News & Views

Back To News & Views

Tuning USA: Lumina Foundation launches faculty-led process that will involve students and employers in linking college degrees to workplace relevance and students’ mastery of agreed-upon learning objectives

INDIANAPOLIS—As policymakers and college presidents respond to growing economic pressure to educate a larger share of the U.S. population, the nation has a strong interest in ensuring the degrees and postsecondary credentials awarded are of high quality, said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of Lumina Foundation for Education.

"Dramatically increasing the numbers of Americans with postsecondary education is essential," Merisotis said. "But we must do so while ensuring that graduates are well prepared to participate in the labor market, their local communities and the country's civic and cultural life."

In meeting these objectives, the United States has a great deal to learn from a nearly decade-old effort in Europe called Tuning. Working with students, faculty members and education officials from Indiana, Minnesota and Utah, Lumina has initiated a year-long project, Tuning USA. The aim is to create a shared understanding among higher education's stakeholders of the subject-specific knowledge and transferable skills that students in six fields must demonstrate upon completion of a degree program. Each state has elected to draft learning outcomes and map the relations between these outcomes and graduates' employment options for at least two of the following disciplines: biology, chemistry, education, history, physics and graphic design.

Through the Lumina-sponsored project, subject-area teams from the states will apply the Tuning methodology, a faculty-led approach that involves seeking input from students, recent graduates and employers to establish criterion-referenced learning outcomes and competencies. Tuning is a key element of Europe's Bologna Process for restructuring higher education, which affects 16 million students in 46 countries with more than 4,000 higher education institutions. The Bologna Process began in 1999 as a means of promoting transparency, coordination and quality assurance among Europe's higher education systems.

Tuning involves creating a framework that sets forth clear responsibilities for institutions and establishes clear learning expectations for students in each subject area while balancing the need among programs to retain their academic autonomy and flexibility. The objective is not to standardize programs offered by different institutions but to better establish the quality and relevance of degrees in various academic disciplines. Potential benefits arising from the Tuning process include:

  • Making higher education more responsive to changes in knowledge and its application.
  • Establishing the relevance of postsecondary programs to societal needs and workforce demands.
  • Aligning the roles of higher education institutions.
  • Facilitating retention, especially among students from underserved groups, by creating clear pathways to degree completion
  • Simplifying the process for students transferring credits between institutions.
  • Increasing the emphases on lifelong learning and important-but-often-undervalued transferable skills.
  • Increasing student engagement in the learning process.

In 2002, Europe completed the first round of Tuning involving nine subject areas at 137 universities in 16 countries. Through last year, at least 145 universities in 33 countries had participated. Faculty members have applied Tuning to business administration, chemistry, education sciences, European studies, history, earth sciences, mathematics, nursing and physics. Outside of Europe, the most noted adaptation of Tuning occurred in Latin America with 12 disciplines at 182 universities in 18 countries.

In the United States, efforts to benchmark learning outcomes at the discipline level have neither happened systematically nor on any significant scale. Widely applied to a range of disciplines, the Tuning platform could shift the focus in American higher education from consideration of generalized notions of what is indirectly taught at the associate's, bachelor's and other levels to specific knowledge and skills that students need to learn and apply, making the value of specific degrees more readily apparent, said Clifford Adelman, an American expert on the Bologna Process and a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

"When U.S. colleges and universities describe what students must do to earn a degree in a specific field, they list courses, credit requirements and a minimum grade-point average," Adelman said. "They do not typically state what students with the degree should know and be able to do in ways that employers, policymakers and the public can immediately understand We need to embrace a more comprehensive approach to defining the learning that degrees represent or risk falling further behind our global counterparts."

Adelman, several European higher education experts and Lumina representatives met Monday and Tuesday in Chicago with representatives from the three participating states' higher education executive offices and more than 20 of the states' public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities to begin applying for the first time in the United States a major element of the Bologna Process. The process, named for the city in northern Italy where the original declaration was signed by higher education authorities, seeks to create a seamless alliance of higher education systems that awards comparable degrees based on defined learning outcomes. Bologna is a set of independent-but-interconnected initiatives that voluntarily engage national higher education systems. Beyond Europe, the Bologna higher education movement has gained momentum in countries and regions such as Australia, Georgia, Latin America and North Africa.

The Foundation has benchmarked its goal of increasing the share of Americans with high-quality postsecondary degrees and credentials from 39 percent to 60 percent by 2025 against international data comparing educational attainment across developed countries. The United States is among the world's best-educated countries, but the future is not as bright—the country's 25 to 34 year olds are in a four-way tie for 10th in degree attainment and slipping in annual rankings, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Because the nation's overall degree-attainment rate has not risen in 40 years, Lumina and some higher education leaders are focusing on lessons that can be gleaned from the experiences of other countries. "We must be willing to learn from the successes of nations that appear to be doing a better job of educating their people," Merisotis said. "Tuning USA is a chance to experiment with a process from beyond our borders that could help us advance our thinking about the meaning of quality in higher education."

Lumina Foundation approached higher education leaders about participating in the project. They say they are excited and intrigued by the opportunity to experiment with a "bottom-up process" to define quality that's been validated in international settings.

"Utah is excited to engage in the Tuning Process so that learning expectations will be clear to students, their parents and employers," said Phyllis Safman, Utah's assistant commissioner of higher education.

"The Indiana Commission for Higher Education supports all efforts to clearly identify student learning outcomes, thereby better aligning academic degree programs with one another and with the expectations of employers," said Stanley G. Jones, the state's higher education commissioner. "This is what the Tuning project is about. We are delighted that Indiana can participate in this important pilot."

"The Minnesota Office of Higher Education is grateful to have been asked to pilot the Tuning Process and thankful to the faculty and students who have agreed to make time for this project in their busy schedules," said Cheryl Maplethorpe, director of the state's financial aid division. "Defining clear expectations for the student and aligning degree course work between degree levels will help make higher education more effective."

"Tuning USA holds great promise because faculty will lead this initiative to make the value of specific degrees more easily recognized," said James H. McCormick, chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges & Universities system. "I know the faculty are committed to ensuring students have the knowledge and skills to succeed in the workplace and as global citizens."

Lumina initiated Tuning USA in December 2008. Following a planning session in Washington, D.C., attended by higher education officials from several states, the Foundation sought proposals from interested states. Lumina asked states to recruit at least two subject-area teams that included both faculty members and students. Each team includes representatives from several institutions, including a flagship campus. In March, Lumina awarded each state a $150,000 grant to offset project costs. State teams will meet two or three times during the course of the project.

Lumina formed Tuning USA in consultation with U.S. and international experts on the Bologna Process and Tuning. Project leaders include: Adelman; Robert Wagenaar, a history professor who serves as director of undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands and co-coordinator of the projects Tuning Educational Structures in Europe, Tuning South-East and Eastern Europe, Tuning Latin America, Tuning Russia and Tuning Georgia; and Tim Birtwistle, a Bologna Expert and professor of law and higher education policy and Jean Monnet Chair in European Legal Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom.

Tracy Chen
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
August 8, 2019

Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in the United States that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.