Educators Zero In on What Lumina's Degree-Qualification Template Would Mean

January 27, 2011

The Lumina Foundation for Education's new blueprint for college degrees has been a source of fascination (and some skepticism) at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which opened here Thursday.

Hundreds of administrators and faculty members filled a plenary session that focused on the document, "The Degree Qualifications Profile," which was released on Tuesday. The document is meant to serve as a template for listing the broad skills that every college student should acquire at each degree level.

The audience seemed generally open to the concept, but there was also some puzzlement about what exactly the template is meant to accomplish.

The profile—which is referred to by its authors as a "beta version"—is based loosely on "quality assurance" frameworks that have been adopted in Britain, Australia, and other nations. It sketches broad skills that should be universally acquired at each degree level. No matter what bachelor's-degree students major in, the document says, for example, they should be able to construct "sustained, coherent arguments and/or narratives and/or explications of technical issues and processes, in two media, to general and specific audiences."

So what is this long list of general skills good for? What problem is the creation of the degree profile supposed to solve?

The speakers at Thursday's panel offered a long list of answers. Their answers were not necessarily incompatible, but they were so wide-ranging that they raised the question of what the project's ultimate focus and constituency will be.

The panelists' answers about the purposes of the project included the following:

The profile would encourage faculty members to collectively ensure that students are acquiring the skills they need.

"This is not an invitation to standardize degrees," said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, who is one of the Lumina document's four authors. "It's an invitation for faculty members to be more intentional about how they construct degrees."

Faculty committees could, for example, think more systematically about whether students are getting enough training in writing, Ms. Schneider said.

She cited the experience of her own son, who recently withdrew from a 400-level sociology course that required three papers and two exams. He preferred to take a course that he thought would be less demanding, she said, so he switched to another 400-level course in the same department that required only a midterm and a final.

"Why hasn't that faculty come together to define what a 400-level course means?" Ms. Schneider asked. If her son's college made a public promise that every student would acquire a certain set of writing skills, she suggested, the faculty might decide that every upper-level course in the humanities and social sciences should include essay assignments.

The profile would serve as a "learning contract" between students and colleges.

The idea here is that students would be constantly reminded of the list of skills they are supposed to be acquiring. A public contract might have two healthy effects, said Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, who is also an author of the document, in an interview Thursday. First, it would encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Second, it would give students more leverage to insist that faculty members give them the tools they need to learn.

The profile would make it easier to manage transfers between institutions.

Community colleges and four-year institutions could build stronger articulation agreements if there were a broad universal understanding of what associate-degree recipients should be able to do, said Holiday Hart McKiernan, vice president for operations and general counsel of the Lumina Foundation, during the panel. More controversially, Ms. McKiernan said that the profile might ease the way for new, unorthodox providers to enter the higher-education marketplace.

The profile would make it easier for regional accreditors to assess colleges' work.

Among other things, Mr. Ewell said, accreditors might perform "curricular audits" to make sure that all students are actually being assigned tasks that would help them acquire the skills listed in the profile.

The profile would make college degrees more legible to policy makers and employers.

Fledgling graduates entering the job market would be better off, Mr. Ewell said, if employers had a broad understanding of exactly which broad skills college graduates are expected to have gained.

More importantly, Mr. Ewell and Ms. McKiernan said, the profile would give colleges a way to resist any demands from policy makers to dumb down the curriculum or to make it too easy to graduate. The Lumina Foundation famously wants to boost the number of degree-holders in the United States, but Ms. McKiernan said that "if we do not defend quality, increasing the number of college graduates will be absolutely meaningless."

Mr. Ewell said that he and his colleagues have no expectation that colleges would rely solely on national tests to assess students' skills. The healthiest path, he said, would be for colleges to use many different assessment tools, including portfolios of students' course work.

All of the speakers emphasized that the current document is an early and imperfect effort. If everything goes according to plan, the profile will be test-driven at a few dozen institutions during the next two years.

Members of the audience said they were confused about how much flexibility colleges would have to modify the degree-profile template to suit their individual characters. The panel's answers did not necessarily add much clarity. "You can color within the outline," Mr. Ewell said, "but you can't color outside the lines." Another speaker pointed to a "spider web" graphic on Pages 6 and 7 of the profile document, which illustrates how three different types of institutions might emphasize different families of skills.

Audience members also wondered whether the degree profile might herald an era when students can graduate after they demonstrate a certain set of skills, regardless of whether that takes them one year or seven years to accomplish. One person asked, "Are we witnessing the end of the credit-hour system?" The panelists generally said that they did not intend anything so radical, but Mr. Ewell said, "If taken seriously, this does represent a shift in that direction."

Whether the project eventually is taken seriously is far from guaranteed. The last 20 years have seen several such efforts come and go, Mr. Ewell noted.

One person who has watched those projects rise and fall is George D. Kuh, a principal investigator of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, where Mr. Ewell is a senior scholar. In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Kuh said that he supports the degree-profile effort, but he predicted that it might have trouble reaching critical mass.

"We shouldn't underestimate the political challenges connected to something like this," Mr. Kuh said. "Especially when people can say that it was something drafted by four people in a room." Everything will depend, Mr. Kuh said, on what happens in the pilot projects during the next two years.