23 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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US: It's the learning, stupid

We live in a world where much is changing, quickly. Economic crises, technology, ideological division and a host of other factors have all had a profound influence on who we are and what we do in higher education. But when all is said and done, it is imperative that we not lose sight of what matters most. To paraphrase the oft-used maxim of the famous political consultant James Carville, it's the learning, stupid.

My remarks on college-level learning are grounded in the ambitious agenda we have set for ourselves at Lumina Foundation, which is one of the 40 largest in the United States and focuses exclusively on getting more Americans into and through college.

We are pursuing our mission through what we call our 'big goal' - which, simply stated, is that by 2025 we want 60% of the American population to hold high-quality college degrees or credentials. New figures from the OECD put the current share of Americans with degrees at essentially at the same level it's been for four decades: 40%.

We know the goal is ambitious, but we're convinced that it is attainable. Even more important, we feel this goal is vital to the nation's economic security and social stability, for several reasons.

One obvious reason is global competition. The troubling fact is, college attainment rates are rising in almost every industrialised or post-industrial country in the world, except for the US. Though we led the world for most of the post-war period, our 40% rate now ranks only 10th among developed nations for adults aged 25 to 34. In several other countries, more than half of young adults are degree holders - and rates in many of these countries are continuing to climb. If the US hopes to remain competitive and ensure continued prosperity and stability, we must aim high. That's one reason for the 60% target.

Perhaps an even more compelling reason for reaching the 'big goal' is that our changing workforce demands it. The knowledge economy requires Americans to have more advanced knowledge and skills. Experts agree that today's 'middle-class' jobs - those that ensure a good quality of life for citizens - are less and less attainable without education or training beyond high school.

Noted labour economist Tony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that by 2018, 63% of all jobs will require some form of post-secondary education or training. That's a huge increase since the mid-1970s, when less than 30% of jobs required anything beyond a high school education.

Carnevale's data fit seamlessly with the latest feedback from employers, most of whom seem to be pleading for better-educated workers. In a survey released this month by the Business Roundtable's Springboard Project, 65% of employers said they require an associate's degree or higher for most positions.

Looking ahead four years, employers say their greatest need will be for workers with more technical skills, more advanced degrees or certifications, and better qualifications. And right now, half of these employers say there is such a serious gap between their needs and their employees' skills that productivity within their companies is slipping. Without a doubt, the workplace is becoming more demanding.

So global economic and workforce trends are compelling us to work toward the big goal. But there are other reasons, too. One is simply to extend to more individuals the financial benefits of earning a degree. Those benefits are obvious and undeniable.

Since 1975, the average annual earnings of US high school graduates fell in real terms by 1%, while earnings among college graduates rose by 19%. And increasing degree completion will bring societal benefits as well: higher rates of volunteerism, voting and philanthropic giving, decreased rates of crime and poverty and a reduced need for public assistance, including health care. These are benefits we all share when attainment rates rise.

Finally, our big goal is an important means for addressing social inequity. Right now, the benefits I listed are being distributed unfairly, and this inequity is a threat to all Americans.

Higher education attainment rates among certain population groups in the US - including adults, first-generation college going students, low-income students and students of colour - are significantly lower than those of other students. These achievement gaps have endured for decades, and are now widening. This trend is especially alarming, given demographic trends showing that, by 2050, 'minorities' will constitute a majority of the US population. They already do in four of the 50 states - California, Texas, New Mexico and Hawaii.

For all of these reasons, Lumina has embraced this big goal. And it's clear that others have embraced it, too, including the President, who has pledged to make the United States the best-educated nation in the world by 2020. Policymakers in many states are looking for ways to boost student success as a way to improve their long-term economic outlook. Many of our peers - including the Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, Kresge Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York, to name a few - are making significant investments in efforts to improve college completion.

Clearly, this issue is moving higher onto the national agenda. At Lumina we are convinced it must move up even further. In fact, for us, the issue of college completion is the agenda. Everything we do is geared toward achieving that big goal. We have developed a workable plan to reach it, and have made the plan accessible, actionable and widely available.

Our strategic plan identifies three critical outcomes that must be produced for our big goal to be reached. Those three outcomes are:

1. Preparation: students must be prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school.
2. Success: higher education attainment rates must be improved significantly.
3. Productivity: higher education must become more productive so that it can increase capacity and serve more students.

We cannot reach any of these three major outcomes in one step. A number of intermediate outcomes will be necessary in each area to get us where we need to be.

As we pursue our big goal, we are increasingly convinced that ensuring the quality of degrees is every bit as important as increasing the quantity. These are not concepts that are constantly in a war of competing tension, or part of some sort of zero-sum game in which increases in one inevitably lead to decreases in the other. And quality, at its core, must be a measure of what students actually learn and are able to do with the knowledge and skills they gain.

Oddly enough, the concept of learning - a subject that seems critical to every discussion about higher education - is often overlooked. We all talk endlessly about the processes of higher education - about ensuring access and fostering students' success, about increasing college completion rates, about aligning standards - and yet we seem reluctant or unable to discuss higher education's true purpose: equipping students for success in life.

We need to confront some important questions. What exactly are our students learning, and what should they be learning? What knowledge and skills must they have so they can thrive, both as workers in the 21st century global economy and as productive citizens in a democracy? Confronting these questions is not just an exercise. It is practical, tactical and very real. Without a renewed focus on what students are actually learning, there really is no way to properly ensure the quality and value of a college degree or credential.

Research has already shown that higher education institutions vary significantly in the value they add to students in terms of what those students learn. Various tools and instruments tell us that some institutions add much more value than others, even when looking at students with similar backgrounds and abilities.

Such tools are helpful, but more work is needed in this area. We need to find more and more consistent ways to measure a college's or a university's 'value-added' capabilities. We need to find ways to better ensure that credits, degrees and credentials actually represent the skills and knowledge students obtain and can demonstrate.

Learning - that is, the knowledge, skills and competencies a student gains by taking a college course or programme - really needs to be recognised as the primary measure of quality in higher education. Right now, that is simply not the case.

That's because perceptions of quality in higher education are based on 'inputs' rather than on measurable outcomes. We simply aren't doing enough to measure the specific learning that takes place in individual courses and degree programmes. In most cases, we can't really tell what value an institution truly adds to its students' lives.

Clearly, this needs to change. The American higher education system must move away from the input-based definitions of quality that so often dominate rankings to a 'value-added' approach, one that is firmly rooted in measurable outcomes. And what is the most important thing we ought to measure? It's the learning!

We understand that such measurement is relatively new and that it is not easy. But we can no longer argue, as some have done, that most of what we do in higher education is not measurable. Tools like the Voluntary System of Accountability and the Collegiate Learning Assessment have already demonstrated that it is possible. No tool is perfect, and no single tool should ever drive decision making for such a complex endeavour as learning. However, we do need to learn from the tools that already exist and build on their successes.

In California, home of the Early Assessment Program, or EAP, evidence of the learning that can occur has been unfolding for five years. This measures students' college readiness during the junior year of high school, and then helps enhance that preparation the following year, prior to college enrolment.

In just five years, EAP has become a national model for how to align K-12 and higher education in terms of objectively measuring what students know and can do. The programme is effective because high school teachers and college faculty members sat down together, talked about, and decided what students actually need to know to be successful in college math and English. They then figured out how to make sure all high school students in California can see where they stand in terms of readiness - and they can see it in time for unprepared students to do something about it.

This is a terrific model, but it is just one tool. The lessons it is teaching us at the transition between high school and college need to be applied more broadly, and more consistently, particularly in higher education. At Lumina we believe those lessons need to be applied systemically throughout higher education. An intense and systematic focus on learning should be the hallmark of higher education, from the freshman year through graduate school.

For us, learning doesn't just matter. It matters most of all.

Learning outcomes in higher education can be grouped in two fundamental categories: generalisable, transferable skills - such as abstract reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication; and subject-specific skills and knowledge. Traditionally, we have thought of these as being acquired in different areas or levels of higher education. 'General education or the undergraduate core has been the place where students develop high-level thinking; field-specific knowledge and skills are developed in the student's major or occupational field.

This two-track concept may help us understand the importance of each type of learning, but it can hamper understanding of how learning really happens. That's because it represents a false dichotomy. In today's economy and society, both types of learning are necessary for everyone. Both are vital in the workforce and everyday life, and both must be developed together at all levels of higher education.

As indicated earlier, the quality distinction in Lumina's goal is critical. Increasing the number of degree holders without ensuring the quality of those degrees would be a very hollow achievement - a major step backward even. Maintaining high quality in college credentials, even improving on that quality in coming years, is a must if we hope to remain globally competitive and ensure a robust middle class.

Much work remains to flesh out the definition of quality, to hone in more precisely and specifically on what students in various fields of study must know and what skills they must possess to succeed in life and in their chosen fields. That's why a focus on what students are really learning must go hand in hand with efforts to improve graduation rates. And this means that all institutions - two-year and four-year, public and private, online and brick-and-mortar, for-profit and non-profit - must focus on and measure what is being learned. They must clearly define what students should know and be able to do, help their students achieve those outcomes, and accurately track institutional and student performance.

Lumina is looking very closely at various tools, tactics and systems that can help in that task. We see our work as supporting and advancing the work of others who have been toiling in this field for some time - like the Association of American Colleges and Universities and its work on liberal learning outcomes - led by the many good faculty that have taken learning and its assessment seriously in their courses but whose work has not rolled up into coherent frameworks for whole programmes and degrees. We see a great deal of promise in several of these efforts, including some we are actively funding. We think they can lead to real progress in redefining quality in higher education.

One example is The Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA, which helps an institution measure how well it contributes to a student's mastery of higher-order thinking skills. Another example is the Voluntary System of Accountability, or VSA, a voluntary initiative developed by four-year institutions to increase institutional transparency and to provide a tool to help students in their college searches.

Next is the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, or CAAP, a standardised test that enables colleges and universities to assess what students learn in general education programmes. Similarly the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress or MAPP, developed by ETS, is another tool for assessing these types of learning.

Yet another example is the Voluntary Framework for Accountability, or VFA, which is similar to the VSA but being developed for community colleges. Finally the Transparency by Design project, which is just getting under way, will attempt to gather reliable information about learning in online programmes.

These studies and programmes demonstrate that, throughout American higher education, people are developing, using and reporting on common metrics that attempt to show what students really learn.

But we shouldn't limit ourselves to American higher education when pursuing this new emphasis on learning. After all, we live and compete in a global society. We should certainly take good ideas and adapt them to the American system.

For example, Lumina is working with OECD to develop a method to compare learning outcomes across national borders. Called AHELO, for Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes, this project seeks to measure what undergraduate students internationally know and can do. The goal is to improve upon these results and better link them to the needs of the global workforce.

Second, we're taking a long, hard look at the Bologna Process. This is the process by which 46 European countries have been working for a decade to promote transparency, coordination and quality assurance among their various national higher education systems. The Bologna idea of 'tuning' takes programmes within a discipline and agrees a set of learning outcomes that a degree in the field represents.

The goal is not for programmes to teach exactly the same thing in the same way or even for all of the programmes to offer the same courses. Rather, programmes can employ whatever techniques they prefer, so long as their students can demonstrate mastery of an agreed-upon body of knowledge and set of skills. To use the musical terminology, the various programs are not expected to play the same notes, but to be 'tuned' to the same key.

Tuning is a faculty-led process that also involves students and takes into account the perspectives of employers and recent graduates to define what a student in a particular discipline should be able to know and do upon earning that degree or credential.

Earlier this year Lumina launched a pilot project called Tuning USA, in which faculty members, students and education officials in three states - Indiana, Minnesota and Utah - are drafting sets of learning outcomes in six disciplines. They will also attempt to map the links between these outcomes and graduates' employment options.

All of these efforts, and others, are rooted in and serve to amplify two basic truths. The first is that all types of learning can be objectively measured. The second is that these measurements are absolutely vital in ensuring the relevance and value of a college credential.

Measuring learning isn't just about testing students' recall and understanding of facts, formulas, theories and processes - though content knowledge is important. Increasingly, successful learning is seen as being dynamic and flexible. It's not so much what students know these days. Rather, it's about mastering the skills required to constantly know more - and use what we know. Students need to 'learn how to learn'.

Certainly it's easier to measure and test for knowledge of facts and formulas than it is to assess a student's mastery of skills such as critical thinking, analytical reasoning and the ability to break down and solve problems. But it's not impossible. The projects I've discussed are creating and refining such measurements.

But we have far to go. These and similar efforts must continue and intensify in coming years. By doing this work, we will be better able to ensure the relevance of the degrees and credentials our colleges and universities award.

This issue of relevance is particularly acute now, when our economy is being tested in unprecedented ways. We need to abandon our historic view in higher education that we don't train people for jobs. Of course we do. That doesn't mean it is the only thing we do, but to deny that job skills development is one of the key purposes of higher education is increasingly untenable. Education also must equip people with the skills they need to adapt in whatever way is necessary as their lives change, jobs evolve, and new opportunities arise.

Unlocking the learning puzzle is important because it's our only viable strategy to ensuring individual and social success over the long haul. After all, what we know and can do, coupled with our ability to learn, is the one thing that multiplies and magnifies our options in life. If we hope to keep all of those options open, we need to get a better handle on how to measure what students are learning.

For this reason - and for a growing number of reasons - we need a national approach to determining what people with specific degrees and credentials know and can do. A focus on learning naturally leads to some very practical and useful steps that can improve higher education - for individuals, for states and for the nation as a whole.

If we focus on learning as a priority, we will improve the interaction between school and higher education, and we will find ways to ease students' transfer between institutions, especially between community colleges and bachelor-granting institutions. By defining quality in terms of learning, we will foster innovation. This is critical if we hope to effectively serve more students. Finally, we will create more tools that can help us better assess prior learning or 'experiential learning' among returning adults and military veterans. We need to recognise not all people start higher education in the same place.

Any of these steps, stemming from a focus on learning, could bring about massive improvement in higher education. It will require work and time and patience for states and higher education systems - working closely with faculty, employers and students - to make the shift from an input-oriented approach to one that is driven by clearly defined outcomes. And that shift will be more difficult in some states than in others.

Benefits, not just for a few but for all of us, is the promise of higher education. And that's the ultimate purpose behind Lumina's pursuit of the big goal ... behind everything we do.

Opportunities to learn are a precious gift that truly matters. At the end of the day, with the debates about state funding, about tuition and financial aid, about accreditation and government regulation, about tenure, about teacher education, about retaining students, and about a whole range of other terribly important processes and systems, let's remember what this great enterprise we call higher education is all about. It's the learning.

* Jamie P Merisotis is President of the Lumina Foundation for Education. This is an edited and shortened version of his Howard R Bowen Lecture delivered at Claremont Graduate University in California on 14 October 2009.
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