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Positioning Higher Education To Ensure It Meets Increasing Demands

Holiday McKiernan, Chief of Staff and General Counsel, Lumina Foundation
Opening Keynote, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Philadelphia, PA

Thank you. Good evening, everyone. I am very pleased to be here—and given the weather circumstances especially pleased the room is so full.

It is a particular pleasure to join a gathering that represents such a diverse group of colleges and universities: small, large, public, private, secular, for-profit, not-for-profit, even international. All in this room have a role to play in addressing the nation’s higher education needs.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education has a long tradition of leadership on issues that I and my colleagues at Lumina care about deeply. The impressive agenda for the next several days reflects many of these common interests through topics like assessment of student learning, flexible pathways to degrees, embedding use of data and evidence into institutional culture, and articulation of competencies.

Here is what I would like to do with our time together this evening. First, I want to give you a sense of Lumina and our work. Second, I’d like us to talk about system redesign—essentially, what does the higher education system need to look like to serve far more students effectively. And, finally, I’d like to talk about the invaluable role all in this room can play.

Our mission, as many of you know, is increasing college attainment. We want more Americans to earn high quality degrees and credentials. We’ve set an attainment target for the country that reflects this mission. Goal 2025 calls for an increase by that date to 60% the number of Americans with a high quality degree or credential. This ambitious goal guides all that we do.

Our country needs talent that can only be produced through rigorous, high quality college level learning

But the importance of this goal for Lumina and our work is not the point. The point is its importance for the nation. Our country needs far more talent, talent that can only be produced through rigorous, high quality college level learning. Experts agree that some postsecondary education will be necessary for anyone who hopes to pursue a rewarding career and build a satisfying life. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, led by labor economist Tony Carnevale, estimates that by 2020 65% of jobs in America will require some form of postsecondary education. By contrast, today only around 39% of the US population has a postsecondary degree or credential.

One reason for this heightened emphasis on postsecondary degrees may be found in significant changes in the nature of work, changes that have accelerated even through the recession and the recovery. The number of jobs requiring postsecondary skills is significantly higher than in 1973, when just 28% of jobs required education beyond high school. The workforce I entered after graduating from DePauw University in 1980 is very different than the environment my children are experiencing. What’s also notable is that the fastest growing occupations, such as those in STEM, healthcare, community services, and healthcare support, require high levels of postsecondary education. The country needs many more people with quality college level learning, as rapidly as possible.

In addition to the compelling economic arguments for increasing attainment, there are equally powerful social and equity rationales for doing so. We all know that postsecondary attainment generates significant societal benefits, including greater civic and social engagement, higher rates of political participation and volunteerism, healthier lifestyles, and less dependence on public assistance. Moreover, we understand that postsecondary education is the single best route to a stable and secure future—for individuals and for the communities in which they live.

But despite our awareness of these realities, we continue to see an overall shortfall relative to the attainment we need. And even more disturbingly we see persistent gaps in degree attainment among students who’ve traditionally been under-represented in higher education — Low income students, students of color, first-generation students, and working adults. You probably have seen the recent research which shows there are thousands of academically talented and successful African American and Latino high school students—including many young men—who either don’t make it into colleges and universities or don’t succeed once there. That is a problem for these students and for us, and not just because statistics show that workers with advanced degrees earn more, contribute more in taxes, are more involved civically and socially, and consume fewer public resources compared to postsecondary dropouts. The big reason we should care is because this represents a tremendous loss of human potential, and one these students—and all of us—can ill afford.

It’s hard to ignore this reality. By and large, American students are traveling on separate postsecondary pathways that lead to unequal educational opportunities and outcomes. It’s clear that Goal 2025 simply can’t be reached unless equity becomes more of a shared, central, national concern. We can only reach the dual goals of quantity (millions more graduates) and quality (rigorous, relevant learning) by making the system truly equitable.

To reach that ambitious 60 percent goal, we have to explore new paths. The current system has made invaluable contributions to our nation, but it is not positioned to get us where we need to be. It lacks the capacity, the flexibility, and the affordability that are necessary to produce the tens of millions of additional graduates this country must have if we are to thrive in this global century. That’s not an assessment of blame, but a reality we must confront together. We need new routes, new ideas and new approaches to serve a larger, more diverse student population. In order to close the attainment gap and to meet the full range of societal and workforce needs, we need an integrated, fully linked system for developing human capital. This redesigned postsecondary system must be flexible, affordable, and relentlessly focused on quality. Put simply, it must be a student-centered system, one designed to meet the needs of students—all types of students—not just the needs or traditions of institutions. The ultimate goal is to build a learning-based system that offers broad, connected pathways to high-quality credentials for a vast and growing number of Americans—from all walks of life.

Clearly, this is a redesign project of major proportions. It will require years of coordinated effort by a variety of stakeholders. It isn’t just higher education—it is accreditors, states, K-12, parents, community organizations, religious organizations, the federal government. But it is an effort that must be made if we hope to create a system that can truly serve this nation. Pieces of the new system are already starting to take shape. You can see them coming together almost everywhere you look across the higher education landscape. Consider the increased focus on creating richer, experiential learning opportunities for students—driven in part by the drive to reach higher learning outcomes such as critical thinking. Consider also the rise of open, online, interactive courseware and other innovative modes of curriculum delivery. There is an increased emphasis on performance-based or outcomes-based funding models, a heightened concern with costs and increased effectiveness and productivity, and a growing interest in prior learning assessment as a way of awarding credit for knowledge gained outside the classroom. Regional accreditors are paying close attention to these trends and responding to them in ways that are appropriate to their commitment to quality.

There are two important perspectives driving these changes. First, we are reexamining the organization of our higher education system around institutions. Second, we are reconsidering the measurement of student accomplishment in terms of time. While these assumptions served the country reasonably well for many years, this model cannot any longer serve the much larger number of Americans who need high-quality higher education. Our focus needs to become broader. This doesn’t mean that institutions are becoming less important—that would be a totally incorrect perspective. But the idea that decisions and funding and policies should respond primarily to the needs of colleges and universities must be replaced by a priori intentionality on meeting the needs of students and of society. Just as important: the time-based method of “keeping score” in higher education must be supplemented or replaced by one that measures and rewards student learning.

Accreditors are critical to managing these changes so that they lead to good results for students, for colleges and universities, and for the nation. Your leadership is and will be critical in several respects. Perhaps even in ways we do not yet understand. But to contribute to your discussion over the next few days, I want to describe from our perspective at Lumina Foundation how well-positioned you are to take this role of leadership.

No one else enjoys the credibility, the responsibility, and the track record higher education accreditation has attained over more than a century of service to the nation. Our tradition of peer review makes us unique among nations and offers us a legacy well worth defending. Those of us at Lumina have always had tremendous respect for this strong tradition and for the commitment of the nation’s accrediting bodies to their mission. We appreciate the tireless efforts required of all stakeholders involved in the process. Your role in defining, articulating, and ensuring quality in higher education is vital and will remain so.

Who is in a better position than regional accreditation to make it clear that the quality of any college credential is tightly and inextricably bound to student learning? Learning that is substantive, learning that broadens the mind and spirit, learning that offers effective preparation for further education and employment. All of the evidence about the need for increased attainment shows that the underlying skills and knowledge are as important as the credential itself. What matters is what students learn, how they can demonstrate and build on the knowledge and skills they gain in their programs of study.

But if this recognition is to drive positive change, the learning that any postsecondary credential represents must be explicit and transparent to all concerned. There must be a clear and widely shared understanding of the learning that is expected. Faculty must agree on—and students must clearly understand—the competencies a graduate should possess. Employers must be able to hire graduates with confidence, knowing what skills and knowledge are embedded in their degrees—this is in fact a new definition of quality: that quality degrees are those with clear, well-defined learning outcomes that lead to further education and employment.

If we ask the public what they want postsecondary education to accomplish, their response largely mirrors this definition of quality. In a Gallup poll conducted in February 2013, 96% of respondents stated that “getting a good job” was an important reason to pursue a degree or credential. The implication is that people believe that the skills gained through education lead to better employment outcomes. Yet that is not the entire answer. The September 2013 “innovation poll” of corporate leaders by Northeastern University shows a large majority of business leaders believe that graduates also must be “well-rounded with broad skills” and with “the ability to think creatively [as well as] critically.”

The challenge institutions face in serving their students more effectively lies in their identifying and defining how the knowledge, skills, and abilities students attain will enable them to achieve rewarding careers and satisfying lives. In short, in our definition of quality the outcomes for the student are what matter. This is a significant shift—away from focusing on institutional characteristics to what students know and are able to do.

For any learning-based system to work, we need clear definitions of the learning outcomes we seek. Lumina’s commitment to learning as the true measure of quality is reflected in the development of the Degree Qualifications Profile. The DQP is a framework for clearly defining learning outcomes at the associate, bachelors’ and master degree levels. It is a tool that helps faculty, institutions, and other stakeholders clearly define the meaning of degrees. It is a baseline set of reference points stating what students should know and be able to do at each degree level, irrespective of field of study. And it provides an architecture for crafting a shared definition of quality—a framework that can be used across the country to define learning outcomes.

The DQP and regional accreditation share many priorities, but the most important may be that of challenging institutions to define, articulate, and improve their commitment to quality and effectiveness. The DQP is currently being tested in more than 300 institutions across the country. Several of your peer institutions and accreditors are part of this work.

  • The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the Higher Learning Commission, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Accrediting Association of Community and Junior Colleges have all used the DQP—as a resource for institutions approaching review, as a platform for handbook revision, as a prompt to institutional strengthening, and as a reference for curricular reform.
  • Many institutions have used the DQP to review and strengthen their general education curricula and to enhance the connections between general education and the major.
  • One institution has implemented a reorientation of its mission and curriculum in light of the DQP.
  • Some institutions with existing statements of learning outcomes have used the DQP in a “gap analysis” to determine their statements’ inclusiveness, sufficiency and distinctive strengths.
  • Some institutions have used the DQP as a platform for discussions with employers and other stakeholders about their needs and expectations.
  • Two and four-year institutions in nine states have worked together on ways to assess DQP proficiencies in the context of transfer.

But there is more that can and should be done, and Middle States is in a position to offer real leadership.

First, you and your colleagues in regional accreditation throughout the country can build your impressive leverage for positive change through clearer communication and better coordination. I commend to you in this regard a book just published by one of the authors of the DQP titled Higher Education Accreditation: How It’s Changing, Why It Must. Paul Gaston, who has served three of the regional accrediting associations as a consultant-evaluator, documents his immense respect for what accreditation has accomplished. But he believes that accreditation can do far more. In last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, he described accreditation as “more important than ever” but pointed to “a communication problem.” Accreditors have a hard time explaining to the public the good they do, he said. In his book, he proposes manageable reforms directed at improving the transparency, flexibility, and efficiency of accreditation. As you demonstrate to a skeptical public your own commitment to quality, your effectiveness as a leader in the quality movement will be enhanced enormously.

Second, you and your regional accreditation colleagues might expand and enrich the conversation about what degrees should mean in terms of what students know and are able to do. As I have suggested, that conversation is well under way, but it remains somewhat inward looking and, well, “regional.” WASC and the Higher Learning Commission and SACS have been exploring the issues raised by the DQP and making use of its resources, as I have indicated, but their efforts would be even more encouraging if they were to work more closely with one another—and if that partnership were to expand to include New England, the Northwest, and, yes, Middle States.

A friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest told me that a parishioner had once complained to him about a part of his sermon that had hit too close to home. “When you say that,” he said, “you’ve quit preaching and gone to meddling.”

You may think my urging that you participate more fully in the national discussion of student learning outcomes and quality has “gone to meddling.” But I believe that the value of leadership from this venerable, widely respected, and innovative regional accrediting association can hardly be overestimated. And I urge you to exercise it.

Again, I thank you for the opportunity to raise these important issues with you, and I am looking forward to your questions.

Kate Snedeker

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