these divisive and contentious times, consensus is building on that point. Labor experts ... employers ... researchers and social scientists ... policymakers here in Washington and in virtually every state —agree: College attainment must increase significantly — to aid the economic recovery in the short term and to ensure the nation’s long-term 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 global economy. Let me refer you again to that statement of Goal 2025: 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. Quite frankly, without a focus on quality, increasing degree attainment could be meaningless.

But let me ask you – what exactly is quality in higher education? Too often, quality has been seen as a characteristic of institutions and programs; it’s been correlated with things such as admissions selectivity, faculty credentials, class size, physical facilities, — even the price of tuition. The better a school rates on these input measures, the higher its quality is assumed to be.

When we began to really understand the implications of our goal to increase attainment, we knew that we are in a world where actual outcomes are what matter ... particularly outcomes for students. In this world, an input-based definition of quality just isn’t useful. Now, more than ever, we need a shared definition of college quality that focuses on student outcomes, and especially learning. 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 is what students actually learn ... how they can use what they gain in their programs of study.

Labor experts tell us that the jobs of tomorrow will require more and more high-level skills and knowledge. Employers echo that statement, citing a growing lack of qualified applicants for the positions they seek to fill. In short, there is a growing disconnect between what American society needs from its college graduates and what the higher-ed system is providing.

Lumina’s commitment to learning as the true measure of quality has enriched and focused our work, and it has led us to a concrete result: the Degree Qualifications Profile. The DQP, which is now being tested in faculty-led projects at institutions in more than half the states, is a framework for clearly defining learning outcomes. It is a baseline set of reference points for what students in any field should be able to do to earn their degrees.

I’ve brought copies of the DQP with me today, and I hope you’ll take one with you and peruse it. But, I do want to provide you with some background on 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 with more than 30 years as a senior research analyst with the Department of Education; Peter Ewell, vice president of NCHEMS and one of the most known experts on assessment of student outcomes; Paul Gaston, Trustees Professor at Kent State, and a scholar on higher education reform 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. The drafters reviewed the learning outcome work in the United States, and the work being done in other countries, and worked collaboratively to develop the DQP. Through the drafting of the DQP they have become even more committed to the idea that American higher education needed a shared understanding of what degrees represent. In their work, they concluded several things.

First, that there was value in putting in writing what a degree represents in terms of learning. Currently we define degrees in terms of credits and time, but degrees should be based on a clear demonstration of what a degree holder knows and is able to do with that degree.

Second, the drafters believe there is in fact a great deal of consensus among educators and employers about the knowledge, skills and application of them that students should demonstrate as they progress from the Associate degree to the Bachelor’s degree and on to a master’s degree. The learning outcome work of the past several decades has produced an impressive body of work that can be built on. And, the data from employers strongly suggests that what they need from college graduates aligns with what educators are saying.

Third, given the urgency to increase degree attainment, it is essential that we focus on more than simply producing the number of degrees the country needs. It is essential that we be accountable for the quality of these degrees. A list of credits earned and courses taken does not provide that assurance of quality. We must be accountable for the quality and integrity of our degrees and that means we must be accountable for student learning. learning, we need to be able to say what students are supposed to accomplish across their studies and we need to be able to articulate the differences in scope and level of learning among associate, bachelors, and master’s degrees.

The Degree Qualifications Profile outlines five areas of student learning—Specialized Knowledge, Broad Knowledge, Intellectual Skills, Applied Learning, and Civic Learning. While each of the five areas is described independently, the areas clearly interact, both in learning and in application. Students must apply their learning in a variety of settings and be able to solve problems that span disciplines and actors. And, as to degree level – as the drafters would say – it is all in the verbs. The expectation for student performance ratchets up from associate to bachelors to masters.

I have been telling you some of what the Degree Qualifications Profile is, let me also tell some of what the Degree Qualifications Profile is not.

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” – 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. As I said, it’s being tested by faculty-led teams all over the nation, and the grants we have made to support that testing process are three-year grants. So we are at the early stages of this effort.

Second, despite the fact that the DQP is relatively new on the scene, it is not a marginal or “boutique” experiment. Specifically, it is being tested at more than 100 institutions in 30 states, representing virtually every sector of nonprofit higher education. being done by partnering with national organizations, including the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Council of Independent Colleges, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), and two regional accreditors: the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the Higher Learning Commission. We believe that the high 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.

In these projects we hope to learn more about the content of the DQP – what needs adapting – what needs to be changed? We also want to know more about how institutions engage faculty across an institution to work together to be able to demonstrate what degrees represent – what evidence do they have of the learning that transcends a program or discipline? How can we provide certainty that students have the competences outlined in the DQP? And we also want to know what those who truly work with the DQP would advise us about next steps.

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 a list – it is ultimately about how faculty 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 or organization can really use the DQP unless that organization crafts it specifically to meet its own unique circumstances. From the very beginning, it 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. 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 for anyone interested in defining the meaning and relevance of postsecondary credentials. Institutions of all types, states and state systems, individual disciplines, employers, accrediting agencies, advisory bodies such as NACIQI — any stakeholder can use the Profile as a way to gauge the meaning, quality, relevance, and integrity of American degrees.

It focuses us all on student learning, and that is the area that MUST be our emphasis as we strive to reach that ambitious goal of ensuring quality while increasing college attainment.

We at Lumina are committed to that goal, and we welcome your partnership in the effort to achieve it. I look forward now, to your questions about how the DQP can contribute to the work we share, or any other element of our work together.

Thank you very much.

Kate Snedeker

A series of reports show investing in employee tuition reimbursement yields significant financial payback.
See Talent Investment series