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Taking Learning to the Next Level: Independent Institutions and the DQP

Jamie P. Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation
Opening keynote, CIC/DQP Consortium meeting, Indianapolis

Thank you, Rich, and good afternoon everyone. I’m pleased to be with you today, and I want to add my own words of welcome to those that Rich has already offered. Many of you have been to Indianapolis, but for those who have not, my Lumina colleagues and I are very pleased to welcome you to our hometown.

I hope you enjoy your stay in Indy, and I have no doubt that you’ll gain a great deal from the program that Rich, Terry and the CIC staff have put together for this meeting. I’m sure the conversations will be fruitful, and I hope that they inspire even greater progress in the important work that all of you have been doing with the Degree Qualifications Profile. It’s my job this afternoon to help set the stage for those conversations, and to share with you what we see as some of the possible next stages of this important effort.

But before we think about where we’re going, I’d like to take a few minutes to take stock of where we are … to explain how we all wound up in this room together ― and why we at Lumina are so pleased about that.

As we consider the work done so far with the DQP, it is clear that the 25 institutions represented here today ― with the active support of CIC ― have been a huge factor in the early learning and the growth of the DQP effort. Since you helped us launch the DQP work in 2011, participation has increased threefold. Today, nearly 300 institutions in more than 40 states have tested or are experimenting with the DQP and we’ve been receiving significant feedback about their experiences. These growing “trials” are having a marked influence on national conversations about student learning outcomes, and we believe this is a welcome and needed conversation.

Naturally, we at Lumina are pleased by this progress, but I can’t say we’re that surprised by the contributions of CIC’s members. Indeed, we were aware of your strengths from the very outset. That’s why we thought it critical that independent institutions be part of this work, and why we were so pleased when CIC stepped up to join the first wave of grantees in testing the DQP. Since Day One, your involvement in this work has been notable and valuable in a number of ways.

First, this cohort of beta testers was among the three original grantees in the project, but the only one where an accrediting organization was not leading the effort. You showed early on that the Degree Profile could work ― and ultimately, can only work—from the inside-out, as a faculty-driven effort. It’s hard to overstate the value of being able to point to 25 independent colleges and universities where faculty are deeply and directly engaged in the work of defining learning outcomes and ensuring educational quality.

That’s not to say that faculty involvement hasn’t been key to the work of the other DQP partners. But your vantage point is different, and highly valued. Indeed, the members of the CIC Consortium have helped deliver an important message to the field. That message: The focus on learning outcomes must grow and be shaped from within each institution; it can’t be effectively imposed from without. In short, engagement of faculty is critical; absent effective faculty engagement, the path to meaningful improvement of outcomes is seriously impeded.

The second benefit that came from the early involvement of the CIC Consortium is this group’s national presence. From the project’s outset, we believed it important to test the DQP’s potential for national impact, in all kinds of institutions. The CIC Consortium has certainly provided that ― 25 schools, from California and Utah … to Nebraska and Minnesota … to Ohio and South Carolina and Massachusetts. Quickly establishing that national footprint was very important, and it has helped spur the notable growth that I mentioned earlier.

Here’s a third benefit of CIC’s early involvement: We have learned from you. You may not realize it, but you have helped Lumina shape and refine its own approach to learning outcomes and quality assurance. When Lumina launched the DQP effort, that work was essentially running parallel with another body of learning outcomes work we were supporting—the discipline-specific “Tuning” projects inspired by Europe’s Bologna Process. Almost from the beginning, however, independent institutions showed us how these two projects could and should be coordinated and combined.

Just one example: Concordia University-Wisconsin has used the DQP to reshape the assessment of student learning in two of its programs: business and accounting. Essentially, Concordia took the principles of Tuning and folded them into the context of the DQP. That combination is powerful and has great potential. Indeed, we’re convinced now that a merger or melding of these two, once-discrete projects now seems inevitable … and you helped us see that.

Finally, as I look back on how we got to this point, let me share one more thing that helped to single out independent institutions as vital partners in this work. I’ve already talked about how important it is for faculty to drive the DQP process. Perhaps even more important: The driver must understand and serve the actual passenger … the student.

Those in this room understand that the student is at the center of the entire enterprise. Faculty on your campuses have always been intently focused on teaching and learning … on what happens in the classroom … on how knowledge and skills are best conveyed from person to person. In your bones, you know that learning-outcomes work isn’t about your academic discipline, or your department or your institution. Fundamentally and finally, you know it’s about your students. I’m confident in saying that your personal goal is to help each of those students earn a high-quality credential … a credential that clearly demonstrates rigorous learning and relevant skills.

This type of learning doesn’t happen at arm’s length. Even today, in the era of open courseware and massive online delivery, what matters in education is genuine engagement and ongoing support … the one-to-one connections that keep students focused and on track. This commitment to engaging the individual ― the holistic, student-centered approach—is absolutely vital. Clearly, that is no revelation to any of you. Indeed, as someone educated in an independent liberal arts institution, I understand that you have always taken a student-centered approach—and you’re still taking it, even if some of those one-to-one connections now happen in cyberspace. Again, that commitment to the individual is one of the main reasons you’ve been such valuable partners in the DQP project.

And now I’m here to tell you that your value is sure to increase in the coming months … and the discussions you’ll have here will certainly underscore that point. Over the next two days, as you gather to share the lessons you’ve learned from the DQP projects on your campuses—and as we all look for ways in which those lessons might be applied and expanded ― you will see that you have a unique role in continuing to advance this work.

I’d like to use the rest of my remarks to talk about that unique role. In the process, I’ll also try to paint a clearer picture of Lumina’s broader, long-term agenda for the DQP project ― indeed, for all of the learning-outcomes and quality-assurance work in which we’re engaged.

In fact, since this project is all about outcomes, let’s start with that big picture … with what we at Lumina see as the ultimate outcome of the DQP pilot and the other learning-oriented work we’ve undertaken.

If you’ve paid any attention to what Lumina has been doing and saying recently, you’ve noticed one constant: our persistent push for fundamental change in American higher education … for system redesign. Our pursuit of Goal 2025—that is, increasing Americans’ attainment of high-quality degrees, certificates and other postsecondary credentials to 60 percent by 2025 ― our pursuit of that goal has shown us again and again that redesign is absolutely necessary.

Despite the many contributions it has made to our nation, the current system simply can no longer adequately get us where we need to be as a nation. It unfortunately 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 the 21st century. That’s not an assessment of blame; it’s a reality we must confront, together. And it’s why we need a redesigned higher-ed system ― one that is flexible, affordable, and relentlessly focused on quality.

In particular, the system must be oriented to better serve the students who, for decades, have been on the wrong side of the growing attainment gap in higher education: low-income and first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and adults. To close those gaps, and to meet the full range of societal needs, we need an integrated, fully linked system for developing human potential—the talent that will drive our social, economic and cultural well-being in the coming decades.

At Lumina, we are working actively to help design a truly student-centered, learning-based system—one that ensures access to all types of students, gives those students the preparation and ongoing support they need to succeed, and enables them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning

This redesign work is just beginning … and it’s certainly not merely our project at Lumina. We know that success will require many years of coordinated effort by a full range of stakeholders inside and outside the higher-ed arena. There are a lot of parts to this puzzle, and it’s too early to see it in much detail.

Still, even at this stage, we can begin to describe the system that the nation needs. For one thing, given the growing demand for higher education among an increasingly diverse student population, the system must include all types of institutions: public and private; religiously affiliated and secular; online and brick-and-mortar; small, large and in-between. At its core, it’s a system that offers multiple, clearly marked pathways to various levels of student success ― pathways that are affordable, clear and interconnected, with no dead ends, no cul-de-sacs, and plenty of on- and off-ramps. We also know that these pathways must be based on learning ― that the degrees and other credentials awarded must represent well-defined and transparent learning outcomes.

The redesigned system will guarantee that all learning counts—no matter how, when, and where it was obtained. Every credit should represent learning, and should therefore be transferable and applicable to further education. Accomplishing this is not ― pardon the pun—an academic exercise. Only by developing a deeper understanding of the learning outcomes of higher education can we assure that all learning counts.

In the best scenario, then, this new system will be one in which everyone knows where he or she is going, how much it will cost to get there, how much time it will take, and what to expect at journey’s end—both in terms of learning outcomes and career prospects. In the new system, the learning that any credential represents will be explicit and transparent to all concerned. Faculty will agree on—and students will clearly understand—what skills and knowledge a graduate in a particular discipline should possess. Policymakers will be able to allocate resources rationally, based at least in part on those expected learning outcomes. Employers will be able to hire graduates with confidence, knowing what skills and knowledge are embedded in a two-year degree in English or a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.

There are two huge shifts in thinking that undergird this new system: a pair of new perspectives that are really driving all of the other changes I’ve been talking about. For many decades, if not from the very beginning, our higher education system has been organized around institutions and measured by time. Put another way, institutions have been the focal point of the system, and time ― defined by the credit hour—has been the lens we use to view it. By and large, this is still very much the case. While this focus served the country reasonably well for many years, the fact is that this model is simply not able to serve the dramatically larger number of Americans who need high-quality higher education. Our focus needs to shift.

Now this doesn’t mean that institutions are somehow unimportant. The knowledge development role of higher education is critical, as is the broader role of service to community and society. Institutions are critical. But the idea that decisions and funding and policies should respond primarily to the needs of colleges and universities must be replaced by a focus on first meeting the needs of students and, by extension, the needs of society. Just as important: the time-based method of “keeping score” in higher education must be replaced by one that measures and rewards what truly matters: student learning.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this latter point when it comes to the redesigned higher-ed system: Learning outcomes simply must be the true measure of educational quality. Not time, not institutional reputation, but genuine learning ― that is, competencies informed by the real world in which students must thrive.

And that pulls us out of the “big picture” and puts us right back in this room … focused directly on your involvement with the Degree Qualifications Profile. Clearly, the work you’ve all been doing with the DQP these past two years represents an important early ― and potentially influential ― step along the road to this learning-based system. The lessons you have learned in your individual projects ― along with those being gleaned from similar, faculty-led efforts on scores of other campuses all over the country—those lessons are absolutely critical to the ongoing redesign process. Your successes ― and just as important, your struggles—are key to the development of that more productive, more effective, learning-based system that our nation so desperately needs.

And so now, even though the official term of the CIC project is nearing an end, your role as members of the CIC Consortium is by no means over. In fact, the time for the real payoff is just beginning … and it can start right here at this meeting.

For example, tomorrow afternoon, my Lumina colleague Holly Zanville will moderate an open forum that will give you a chance to have a direct impact on the next phase of the DQP work. Right now, the authors of the DQP are working on a revised version of the document, which Lumina hopes to make public by this time next year. Your informed input can help shape this revision. In fact, your comments and suggestions are very much needed at this stage, so I hope you’ll attend that session and share your thoughts with Holly.

Of course, the chance to help improve the Degree Profile document isn’t your only opportunity for input this week. The next two days will provide many chances to share your experiences with using the DQP … to learn from your peer institutions … to talk about the challenges you’ve faced and the progress you’ve made. I urge you to make the most of this opportunity. Be forthright, candid and generous in sharing what you’ve learned. Look for ways to apply on your own campus the lessons you gain from others. And don’t let the sharing stop here. Keep the lines of communications open ― with your peers in the consortium, of course, but also in your respective disciplines and in the broader community of institutions that are involved in learning-outcomes work.

One good way to do this is to link up with the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, or NILOA. George Kuh and his colleagues at NILOA can do a great deal to help you sustain and strengthen your work. Just go to the NILOA website at and visit the DQP Corner. There you’ll find a wealth of resources, including community forums, a series of webinars, and examples of specific assignments geared to meet DQP criteria. As you’ll see, this is an ongoing and dynamic conversation among hundreds of educators all across the nation. It’s a conversation we at Lumina are pleased to support and amplify, and proud to be involved in ― because we are convinced that it is critical to future of American higher education.

Our partners in the effort to focus on learning and educational quality—including CIC and its member institutions ― must keep the conversation going. So much is riding on what we can share. So much depends on the outcomes we seek and on the redesigned system that can be built on those outcomes.

We truly appreciate the good work we’ve seen in the 25 institutions involved here. We join you in celebrating your successes, and we’re eager to hear more about the strides you’ve made. The challenge now is to move beyond the pockets of excellence we’re seeing to a much broader adoption of the learning-based framework that really puts students’ needs—and student success ― at the center. It’s a significant challenge, to be sure, but it’s one that presents huge benefits: to institutions, to students, to employers, and to the nation as a whole.

I can assure you that Lumina won’t shrink from this challenge. We’re in it for the long haul, and we’re grateful that you’re with us.

Thank you.

Kate Snedeker

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