Defining and Delivering on Quality in Higher Education
Quality in postsecondary education, a growing concern for students and families, is getting a fresh look on several fronts, including in discussions around a proposed overhaul of the Higher Education Act and in several state-level discussions.
Quality was a relatively minor issue 10 years ago when the HEA was reauthorized. But the public debate is now rife with ideas for improving quality assurance, reducing regulatory burden, and more directly and transparently connecting education and workforce outcomes.
This spring, the Department of Education announced an intent to revisit existing regulations on accreditation. And Republicans in the House were working to bring up for votes the PROSPER Act (HR4508), a sweeping bill designed to overall higher education policy that includes several changes to the practices required of approved accrediting agencies.
Though the House effort appeared to have stalled, there is a broader movement focused on quality that already is helping improve how some institutions and state systems define quality outcomes, and how they improve those outcomes by focusing directly on preparing graduates with key employability capabilities. After all, we see growing skepticism about the value of four-year college degrees, in particular, amid concerns about whether they’re really worth the investment of time and money.
A poll last fall from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that 47 percent of respondents believe a degree is not worth the cost “because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt.”
That’s up from 40 percent who questioned the value of a degree in a 2013 CNBC survey. People ages 18–34 are especially skeptical, as are white working-class Americans and those from rural areas.
Some skepticism is understandable — clearly, not all education and training is equal. But the economic benefits of postsecondary education are real and quantifiable. What we need now are not only updated policies and procedures at the federal and state levels, however, but new compelling approaches for institutions themselves to better define and deliver on the promise of quality college degrees and other postsecondary credentials.
The Quality Assurance Commons (QA Commons) offers a new approach, helping institutions design programs of study to ensure better outcomes for more students — and certifying programs that are well designed and have successful track records in attending to issues of employability of their graduates.
QA Commons is focused specifically on a set of essential employability qualities (EEQs), and how well programs of study can develop those qualities in all their students. The EEQs were developed in collaboration with educators, business leaders, and researchers focused on today’s economy and on emerging signs about the future of work. They reflect decades of research into what the most important outcomes of college are to ensure success in work and life.
QA Commons is focused on helping institutions and programs become more transparent and precise about how — and how well — they develop these qualities.
We know that high-quality credentials beyond high school can transform lives — that they open doors to economic opportunity and social mobility and help individuals flourish in a challenging world. But we also know that not everyone who pursues learning beyond high school actually gets a high-quality experience. Too few even get to the finish line and earn a credential. And some who do, still struggle to find employment and succeed in today’s workplace.
Quality Assurance Commons and the EEQs will help address this gap. They also will help institutions make good on an equally urgent promise of closing equity gaps in access to quality experiences and in post-graduation outcomes. QA Commons pilot efforts and other research show that far too few institutions gather and use enough good data on how well their students learn and how they fare after graduation. Moreover, even when collecting data, far too few institutions disaggregate their data to uncover hidden inequities in access to quality experiences — especially across different racial/ethnic groups.
We’re confident that, in time, more of these impediments will be resolved. But the larger question — and the challenge for education providers — remains: ensuring and improving quality especially for students from groups that have traditionally been poorly served by the nation’s colleges and universities.
Americans deserve to be able to easily find institutions and programs with solid track records of graduating students and helping them move into good jobs. We must tackle this issue on multiple fronts. Lumina Foundation, for instance, supports several efforts to advance greater transparency around credentials and learning. And, QA Commons’ work complements those efforts by working directly with institutions and state systems.
We have much work to do to update federal and state policies to better serve today’s students and to hold institutions accountable for quality results. But we also need far more work on the ground — educators and employers working together to design high-quality programs and to track progress in improving outcomes.
Debra Humphreys, Ph.D., vice president of strategic engagement for Lumina Foundation, leads the foundation’s stakeholder engagement and strategic communications work while providing direction for Lumina’s work on postsecondary education quality.