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Ensuring Quality, Flexibility and Relevance in Postsecondary Learning

Jamie Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation
Opening Keynote, State of the Workforce Symposium, Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU), Washington, DC

Thank you, and good afternoon. I’m very pleased to be with you today, and I want to thank APSCU and president Steve Gunderson for inviting me to help kick off this year’s symposium. This is an important and timely meeting, and I’m delighted that you’ve convened such an interesting array of talented leaders from so many different perspectives.

As I considered what I might speak with you about today, I was struck by something Steve said in his invitation letter.  The one line that caught my eye wasn’t specifically about this symposium, but rather the way that he described APSCU’s purpose. APSCU’s aim, he said, is “preparing students for real jobs, with real wages and a real chance for a place in America’s middle class.”

Let’s take a moment to unpack that statement and make sure we all understand how profound it really is. Labor economist Tony Carnevale may have been the first to document how success in postsecondary education is not just nice, it’s necessary for Americans to reach and remain in the middle class. This reality is now understood by most Americans. The annual Lumina/Gallup poll administered a few months ago found that 61 percent of Americans agree with the statement that increasing higher education attainment is necessary to the nation – not desirable or a good idea, but necessary.  That number increased from 51 percent last year and 43 percent the year before.  Gallup tells us they have never seen as rapid a shift of public attitudes on any broad-based indicator.

This poll result, of course, also reflects the broad acceptance of Goal 2025 – the goal that 60% of Americans hold high-quality postsecondary degree, certificates and other credentials by 2025.

We also all understand why this shift has taken place. It is about jobs, and the fact that we are now living in a knowledge-based economy. It is not just a shift to higher-skill jobs – it is that almost all jobs that lead to the middle class are becoming higher-skill jobs. This shift is most visible in industries such as manufacturing and healthcare, but it can be seen across the economy.

But before we all start patting each other on the back, I think we should ask ourselves a question.  Do we – those of us who work in postsecondary education – fully appreciate the gravity of this shift?  I submit that living in an economy in which reaching the middle class depends on success in some form of postsecondary education demands that we rethink many of our assumptions about that education.  In fact, at Lumina Foundation, we have come to believe that building a higher education system that can help most Americans obtain a high-quality postsecondary credential – in other words, a system that can reach Goal 2025 – demands a fundamental redesign of many if not most of its key elements. 

I think I can summarize the nature of this redesign of higher education in this way: We need to move from a higher education system focused on institutions and based on time, to one focused on students and based on learning.

What does it mean to move to a student-centered, learning-based system? Yes, as a nation, we need millions more of our citizens to hold degrees and other postsecondary credentials. But we dare not lose sight of exactly what it is they wind up holding. We must ensure that credentials have real and lasting value … that they demonstrate genuine talent … that they reflect truly relevant knowledge and skills.

For us at Lumina, the realization that we needed to focus on students and learning started when we first took the statement that became Goal 2025 to our board about six years ago. I still remember our board saying to me, “Jamie, we love the goal and are ready to commit the Foundation to reaching it. We just have one question: What do you mean by high quality?” I said, “That’s a great question.  Let me get back to you on that.” 

We had about a month to answer the question.   In that month, we concluded that the long-used proxies for quality in higher education — seat time, faculty profile, institutional reputation, tradition, endowment size ― all of these indicators are insufficient, even invalid. What really matters — fundamentally, the only measure of educational quality that matters ― is learning; that is, what students know, and what they can do with what they know. In other words, we figured out that quality in higher education is not an institutional characteristic.  It’s not primarily driven by where the student learns, but by how she is changed by the experience. It is measured in learning and represented by the credential. 

To quote our colleague Tony Carnevale again: “If we can’t substantiate learning, we might as well hand out degrees the day students arrive.” 

If you’re at all familiar with Lumina, you’re aware that we’ve been intently focused for some time on how to use genuine learning outcomes to define educational quality. Now you understand why. It’s central to Goal 2025. We’ve been involved in a whole array of efforts focused on articulating and promoting those learning outcomes.  One result of our work on learning is the Degree Qualifications Profile. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the DQP. I think it can be a very useful tool for you, and will help us in the move to a student-centered, learning based system.

The DQP is a baseline set of reference points to describe the learning outcomes of degrees ― what students should know and be able to do at the associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree levels. We released the DQP in beta form in 2011, and then, in October 2014, we published an official, updated version. The DQP has gained significant traction nationwide as a tool that can help redefine educational quality in terms of actual student learning, and it has been faculty-tested in more than 400 institutions across the country.

I urge you to review the DQP, to test it and use it on your campus, and to give us your feedback as we strive to make it even better. And as you use it, I’m certain you’ll derive from it an important benefit: Simply put, it will give you a clear and compelling method to show employers and other stakeholders precisely how your institution adds value. It can help you hone in on exactly what skills and knowledge your students gain from your programs, and thus can improve perceptions of the value that you provide.

We see the DQP as a step toward an even broader national dialogue about all postsecondary credentials – including degrees, certificates and certifications. This dialogue will need to include national organizations representing not just education providers, but also industry groups and credentialing bodies across the spectrum of higher education and workforce-development systems. In a knowledge-based economy, all of these players and systems need to talk to each other in a common language. Lumina believes this dialogue is absolutely necessary – creating a system where all learning counts wherever and however it is obtained; where the meaning of credentials in terms of skills and knowledge is understood and recognized by students, employers, educators and the public; and where clear pathways to further education and career advancement are available to all.  

We also know that we need to rethink the building blocks of credentials – specifically the credit hour – to reflect learning rather than time. This is a challenging task, as you’ve no doubt heard in the last couple of years, but it’s absolutely necessary.  The kind of experimentation that is being allowed, albeit at a very modest scale, at the federal level is a useful starting point.  But there’s certainly much more to come on this front.

Remember, though, that assuring quality — as vital as it is ― represents only half of the formula for reaching Goal 2025.  We need a postsecondary system that provides quality AND quantity. We need millions more well-prepared graduates — of all ages and from all walks of life, all income levels, and all races and ethnic groups. Equity is a hugely important element of the overall equation, because who gains access to these high-quality learning opportunities will be a defining element of our future success as a nation.

Fundamentally, this is a capacity problem.  Put simply, we need to assure that affordable postsecondary education is available to everyone who needs it.

I think we all realize that we need innovative approaches to meet the capacity problem. Institutions all over the nation have embraced online learning and other emerging modes of instruction. We are seeing rapid growth in competency-based programs and new efforts to assess and award credit for prior learning — the knowledge and skills that students gain outside the classroom. These are all welcome developments, in my view, and need to accelerate.

However, we all understand how difficult it is to innovate in higher education. The unfortunate reality is that in 2015 institutions that wish to organize around student learning instead of instructional time must obtain a waiver from Title IV requirements to do so. I’m not blaming anyone when it comes to this legislative and regulatory hurdle.  The fact is, we don’t have the basic conceptual frameworks for structuring the higher education system around student learning. It’s no wonder, then, that we struggle with how to put these ideas into an official governmental context that are aimed at eligibility requirements and performance expectations.  But we are working on this challenge on many fronts and along with many partners, as I know many in this room are as well. 

One of the fronts on which we must work, together, in the redesign higher education has to do with institutional mission and governance models – specifically, innovation around the definition of what higher education is – for-profit, not-for-profit, public, private, and lots of things that don’t fit neatly into those boxes. 

It is clear to us at Lumina that we need a significant expansion of the capacity of the higher education system to serve the full range of potential students in innovative and effective ways, and that all of that expansion will not come from the public sector.  Unfortunately, discussions about expansion of higher education capacity frequently get bogged down in mostly frustrating philosophical arguments about the distinctions and motivations inherent between for-profit and non-profit higher education. I recognize the need for differential regulation in certain cases, but what I don’t think is productive is the degree to which we have created a truly bifurcated policy dialogue.  This seems counterintuitive and counterproductive to what we all know is needed — more high-quality postsecondary learning to meet our nation’s rising demand for talent.

I say these arguments are frustrating because it is increasingly clear that these sectors are less distinct silos than they are points on a continuum.  At Lumina, we have explored the potential role of public-benefit corporations in expanding higher education capacity, as well as public/private partnerships such as that between Western Governors University and several states. We believe that we need to think beyond the traditional silos to find new and innovative ways both to tap capital markets for the expansion of higher education opportunity, as well as to unleash the innovative potential of a wide collection of postsecondary learning providers.  Some of those providers might be existing entities, some might be wholly new, and some might be current organizations that are working in a different sphere but whose capacities could be tapped to meet this postsecondary learning challenge.

It is also clear to us that the key to this breakthrough in how we think about the sectors is the emergence of new and stronger ways to assure the quality of education in terms of student outcomes. Once these systems are in place – and we are working hard to build them – the same set of rules can apply to all and we can unleash the innovative capacity of higher education institutions of all types to expand capacity and serve all the students we need to reach Goal 2025.

We all know that education — accessible, affordable, high-quality postsecondary education ― is the key to individual and social progress. But when it comes to real progress, we’ve reached a plateau in this country. Given the system’s limitations, we’re kind of stuck. And if we’re ever going to get unstuck ― if we’re ever going to get beyond the plateau and keep climbing as a nation — we need to truly embrace change and work together to make change happen.

I want to thank all of you here today for your efforts to ensure quality, flexibility and relevance in postsecondary learning, for your work to make postsecondary education in this nation a truly student-centered system.  Working together, I think we can make a real difference in the lives of those students, and in the process, in our collective well-being as a nation.

Thank you very much.

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FEATURED VIDEO
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.