Monday, June 27, 2011

Degree Qualification Frameworks: The Academic Quality Solution that Gainful Employment Fails to Achieve.

As Frank Donahue pointed out in his Chronicle of Higher Education article on June21, the newly released Gainful Employment regulation is an indirect assessment of higher education quality presented as consumer protection. And, problematically, it is narrow in scope, defining quality as the ability to get and hold a job in the field you have degreed in.
The rule is poorly conceived. (see my preceding blog posting) It holds the institutions in question accountable for something they do not control – employment – while giving them a pass on something they do control – quality. This leaves untouched a golden opportunity for the country’s regionally accredited institutions, the regional accreditation associations, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. That is, to put transparent, institutionally-defined academic quality and continuous improvement at the heart of the accreditation process.
As we enter the age of mass, lifelong higher education, academic quality will be defined by a transparency to learning outcomes that are assessed through a consistent, reliable, and valid process. At the heart of the process will be learning outcomes at the course and program level that are tied to rubrics for assessment internally as well as external standards for validation. This type of a process has three great advantages.
  •         First, by focusing on learning outcomes and their assessment, it leaves the teaching/learning modality wide open, protecting a diversity of approaches to teaching and learning.
  •          Second, it would require institutions to make clear claims about what their learners know and are able to do and also link those claims to credible third party standards. This would, in turn, allow for third party audits of the learning outcomes and institutional claims. This links the institution’s reputation to its academic practices and the achievement of learning outcomes by its students.
  •      Third, it leaves the design of the outcomes, rubrics, et. al. at the institutional level, making the college accountable for disclosing how it is doing its academic business, how well it is doing that business, and what the quality assurance/continuous improvement process is that assures it.

Hence it is decentralized, accountable, and metric-driven within the on-going accreditation cycle. As decentralized as it is, however, it needs a flywheel, organizing coherence. We need to develop a consistent framework for the articulation of degree and certificate programs. It does not have to be uniform, raising the specter  of “one size fits all”. It does, however, have to be consistent, using common language, definitions, assumptions, and processes.
Enter the Lumina Foundation, with its “Degree Qualifications Framework” project. This conversation, including a wide variety of institutions from all regions, holds the promise of doing what Gainful Employment has not done, establishing a rough consensus on how to establish and evaluate consistent academic quality using one of the best traditions of higher education, institutional continuous improvement and accreditation. By focusing on learning outcomes connected to external standards and emphasizing institutional responsibility, the degree qualifications framework project shifts the focus from where and how the learning occurred to how much has been learned and how well it has been learned. While promoting the quality agenda, the project also shifts the conversation away from credit hours and towards learning achieved, thus raising the possibility of a more efficient degree attainment process requiring less time and money to attain the degree. (see as one example.)
These elements – transparency, outcomes, continuous improvement, and external evaluation – are the keys to organizing the rapidly-changing landscape that surrounds and suffuses American higher education today.  And rather than depending on a top-down regulatory approach, it promotes decentralized accountability tied to academic performance. That is a good thing. Colleges should be accountable for what they control: academic quality.

Up Next: Private Higher Education is Being Called to the Table: Connecting the Dots

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Implications of the New Gainful Employment Rule

The 6/21/11 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education contains a thoughtful essay by Frank Donahue on the new gainful employment rule. Donahue moves past the “won-lost” argument (i.e. the proprietary sector won) to the meat of the matter: what are the rule’s implications for the rest of higher education? He rightly concludes that, as conceived and written, GE will be difficult in varying ways, depending on the degree program the learner graduates from, since different programs tie to different careers with different earning ranges.  
Then Donahue begins to ask the really confounding questions: what happens when a psych major goes to law school, moving from a low to a higher paying profession, while the accountant’s job is out-sourced to India? The underlying point, that being well-educated is its own reward is clear. Donahue uses these points to identify the reality of the gainful employment rule: it is a back door assessment of each program’s value in monetary terms dressed up as consumer protection legislation.
There are several deeply disturbing elements here, each signifying a far different role for the federal government in higher education policy.
  • ·         First, it opens the door, ultimately, to rationing academic programs, not because they lack intellectual rigor and fail to contribute to the intellectual, philosophical and personal development of the learner, but because they do not lead directly to a good job.
  • ·         Second, it opens the door to rationing opportunity, taking those same programs off the table for poor people who must rely on grants and loans.
  • ·         Third, coupled with the credit hour and state regulation rules, it opens the door to a massive federal intervention in standard setting in higher education.  Something that is fundamentally contrary to the tradition of intellectual independence that characterizes American higher education.

As a former member of Congress, I believe that this is not, and should not be, the stuff of rule-making and regulation. It is the type of issue that the Congress is elected to decide and the separation of powers was designed to protect.  Furthermore, as Hilary Pennington at the Gates Foundation noted in a letter to Secretary Duncan last April, regarding the credit hour rule specifically, this type of federal intervention and oversight has the consequence of stifling innovation and encouraging the status quo at precisely the time when we need more, not less innovation. I believe Pennington’s point is accurate beyond the credit hour rule alone. If higher education is going to meet the problems of the underserved, most recently articulated by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Gaston Caperton in their Huffington Post Article (6/20/11), “The Educational Crisis of Young Men of Color”, we need to break the bonds of tradition, much as the Fund for Improvement of Post-Secondary Education did when it was conceived in the early 1970’s.
The ultimate irony, however, is that the GE rule fails to establish the fundamental accountability that all higher education institutions owe each of their learners. Namely, that they have delivered to those learners the knowledge, skills, and abilities that their certificates and degrees stand for.  So, while the politics of this emerging USDoE role play out, it is my fervent hope that the regional accreditation bodies and CHEA will include the following standard, or something like it, in their future self-study rules.
“That the institution will indicate the level of knowledge, skills, and abilities indicated by each certificate and degree, and that such standards will be linked to external references and available to independent evaluation.”
In the age of transparency, degree qualifications frameworks, such as the current Lumina Foundation project, complete with learning outcomes at the course and program levels, and the institution’s ability to deliver the value announced in the frameworks, should lie at the core of the definition of institutional academic quality.  
Up Next: Degree Qualification Frameworks: The Academic Quality Solution that GE fails to Achieve.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Needed: The California Completion Coalition. Private for-profit and non-profits commit to serve un-served California learners.

In a column published in Monday's Sacramento Bee, William Tierney had an interesting "big idea" and several recommendations to make it a reality. The big idea? That private non-profit and for-profit institutions band together to serve Californians who are shut out of the California State University and community colleges because of budget cuts and enrollment caps.
Tierney's larger point is that California will suffer possibly irreparable economic and demographic damage downstream if a generation of learners are denied access to post-secondary education over the next several years. And he notes that there is significant capacity in the private higher education sector to meet the needs that are currently unmet.
This is a challenge that should not and cannot go unmet. If we are able to put some of our petty practices aside in service towards a larger good, it would be a red letter day for American higher education.
Tierney's proposals to move towards a more comprehensive, effective, and efficient coalition to meet the outstanding need include 1. a common course numbering system to eliminate the insidious practice of reducing credit awards when learners move between institutions and 2. Allowing new models, like KNEXT, Kaplan University, or Western Governor's University into the state with state endorsement and aid support.
I would like to add an idea that would catalyze Tierney's proposal into action: the California Completion Coalition (CCC). The CCC would welcome as members all regionally accredited institutions that agreed to honor all credits earned at other regionally accredited institutions, including general education and elective credits, up to their current transfer limits. Participating institutions would agree to be transparent to the learners about credit recognition, and remaining time and cost to the degree on their institutional websites. By simply committing to those terms of engagement, the door would be open for an "access and completion" website listing all participating institutions for learners' information.
Using this approach, un-served learners would know what institutions and programs are available and where and how they would be delivered, as well as transfer transparency and time and cost to the attainment of whatever the students' goals are. Let's build this idea real time and, in so doing, break new ground educationally, while using the web to help solve the crisis that is coming.         

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Well, there is another entry into to the burgeoning field of services that offer unbundled higher education to anyone interested in and willing to do it in a non-traditional situation. UnCollege  is the brainchild of a Dale Stephens, who left his freshmen year at Hendrix College because he thought it was a waste of his time. His goal is to create a learning environment in which learners can learn what they want, when they want to learn. He is developing social networking supporters and is partnering with a group named RadMatter to develop assessments that will allow UnCollege learners to communicate productively with possible employers. I am hopeful that Stephens might also take a look at KNEXT - College Credit Advisers for academic assessment equivalents.
Stephens represents a different demographic from learners who use web-based, online learning because they must, for geographic or scheduling, or other personal reasons. He has simply decided that the traditional collegiate path is too expensive and time-consuming with too little payoff for him. And he has decided to create what he terms "home schooling for higher education" as a viable alternative. In this case he is more parallel to the high school seniors who have received scholarships from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Peter Thiel  founder of PayPal, to come invent with him instead of going to a top tier college. He, and they, are betting that the creativity of the innovation white space, coupled with the resources of the web and the opportunity to invent will create a better learning environment than even the best colleges in the country.
Like StraighterLine, KNEXT, and Western Governors University, as examples and DIY U (Anya Kamenetz, 2010) and Harnessing America's Wasted Talent (Smith, 2010) as writings, UnCollege is yet another indicator that the web is increasingly going to support revolutionary learning opportunities that will pressure traditional educational structures, economics, and traditions heavily. For more on this emerging "New Culture of Learning" see the book by the same name written by Douglas Thomas and John Seeley Brown earlier this year.