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The Attainment Goal and the Changing Higher Education Landscape

Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Annual Conference, Indianapolis

Thank you, and good morning, everyone. I know today is Day 3 of this year’s conference, so the official time for “welcomes” has probably expired. Still, as Indianapolis is my home—and the headquarters of Lumina Foundation, the organization I’m privileged to lead ― I want to add my words of welcome.

I hope you’re enjoying your time here in Indy. As far as I can tell ACRL has done its part to make your Indianapolis experience engaging and worthwhile. I’ve looked over the agenda for the conference, and I must say I’m impressed ― not just with its scope and its depth, but with its relevance. You’re exploring so many topics this week topics that are absolutely crucial to higher education. Some sessions that caught my eye: collaboration and integration among the disciplines … harnessing “big data” and really making it work for instructors and students … the creative use of social media. You’re exploring dozens of innovative ways to enhance pedagogy and boost genuine learning. It’s truly a fascinating lineup. And it’s one that aligns with my central theme this morning: the need for fundamental redesign in American higher education ― and the vital role that you can play in that redesign project.

Many people think a library's function is preservation, not disruption - that it's a repository, not a laboratory. I'd challenge that view.

In my view libraries and librarians ― have always been in the redesign business … always on the cutting edge of change. Many people may think that a library’s main function is preservation, not disruption … that it serves as a repository, not as a laboratory. I would challenge that view … and I’ll wager that many of you would challenge it, too. Of course, any good library must be a good archive, but that’s just the beginning. What really matters, especially in the university setting, is that the archive point the way to new knowledge … that the collection—and you, the librarian ― inspire and enable genuine learning.

That goal ― fostering real learning—is really what it’s all about. No doubt that commitment to learning is the reason you do what you do ― and my Lumina colleagues and I certainly share that commitment with you. I think we can all agree that no single aspect of life has more world-changing potential than education. In fact, we might argue that the world has never changed—at least, not for the better ― unless that change was propelled by education … by learning. I’m hoping today that we can look a bit more closely at the very core of education … to focus on what learning truly means and look for ways to ensure that it happens on your campus—indeed, on every campus, real or virtual.

This focus on learning and learning outcomes has taken on tremendous significance for me and my colleagues at Lumina Foundation. For those of you unfamiliar with Lumina, let me provide some context about who we are and what we do. Lumina is the largest private foundation in the United States devoted exclusively to increasing Americans’ success in postsecondary education. All of our work drives toward achieving one goal, what we have come to call Goal 2025: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality degrees, certificates or other postsecondary credentials.

As a private foundation, our role is to be a catalyst for change in American higher education, and we take that role very seriously. We believe we have a genuine responsibility to lead, one that comes from our large base of assets, our significant and growing number of like-minded partners, and our expertise derived from the work in which we are engaged. I believe we must use our role and resources wisely and effectively to help transform higher education to meet our country’s need for talent. That’s why all of our efforts are targeted so tightly and specifically toward Goal 2025.

We see Goal 2025 as a necessary response to an urgent national need. Simply put, our nation needs far more college-educated citizens than are now being produced. Experts agree that some measure of postsecondary education will be necessary for anyone who hopes to maintain a middle-class lifestyle in the coming decades. Noted labor economist Tony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that, by the end of this decade, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require some postsecondary education and training. The simple fact is, jobs are becoming more complex and require higher-level skills than ever before … and that trend is sure to intensify in coming years.

Of course, the arguments in favor of Goal 2025 aren’t limited to the economy or the job market. Increased education attainment also generates significant societal benefits, including greater civic and social engagement, higher rates of voter participation and volunteerism, healthier lifestyles, less dependence on public assistance, and the list goes on. These benefits have enormous implications for the health and vitality of our democracy.

Finally, there is also an urgent societal need—an equity imperative for achieving Goal 2025. As all of you know, there are massive gaps in educational achievement in this country linked to race and class … persistent and pernicious inequities that have plagued us for decades. We must increase attainment among those who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education, including low-income and first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and adults. We can’t allow these attainment gaps to continue. The stakes are just too high—not merely for the people who are directly affected, but for every employer who needs skilled workers … for every citizen who stands to benefit from the economic and social progress that education brings … in short, for all of us as a nation.

For these reasons,—economic, civic and societal ― Lumina sees Goal 2025 as a vital national effort. As I said, that’s why we direct all of our resources toward achieving the goal and have organized all of our work around it. Lumina’s strategic plan, which will direct our efforts through 2016, lays out two broad imperatives for us as we strive to reach the Goal.

The first imperative is to mobilize all of the relevant stakeholders to join this effort. And the range of stakeholders is wide. It includes policymakers at the federal, state and local levels; higher education officials and institutions in every state; K-12 systems and teachers; employers, workforce groups and economic-development organizations; metropolitan areas and regions; philanthropic and social-service organizations, students and families. In essence, we want everyone to commit to achieving this 60 percent college-attainment goal … and that includes ACRL and its members.

The second imperative—is to actually design the 21st century higher education system that we need to reach Goal 2025. This is the redesign project I mentioned earlier, the one in which you and your peers can play a critical role. The simple fact is, our current system of higher education is inadequate to our needs as a nation. It was designed decades ago to serve a student population that bears little resemblance to the huge and richly diverse population of students who must be served today. Clearly, it’s a new era in higher ed, and business as usual simply won’t work any longer. We need a redesigned system—one that is flexible, affordable, and quality-focused to properly serve the needs of students, employers, and society at large.

This redesigned system must deliver affordable, high-quality education to the growing numbers of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students who represent our future as a nation. In other words, American higher education must become a truly student-centered system. It must ensure access to many more students—all types of students. And it must give those students the support they need to succeed, enabling them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning.

The necessity for redesign is rooted partially in the need to dramatically increase the number of college graduates. But this isn’t just a numbers game. We can’t just settle for more college graduates. We must also ensure that these millions of new graduates obtain the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in the 21st century. That’s why Goal 2025 is not just focused on a 60 percent target. Goal 2025 intentionally states “high-quality degrees and credentials.”

And just what is a high-quality credential? At Lumina Foundation, we’ve settled on a definition that is simple and straightforward: High-quality degrees, certificates and credentials have well-defined, transparent learning outcomes that lead to further education and employment. Let me restate that … clear, transparent, learning outcomes that lead to further education and employment.

A firm commitment to quality is the underlying reason for all of Lumina’s work in the area of student learning outcomes. When we began to really examine the concept of quality we realized that traditional “input measures” of quality ― prestige rankings and the like ― aren’t all that helpful in a world where student outcomes are what truly count. All of the evidence underscoring the need for increased attainment shows that what really matters is what students actually learn … what they know and are able to do as a result of their programs of study.

That realization ― that intense, new focus on how we define, foster, assess and reward genuine learning—represents a dramatic shift, a sea change in higher education. More and more people, representing all sectors of society, understand that traditional definitions of educational quality are no longer sufficient. Employers, the general public, policymakers and government officials, education leaders themselves ― all agree that genuine learning is a key to success. They recognize the need to move from a system built around instruction ― measured by credit hours and other units of time—to one based on learning—that is, a system based on demonstrations of students’ skills and knowledge.

To begin to better understand learning, Lumina has supported a good deal of work in the area of learning outcomes—including the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the Voluntary System of Accountability, the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (for community colleges) and the Transparency by Design project (for online institutions). As we began exploring how we could define quality degrees we quickly discovered it was essential to better understand global higher education transformation efforts. We concluded we needed to better understand the Bologna Process and its aims and objectives. This led to our Tuning work and the development of the Degree Qualifications Profile.

Let me quickly explain those two key concepts, for those of you who may be unfamiliar with them. First, Tuning. Tuning focuses on outcomes at the level of the disciplines and provides a methodology that can improve success in the classrooms themselves. It is a process led and developed by faculty members to determine what students with a degree in a particular discipline should know and be able to do. Faculty across different types of institutions come together, jointly survey the landscape—including what employers expect, and what recent graduates are doing with their degrees—and actually describe the competencies, or points of reference, that are required to achieve an associate’s, bachelors, or other degree.

The Tuning work led to the development of the Degree Qualifications Profile—our effort to define what academic degrees should mean in terms of degree-level competencies, regardless of discipline. The DQP is an architecture for crafting a shared definition of quality in higher education ― a framework used in a faculty-led process 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.

Right now, the DQP 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 several national organizations, including the Council of Independent Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and several regional accreditors.

In other words, this effort encompasses a broad learning community—a community that can and should include you and your peers in the research library field. In fact, I’d like to take just a few minutes to share some concrete examples of how that can happen ― how, in truth, it’s already happening.

Among the many learning outcomes it seeks to define, the Degree Qualifications Profile explicitly calls for students to demonstrate specific skills and knowledge in the areas of quantitative reasoning and information literacy.

Let’s take quantitative reasoning first … the idea that students be able to demonstrate that they are “numerate”—that is, capable of understanding and applying mathematics in their disciplines, their professions and in the world. Paul Gaston, Trustees Professor at Kent State University and one of the four main authors of the DQP, points out that any discipline or course of study includes computational and statistical elements that students must understand to demonstrate true learning. And the responsibility for helping students grasp those mathematical elements falls not just to math instructors, he points out, but to all faculty ― including research librarians. Librarians can purposefully lead students to the quantitative issues in their respective areas of study, encourage them to address those issues, and point them to sources of help if they need it.

Next, let’s consider an area of learning addressed in the DQP that has an even clearer and more direct link to the research library: the idea of information literacy. Clearly, university librarians and research professionals are—and always have been ― key players in helping students navigate and use information resources. These are important skills, to be sure, but their mastery does not automatically impart information literacy. The concept is much bigger and deeper than that.

For a fuller explanation, I’ll direct you to the work of one of your peers, Wendy Holliday at Utah State University. Paraphrasing Dr. Holliday, information literacy isn’t merely about how and where students find and cite information sources. Rather, it’s about how they understand, apply and use the information they find—in their fields of study and, later, in the workplace and in life. In other words, it’s not enough that students simply have information, they must be adept at “using information to learn.”

Learning … there’s that word again. It is the key to ensuring relevance and quality in higher education. The first step in that process is to clearly define the learning outcomes that we seek to achieve … and the DQP is an effort to do just that. We believe it represents a critical early 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 on the basis of learning outcomes.

The next step ― a much bigger step, admittedly—is to restructure the system so that all aspects work toward and revolve around the achievement of those learning outcomes and competencies … not the credit hour or other time-based measures. 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.

The development of this new student-centered, learning-oriented system will be a major focus of Lumina’s work in coming years … and much of that work will center on our effort to design a new credentialing scheme for higher education. The idea here is to work with a wide array of stakeholders to create new systems of quality credentials and credits—those defined by student learning and competencies, not by time. These new credentials and credits need to be structured so that they offer clear pathways to students, assure high-quality learning, and align with societal and workforce needs.

We need these new credentialing systems for several reasons. Let me list just a few:

  • To assure that learning is recognized and credited no matter where or how it is obtained.
  • To recognize the value of workforce-relevant certificates.
  • To forge new opportunities for lifelong learning through “stackable” credentials that open multiple, flexible pathways that meet students’ changing needs and interests.
  • To help employers better define their workforce needs, thus improving alignment between education and employment.
  • To better align K-12 and higher ed by more clearly defining what it means to be “college-ready.”

I can’t pretend that I see those pathways clearly right now. None of us can do that yet. What I can do, however, is point to two fundamental truths that are sure to guide us on our way.

First, the workforce and societal needs that helped give rise to the learning-outcomes movement are not likely to diminish; in fact, they are becoming steadily more intense. Employers need higher education to do more—and do better ― to prepare students for the demands and complexities of the global economy. Study after study cites evidence of a growing skills gap and demands for specific skills and knowledge. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, The Chronicle of Higher Education published results of a U.S. survey that showed half of business owners had trouble finding recent four-year graduates who were qualified for positions at their firms. Another survey of employers, published just two days ago by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, found that more than 75% of employers say they want more emphasis on things like critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings. And scholarly research, reflected in recent books such as Academically Adrift, poses serious doubts about the depth and value of graduates’ learning.

The second truth: Time is of the essence. Figuring out how to measure and foster student learning is an increasingly urgent task. We need authentic assessments ― at the course level—of what students have learned. And we need large-scale assessments to help us better benchmark externally. Why do we need these things? Because our economy and society need talent; we need students who are able to apply their learning. And to meet the talent challenge, we also need transparency … we need to be clear about what credentials mean, what skills and knowledge they represent.

Time is also of the essence because of the cost of education. For students and their families, time is money ― in a painfully literal sense. The cost of higher education is a very real impediment to hundreds of thousands of students all over this nation. We can and must reduce that impediment by changing the focus of higher education from a predominantly time-based system ― one still largely wedded to the credit hour—to a system that is rooted in and reflective of learning outcomes.

Again, there is a great deal of movement in this direction, and as librarians, you are very much a part of that vital progress, so I thank you. The work you do every day—helping students use information to unlock new worlds of knowledge ― helping students learn how to apply knowledge and solve new problems—it’s impossible to overstate the value and importance of that work. And because of its importance, I urge you to redouble your efforts … to recommit yourselves and your institutions to the task that we all signed up for in the first place: fostering real learning.

The payoff will be huge—for you personally, for each of the individual students you serve, and for the bright future that we all want those students to build.

Thank you.

Kate Snedeker

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