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The UMBC hype was great, but now we need to focus on broader issues of quality and equity in higher education

The stunning NCAA upset by University of Maryland, Baltimore County should boost admissions—and create a new cool factor—for a school that already deserves attention for its laudable focus on student success.

The real question is whether we can bring attention not only to schools like UMBC but to what’s working at such schools. We need to apply those lessons broadly so that all students can gain access to and succeed in educational programs that lead to high-quality credentials.

UMBC’s tournament triumph may have been short-lived—the upset win over top-seeded Virginia was followed by a loss in the next round. But the school can expect a continuing benefit thanks to the "Flutie effect," a boost similar to Boston College’s marketing surge after Doug Flutie’s game-winning pass in a 1984 thriller against the University of Miami.

While interest in a particular college might be piqued by this kind of publicity, the general public is increasingly skeptical about higher education overall. Many question the value of even pursuing a college-level credential because of its cost—a cost that leaves many of today’s graduates with at least some debt.

On average, the evidence is very clear that postsecondary credentials lead to positive outcomes. But students and their families deserve to see clearly how specific credentials can position them for future success. They deserve to see how UMBC and schools like it honor a commitment to quality that extends well beyond athletic success. UMBC, for instance, has for years focused on closing equity gaps in achievement. They have done so by emphasizing high academic expectations while also assuring that all students have the necessary supports to keep on track, whatever their background or educational experiences.

UMBC educators assume students are capable of attaining any degree, no matter how rigorous or challenging. That is a key reason why the school graduates more African American students who pursue dual M.D./Ph.D. degrees than any other school in the country. Those degrees, which combine medical and scientific concepts, attract people who wish to conduct research at medical schools and universities.

While some prospective students are enticed by the promise of athletics or other high-profile activities, the vast majority of students increasingly expect and deserve much more from institutions, including clear information about affordable pathways to credentials that will position them for employability in a tough economy.

Students also want and deserve educators who treat their goals and aspirations seriously, regardless of their background, and who respect and understand those backgrounds—including their identities, values, and cultural traditions. This is true not only of recent high school graduates, but also of the large numbers of older adult students who are seeking postsecondary credentials to help them achieve economic opportunity and social mobility.

We should remember, however, that just because someone is a returning adult student doesn’t mean their aspirations for higher learning are narrowly vocational or less ambitious than those of a typical 18-year-old. All students understand the power of education not just to get them a job, but to help them grow—to build their self-confidence and their sense of self-worth.

Unfortunately, prospective students have a very hard time determining what a high-quality program is and finding one that offers them the best chance for success. The truth is that our current systems, from regulations to campus policies and curricular designs, do not always deliver on this promise of quality. There are many very high-quality programs out there, but the overall system is in need of serious reform, both because today’s students don’t look like or go to college in the same ways as they did in the past, and because the jobs for which they need to be prepared are changing rapidly.

The good news is that discussions in Washington, D.C., and across the country are moving to develop new policies and practices. Efforts are underway, for instance, to sketch the contours of a newly reauthorized Higher Education Act. This is the law that regulates institutions’ eligibility for federal aid to assure that tax dollars are spent wisely on quality postsecondary learning options.

Beyond Washington, educators also are engaged in a quiet revolution to increase student success. They’re using the latest research on how people learn, to design curricular pathways and adopt educational practices that better align with today’s students and the demands of today’s economy. We need to bring together these varied reform efforts in an all-out focus on increasing attainment of high-quality credentials.

We’re making some progress, but not fast enough. State and federal policymakers need to reform financial aid and loan policies so that they work better for students who attend part-time, who work while in college, who are older and who may have children of their own. Federal policies must encourage “responsible” innovation in terms of new approaches to postsecondary education. These policies must also set guardrails to make sure that students are not exploited as they pursue these new options—that students truly develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a changing world of work.

Institutions and state systems must work to make sure that all degree programs have clear and transparent learning outcomes, and that they position graduates to keep learning over time as work demands change. They must assure that all students in all programs achieve a set of learning outcomes that align to the needs of today’s workplace.

Some experienced educators express worries that policymakers’ increased focus on employability will damage the broader purposes of education. But that needn’t be the case. Students need and deserve educational options that will help them explore and learn about themselves—what they are capable of and what they can aspire to be across their entire lives. Many kinds of educational programs—from traditional liberal arts programs to more professionally or vocationally oriented programs—can prepare students for employment while also helping them claim their voice and authority in the world through broad knowledge of society, history, and culture. All kinds of programs can be designed to build capacities important for citizens in a democracy.

We can create a system that does both—prepares students well for employment and enables them to become broadly knowledgeable, creative, responsible citizens. In fact, the future of our democracy and our economy requires us to do just that.


Debra Humphreys, Ph.D., vice president of strategic engagement for Lumina Foundation, leads the foundation's stakeholder engagement and strategic communications work while providing direction for Lumina's work on postsecondary education quality.

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