Fending Off the Naysayers: Approaching Goal 2025

Fending Off the Naysayers: Approaching Goal 2025
Sept. 2011
The message on college completion is ringing loud and clear. Across the nation — from
Washington think tanks to the halls of federal and state government to chambers of commerce
and workforce-development agencies in scores of American cities and towns — it seems
everyone sees the need for a better-educated populace.
Certainly, there are a few naysayers, a handful of "experts" who publicly question the value of a
postsecondary credential and wonder whether college is worth its ever-increasing cost. But the
overwhelming majority of today's thought leaders agree that a population with higher levels of
college degree attainment is the key to short-term economic recovery and long-term prosperity.
The reason for this growing consensus is clear and simple: jobs. Today's jobs — and certainly
tomorrow's — demand increasingly higher levels of skill and knowledge, levels that simply can't
be reached without an education beyond high school. In fact, studies by noted labor economist
Tony Carnevale show that more than 60 percent of all American jobs will require a
Fending Off the Naysayers: Approaching Goal 2025
Sept. 2011
postsecondary education by 2018.
Driven by the urgency of this challenge, experts of every stripe have embraced ambitious goals
for college degree attainment. The goals vary slightly, of course. The Obama administration
wants 51 percent of Americans to hold postsecondary degrees by 2020; the College Board
seeks 55 percent by 2025 — the same year that we at Lumina Foundation have set as the
deadline for 60 percent attainment. Still, if we set the numbers aside for a moment, the goals
are strikingly similar and, again, the main message is clear: The nation needs many more
college graduates.
But there's another part of the message that may not be getting through as well — and it's the
part that speaks directly to the naysayers: While we focus on increasing the number of
Americans who hold degrees, we must also find ways to ensure the quality of those degrees.
And that means we must confront some important questions: What exactly are our students
learning — and what should they be learning? What knowledge, skills and other competencies
must they have so they can thrive? How can we better measure the "value-added" capabilities
of a college or university? How can we make sure that credits, degrees and credentials actually
represent what students know and are able to do — in the workplace and in life?
At Lumina, we're tackling these questions head on. In fact, the statement of our goal — what we
refer to as Goal 2025 — includes an explicit call for "high-quality degrees and credentials." And
for us, the definition of quality is inextricably linked to student outcomes, to what students learn
in their programs and what they can actually do with this learning.
We believe that the traditional credit-hour system is outdated, and a growing number of
colleagues — both inside and outside higher education — share that belief. In our view, the
current system is insufficient to meet the needs of today's students and employers; and we're
convinced that it will grow increasingly insufficient as our economy and society become ever
more complex. After all, many of today's students will tackle jobs and careers that don't even
exist yet. It's imperative, then, that they learn how to learn — and that we have a credit system
that can document and demonstrate their ability to do so.
More and more, momentum is building for American higher education to shift away from a
Fending Off the Naysayers: Approaching Goal 2025
Sept. 2011
time-based credit system to one in which credits are awarded on the basis of demonstrable
learning outcomes. Such a shift would bring greater transparency to the college-going process.
It would give everyone involved — students, parents, faculty members, employers — a shared
understanding of the meaning and value of a college credential.
At Lumina, we are working diligently to hasten the shift toward this sort of student-centered,
outcomes-based approach.
For example, since 2009, we've supported work in several states on the process of Tuning, a
faculty-led approach that grew out of the Bologna reform process in Europe. In the Tuning
approach, instructors charged with creating the curricula in various academic disciplines seek
input from students, recent graduates and employers, and then use that input to establish
specific, clearly defined learning outcomes and competencies.
Building on this ongoing Tuning work, Lumina has also recently released the Degree
Qualifications Profile — a framework that can allow the discipline-based lessons of Tuning to be
applied at the degree level. The Degree Qualifications Profile — released in January 2011 and
now being piloted by several organizations — is a set of reference points for what students at
any institution should know and be able to do to earn associate, bachelor's and master's
degrees — regardless of their field of specialization.
Clearly, the Degree Qualifications Profile effort, and even the work in Tuning, is in its early
stages. We have much to learn from our partners in both of these endeavors, and we know
these lessons won't be learned overnight.
Still, we are eager to gather and apply those lessons, and we are wholly committed to doing so
— because we must. The challenge to significantly increase college degree attainment is huge,
but it mustn't be seen as a zero-sum game. Whatever degree attainment number we shoot for,
we must also aim squarely at maintaining — even improving — the quality of the degrees being
earned. And that means focusing relentlessly on learning.
Rest assured, Lumina and its growing group of partners are committed to doing just that.
Fending Off the Naysayers: Approaching Goal 2025
Sept. 2011
Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. For more information about
Lumina and its work with Tuning and the Degree Qualifications Profile, visit www.luminafounda