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Quality Assurance

An integrated quality assurance system that ensures degrees and workforce credentials lead to better outcomes for students and supports responsible efforts to develop new models for learning.

Millions more Americans need to obtain college degrees, workforce certificates, industry certifications, and other credentials beyond high school to ensure they are prepared to be informed citizens and to succeed in a global economy. One challenge the country faces is that existing approaches to quality assurance are often uneven, overly complicated, and fail to account for the myriad ways in which students now choose to pursue their educations.

Lumina Foundation envisions a system for learning after high school that is easy to navigate. The system should ensure equitable results across all racial and ethnic groups and income levels. And it should meet the nation’s need for talent through a broad range of credentials whose quality is clear to students, employers, and the public. Lumina believes learning can occur anywhere, including through providers other than traditional colleges and universities. The Foundation and its partners also believe the nation’s talent demands require recognizing, validating, and credentialing all such learning. The degrees, certificates, certifications, and other credentials people earn should have clear and transparent learning outcomes. These outcomes should allow people to continue their educations, if they choose, and should position them to succeed—that is, to find work that allows them to support families, to be involved in their local communities, and to find their place in the economy. The quality assurance system should be up to the task of signaling that both existing and newer forms of education are meeting the needs of every student and of society.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education monitors the financial health of colleges and universities and selects the accrediting organizations charged with ensuring the academic quality of institutions receiving federal grant and loan dollars. The requirements for authorization of accreditors at the federal level are too focused on institutional processes rather than on student learning. In turn, accreditors tend to give institutions leeway around their efforts to define and measure what students know and can do, and this does not include requiring clear expressions about educational results. As a result, existing approaches to quality assurance, in practice, mask rather than uncover gaps in quality. The entire system needs to be more focused on making clear what students will need to demonstrate in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities before they receive degrees or other credentials. Finally, state governments play a consumer protection role, but states vary widely in their approaches.

Most of the existing quality assurance system is focused on colleges and universities. But in the emerging landscape for post-high school credentials, a lot of valuable learning is occurring outside of traditional higher education. Alternate avenues to students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills include military and corporate training as well as boot camps and badging programs. Current approaches to assuring quality are not designed to account for this emerging provider landscape. This shortcoming makes it even more challenging to ensure fair education outcomes among African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and students from low-income families. Many of these students are the first in their families to pursue education after high school. Often, they lack a deep understanding of the market or how to evaluate potential returns on their investments of time and money.

Too often, the nation’s disjointed approach to quality assurance stifles innovation that could help these students. By far, the biggest problem is the lack of focus on what students are learning and the relevance of these knowledge, skills, and abilities. This approach can lead to poorly allocated public resources or unscrupulous institutions and providers preying on ill-informed students.

Lumina is supporting what it hopes will be an expanded, integrated, and more effective system of quality assurance. Such a system is needed to expand opportunity across the landscape of post-high school education and training. Under the approach Lumina and its partners envision, quality assurance at the federal, state, and college, university, and provider levels will shift toward oversight tied to measuring what students are learning, delivering equitable results across all racial, ethnic, and income groups, and aligning educational programs more clearly with workforce needs.

In this ecosystem, new and existing accreditors would play critical roles in ensuring clarity about what’s being learned and the ability of students to build on academic credentials and find meaningful work, including among people with no recognized learning beyond high school. This approach to ensuring quality could make use of Lumina-supported platforms, frameworks, and tools such as the Credential Engine, Connecting Credentials, the Degree Qualifications Profile, and Tuning-like processes to determine what students need to know and be able to do to earn degrees and other credentials in specific fields and disciplines. Resources such as these can be used to transparently link credentials to demonstrations of 21st-century knowledge, skills, and abilities that are easily understood by faculty, students, parents, business leaders, policymakers, and members of the public. These resources also allow credential providers to improve existing programs and build new programs that more intentionally develop the talent Americans will need to succeed in work and life.