Quality in Higher Learning

Quality in Higher Learning

College degrees and other credentials must deliver better outcomes and greater value for students and American society.

Degrees and other credentials should represent relevant, agreed-upon knowledge and skills.

The United States must encourage responsible innovation in higher learning to ensure academic and training programs leading to degrees and other credentials are aligned with the needs of individuals and society. Learning that specific credentials signify, whether a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or a certification in a construction trade, should be evident to everyone, from hiring managers to the individuals who earned them. The Degree Qualifications Profile, which originated as a uniquely American exploration of international ideas, is one such tool for measuring educational quality. It defines what students should know, understand, and be able to do at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. A related effort, Connecting Credentials, sought to expand beyond college degrees. 

Quality in higher education is neither a matter of branding nor a measure of how many potential students are turned away. This country needs an affordable, easy-to-navigate system that meets the needs of all students by counting more of what they know and can do toward a wider array of credentials. Only about six of every 10 people who begin work toward a bachelor’s degree finish within six years. The numbers are even lower among those enrolled in community colleges. Improving quality means addressing the needs of people who stop out or drop out. 

Why quality matters

The nation’s arbiters of quality in education—primarily the U.S. Department of Education, state education agencies, and accrediting organizations—do not yet support a learning ecosystem that works for the broad array of Americans who need education after high school. Yet, increasing public attention highlights the need for responsive approaches to assuring the quality of degrees and other credentials. Meanwhile, new providers are emerging, and educators are trying new ways of organizing, delivering, and supporting education to benefit today’s students. Those students are a widely diverse group, and many of them work to support families. 

Lumina Foundation’s vision for the future of learning is one that will ensure more people are prepared for informed citizenship and success in a global economy. We and our partners are working to focus quality assurance more explicitly on learning that can be measured, on ensuring that students finish programs they start, and on monitoring whether individuals find good careers and can pursue even more education. Quality assurance at the federal level should be better integrated with state regulation and institutional improvement efforts. It also should be tied to explanations of quality that can be understood by everyone—from members of the public to educators, business leaders, and policymakers. 

To build a learning system for today’s students, quality assurance and improvement must be more squarely rooted in relevant, reliable data. It also must be aligned with competency-based approaches to program design that enable innovators to offer programs that give students access to federal student aid, including grants and loans. Oversight and improvement must ensure that learning is relevant, clearly framed from the outset, and rigorously assessed. Lumina supports efforts to develop best practices, build new talent pathways, and expand faculty involvement in ensuring fair educational outcomes among people who are Black, Hispanic, Latino, and Native American. 

In today’s world, college degrees, certificates, and other credentials should:

  • Lead to further learning and additional credentials of value. 
  • Have clear, transparent, and measurable learning objectives. 
  • Give people knowledge and skills to prepare them for active citizenship and success in society and their communities. 

The United States must break down the existing tiered education and training systems. Those systems allow people of means to attend elite institutions, pursue bachelor’s programs, and supplement their education with “boot camps” or other finishing programs while everyone else—particularly students of color—are limited to high-cost and often substandard, choices. 

Everyone must start somewhere. And the emerging learning system should make it easier to earn quality credentials that position people for good jobs and their next learning opportunity. The country also must eradicate historically unequal educational outcomes among people of color and people from low-income households. Federal funding should no longer flow to institutions that do wrong by these students. 

The quality of a college education depends on the institution’s commitment to creating an environment conducive to student learning and growth. Colleges and universities must provide students with access to quality instruction, relevant resources, and robust faculty engagement to equip them for success. 

The Quality Assurance Commons

The Quality Assurance Commons explored, developed, and tested approaches that respond to the need for change in education beyond high school. A first step was the creation of Essential Employability Qualities, the qualities that position people for success after graduation. 

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