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The DQP and Tuning: Transformative Tools for Reshaping the System of Postsecondary Learning

Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation
President & CEO, Lumina Foundation, Opening keynote speech, DQP launch event, Indianapolis

Thank you, and good morning. I want to add my own words of welcome to those that Dewayne Matthews has already offered. All of us at Lumina are very grateful for your presence here today ― and for the spirit of partnership that we already share with so many of you. I’m also pleased that so many of you are tuning in to our live webcast. Truly, whether virtual or actual, this gathering is a circle of friends—colleagues and collaborators who have been part of our journey beginning in 2009. We have a shared commitment to student success and to enhanced educational quality.

Our goal today, and over the coming months and years, is clear: We want to expand this circle of like-minded friends. We need you to help us increase attainment and the quality of postsecondary credentials by scaling up and broadly spreading the use of the DQP and the related process of Tuning. What’s more, we want others ― thought leaders in education and in philanthropy, employers, labor experts, civic leaders—in short, we want everyone to see the DQP and Tuning as we have come to seem them … as tools for transformation of student learning. And by using these tools, and others that are sure to emerge as this work continues, we will not only help transform student learning. We’ll contribute, in a meaningful way, to the way this nation develops its talent. Together, we can begin an important redesign project; we can reshape American higher education so that it is learning-based, student-centered, and genuinely committed to quality ― across an increasingly wide array of postsecondary providers that are all focused on meeting the growing demand for talent.

I’ll speak more about this larger redesign project later in my remarks ― and, I hope, in the discussion that follows. But before we focus on the long-term vision, I want first to thank a few visionaries who have, perhaps more than anyone, realized success in the short term: the four authors of the Degree Qualifications Profile. At the risk of embarrassing them, I’d like to ask all of them stand as I call their names, and then remain standing as we recognize them publicly for their good work:

  • Cliff Adelman, Senior Associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
  • Paul Gaston, Trustees Professor at Kent State University.
  • Carol Schneider, President of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.
  • And Peter Ewell, Vice President of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, who regrets that he could not be with us today. (Peter is in Utah presenting a workshop as we speak.)

Thank you, authors.

It’s impossible to overstate the contributions this group has made. For years, Lumina and others have called for new and better ways to foster, assess and ensure quality in higher education. Conceptually, we’ve known for years that quality needed to be defined more clearly and concretely—not by proxies such as seat time or institutional status—but by what really matters: that is, by genuine learning … by what students actually know and can do as a result of their study.

The DQP’s authors took that vital concept and made it real. They schooled themselves on the ways in which other nations have embarked on this task, seeking to craft approaches and strategies that are adaptable to the unique American context, where things like civic learning are highly valued. More importantly, they built the DQP on the foundation of decades of knowledge and experience that has been taking place right here in the United States around defining, measuring and assessing student learning. They painstakingly crafted a beta profile—a framework of specific, well-articulated learning outcomes for each of the three main degree levels: the associate, the bachelor’s and the master’s degree. The beta version of the profile was released in early 2011. Over the next three years—incorporating input from dozens of other experts and the lessons learned from hundreds of faculty-led DQP and Tuning efforts throughout the nation ― the authors refined the profile. The result of that four-year effort is what you have in front of you this morning: the DQP ― tested, proven, and, we believe, ready for prime time.

The DQP is truly a collaborative effort, involving not just the authors but also a wide array of organizations, institutions and individuals far too numerous to mention here. Its’ testing and use in beta form has been wide, and our main purpose for being here today is to encourage even more widespread use of the DQP and Tuning. In fact, my Lumina colleagues and I would be thrilled if, in coming years, these two interlocking terms become household words in the higher-ed lexicon … known and trusted quantities on every campus. We don’t say this because of Lumina’s involvement in these projects; that’s not it at all. We want to scale up and spread the use of DQP and Tuning because they’re proven. They work. And we know that because so many of you in the room today and signing in on our online webcast have told us so, in very concrete terms.

On campus after campus, innovative faculty members are using these tools to sharpen the instructional process and enrich student learning. They’re taking a learning-outcomes approach at the course level, the discipline or program level and the degree level. They’ve used the DQP and Tuning in many ways and in a number of academic and organizational areas—including curriculum mapping, smoothing transfer and articulation, assessing student learning, and improving the accreditation process.

Later this morning, you’ll hear a few specifics from representatives of four institutions where field-testing is ongoing and plans for expanded use are in place: Utah State University, Point Loma Nazarene College, Middlesex Community College and Fayetteville State University. These examples from the front lines are sure to be instructive ― and no doubt many of you have specifics of your own that you can share. As I said, today’s gathering is a circle of friends. Many of you here—perhaps most of you ― are already aware of the value and potential of the DQP and Tuning within the context of traditional higher education. Through your own research and the hands-on testing at your own institutions, you’ve seen what these tools can do on campus.

And that leads me back to the longer-term vision for this work. The fact is, despite their tremendous value within higher education, the DQP and Tuning are not ends in themselves; they are means to a greater end—important parts of a larger picture.

If you look closely at how we’ve structured this convening, you’ll note that we’ve laid out two purposes, two basic aims we hope to achieve. The first aim ― the call for action—I hope I’ve already articulated clearly: We want to broaden and deepen the use of Tuning and the DQP, to increase its scale and spread throughout American higher education. We want many more higher-ed institutions, systems, organizations and agencies to take action … to use these tools. And rest assured, we at Lumina will do all we can to encourage and support that action. We are in it for the long haul, without a doubt.

Our second goal for this gathering, you’ll notice, is to start a conversation about next steps. Admittedly, that second goal is a bit murkier than the first. After all, one can never be sure where a conversation might lead; and next steps aren’t always sure ones. Still, one thing we are sure of is that the next steps in this work ― at least some of those steps—must take us beyond the DQP and Tuning … indeed, beyond traditional higher education as we think of it today.

I’ve already mentioned the longer-term vision that drives this work ― the idea of reshaping American higher education so that it is learning-based, student-centered, and focused intently on quality. In fact, this has become a central message for us at Lumina as we strive to reach the goal that drives all of our work, Goal 2025. We know that, for the goal to be reached—that is, for 60 percent of Americans to have a high-quality postsecondary credential by 2025 ― the system simply must change, and change dramatically. It must be redesigned so that it better meets the needs of today’s students and positions the nation for success in our 21st century global society.

Perhaps most important: This redesigned system must deliver high-quality education to the growing numbers of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students who represent this nation’s future. Without such change, the specter of income inequality is sure to grow ― along with all of the social inequities that naturally stem from the widening gap between those who possess the tools to be effective participants in our 21st century economy and democracy, and those who do not.

We know now that education—accessible, affordable, high-quality postsecondary education ― is the single-most important factor in reversing the dangerous trends of income and social inequality. The facts are clear and compelling. According to recent study conducted as part of the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, a child born into a poor family (that is, a family in the bottom fifth of the income distribution) has a 45 percent chance of remaining poor if she fails to earn a college degree. But if she does get that degree, her chance of staying poor drops to just 16 percent. In fact, with that college credential, she’s more likely to move into the top income quintile than she is to remain in the bottom one.

What’s more, her success won’t be hers alone; increased college attainment among these 21st century students benefits all of us as Americans. In fact, according to recent projections from Standard & Poors, adding just one year of education to the nation’s workforce would cause our economy to grow by an additional $500+ billion by 2019.

But again, before these tremendous benefits can be realized, the system must change so that it better serves today’s students. What we need is a truly student-centered system ― one that ensures access to all types of students, gives those students the support they need to succeed, and enables them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning. The DQP is a powerful tool for demonstrating that real and relevant learning is, in fact, taking place … that degrees do indeed reflect educational quality. The DQP increases the transparency of learning and helps faculty demystify the “magic” of instruction and assessment. In so doing, it helps everyone involved ― students, faculty, policymakers, employers—it helps everyone see the connections and pathways that lead to a high-quality college credential.

It’s important to note, however, that more connections need to be made ― connections to high-quality credentials that are now outside the scope of the DQP. Clearly, this includes the Ph.D. and other doctoral programs; rest assured, we fully expect to incorporate these upper-level credentials in future editions of the DQP. But there’s quality at the other end of the spectrum as well. Postsecondary certificates and other non-degree credentials—many of which are being produced by employers, third party organizations and others outside of the traditional higher-ed system—have genuine and growing value to students, to employers and to society at large. And as we work to build this student-centered, learning-based system, we must ensure that the system recognizes and rewards the learning inherent in all high-quality credentials, not just degrees. Some of you know that over the past year or more, Lumina has talked about adding certificates to the DQP. And now that you have a copy of the document, you will see that certificates are not included. Have we given up on this idea? Of course not.

Rather, in studying certificates and other types of high-value credentials, we’ve contemplated another solution that we think merits national consideration ― the idea of a credentials framework. Recently, we commissioned work to explore this idea. What we envision is an overarching, interconnected structure that includes not just traditional college degrees, but all types of credentials ― from badges and certifications to apprenticeships and certificate programs, all the way through degree programs and post-doctoral study.

We’re convinced that such a system—a learning-based, flexible, stackable credentialing system ― holds tremendous potential. It can help students succeed by allowing them to gain credit for their learning ― regardless of where or how it was obtained. It can create transparent pathways, showing students clearly what knowledge and skills they need to take each step along the way. It can help employers make better-informed decisions about the qualifications and career prospects of job seekers.

In short, a credentials framework is a potential game-changer. It’s a complex and ambitious project, to be sure, and right now we’re at the earlier stages. Still, thanks to our partners at the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, we’re making progress. And the thing that makes this progress possible ― the glue that holds all of this work together—is that learning is at the center of it all. The framework will end up defining quality in the same way that the DQP and Tuning define it: It’s all about the learning. To earn a quality credential, students must show that they’ve achieved clear, concrete, well-conceived learning outcomes.

That, in a nutshell, is why we’re all here today—because we’ve come to a shared understanding of a fundamental truth: When all is said and done, it’s the learning that matters. To ensure educational quality, to increase access, to multiply the benefits of increased attainment, to reduce social inequity and foster individual progress ― to do all of these things, we need to focus on the learning. We need to hone in on what students really know and what they can do with what they know. The DQP and Tuning can help us do just that.

So that’s why we’re here: to spread the news about these valuable tools and to encourage their widespread use. Later today, our partners at NILOA—the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment ― will unveil an impressive suite of resources that can assist those who want to implement the DQP/Tuning process on their campuses. A robust website … expert coaches who can come to your campus and offer hands-on help … a library of classroom-tested assignments that can help students reach the DQP’s learning outcomes—NILOA is prepared to provide or direct you to all of these resources on an ongoing basis. Also, this afternoon, my colleague Holly Zanville will tell you about several Lumina-funded projects related to this effort ― projects that we think can propel progress in the learning-outcomes and credentialing system work for years to come.

The main message, then, is that many of you in this room, and we at Lumina are committed to this work. We’re convinced that system redesign is central to achieving Goal 2025 ― and that the DQP and Tuning can be transformative tools in that redesign process. Of course, we all have much to discuss as this process unfolds. And there is much work to do ― and do together ― if we want it to unfold productively and well. So I will do my part now and stop talking so others can join the discussion.

Typically, I’d open this up and take comments and questions from the floor—and, rest assured, there will be time for your questions before we break. Today, however, you’ll be able to address those questions, not just to me, but to an entire panel of experts who’ve been thinking about how the DQP and Tuning might affect 21st century higher education.

So, to get that discussion started, let me introduce the moderator of the morning’s first panel: Doug Lederman, co-founder and Editor at Inside Higher Education.

Kate Snedeker

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