States Seek Ways to Take Measure of College Degrees

Wouldn’t it be nice if a student transferred with the system and courses were all uniform anywhere he/she went?

Indeed, statewide and national debates about higher education often focus on who gets into college and who gets out but not as much about what happens in between. Lumina is pursuing the question of what a degree means as part of its focus on increasing the number of Americans with college credentials.

The foundation has set a goal of getting 60 percent of Americans to hold “high-quality” postsecondary degrees or credentials by 2025, a goal similar to President Obama’s. About 39 percent of U.S. residents hold associate degrees or higher, a level at which the country has been stuck for four decades.

With so much emphasis on improving college completion, some people worry that the pressure to award more and more degrees could create a perverse incentive to move people through higher-education systems without much regard for the rigor of the diplomas being handed out. And if their meaning is unclear, what good does it do a nation to focus on broadening its citizenry of degree-holders?

To try to answer these concerns, Lumina looked to Europe, which has spent more than a decade working to synchronize its systems of higher education through the Bologna Process, named for the location where a declaration starting the effort was signed in Italy, in 1999. A part of that effort, called Tuning, has gathered academics, discipline by discipline, to try to reach agreement on common learning goals, with the idea of promoting transparency, coordination, and quality assurance across borders.

In the United States, Lumina has sought to recreate those conversations. In the first round of its Tuning USA project, the group last year awarded $150,000 each to Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah, guiding teams of faculty members and student representatives in each state to spell out expectations for graduates at every degree level of certain disciplines. The groups surveyed alumni, business leaders, and others for input. Indiana professors worked on the fields of chemistry, elementary education, and history; Minnesota participants met about biology and graphic arts; and Utah officials discussed history and physics.

The Lumina project faced skeptical faculty members who have seen numerous efforts to improve accountability and measure quality in higher education come and go. Those processes often are antagonistic, pitting academics against state lawmakers or other outsiders, whose proposed measurements sometimes lack nuance, which in turn limits buy-in from educators. But many professors have ended up embracing the Lumina project, particularly when it became clear that faculty were driving it. Foundation officials say they see the enthusiasm that many professors developed for the process as a key strength of the project.

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