“Tuning” American Higher Education

In yesterday’s New York Times Tamar Lewin reported that the Lumina Foundation for Education has begun a project to extend the European Bologna Process to the United States. The Foundation’s press release explains that the Europeans are using the process to promote “transparency, coordination and quality assurance” across their higher-education systems.

The effort has been tagged “tuning,” and aims “to create a shared understanding among higher education’s stakeholders of the subject-specific knowledge and transferable skills that students … must demonstrate upon completion of a degree program.” The American effort will be led by groups in Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah. Each of the states will “draft learning outcomes and map the relations between these outcomes and graduates’ employment options” in at least two academic disciplines. The intention is to design frameworks for the different degrees rather than to standardize curricula, with the hope that undergraduate education will be more responsive to changes in knowledge and its application, more relevant to “societal needs and workforce demands,” and more conducive to student transfer and retention.

This is clearly the beginning of something very ambitious. Clifford Adelman, formerly the statistical guru of the U.S. Department of Education and now with the Institute for Higher Education Policy, explains the need for tuning on the ground that the current American higher education system is so individualistic (describing undergraduate programs in terms of courses, credits, GPAs) that it is almost impossible to compare programs across institutions.

“Tuning” is intended to make comparison much easier (for students, parents, employers), but of course it is also intended to make assessment more feasible, both within and across institutions. It is easy to see why the Europeans, in the midst of creating a common market for higher education, feel the need for such tuning. We Americans certainly share some of their problems, but we have always boasted that diversity was one of the primary assets of our “system” of higher education. Were we wrong?

It will be interesting to observe American reactions to the Lumina program. Its planners are going out of their way to stress that it is faculty-led and that it will not attempt to standardize curricula. Those who favor a cautious approach to outcome assessment of undergraduate education will be encouraged by its discipline-oriented approach, but if it succeeds and proliferates, it will fundamentally change the way we manage undergraduate education.

Jamie Merisotis, the Lumina CEO, says that their intention is to ensure that undergraduate degrees are of high quality, and that graduates are “well prepared to participate in the labor market, their local communities and the country’s civic and cultural life.” Who can be against those things? But of course, done poorly, tuning could attune higher education mainly to the job market and to the most readily measured skills and outcomes. It will therefore be worth watching this experiment very carefully to see whether it can simultaneously be sensitive to the broad range of outcomes sought by American undergraduate education, and to a rigorous, objective standard of comparison.

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