As students, employers, and policymakers continue to question whether earning a college degree really proves that graduates are ready for work, a new set of voluntary standards proposes to set out what they should be learning—and measure whether or not they have.

The Degree Qualifications Profile specifies what students should know and be able to do at every level of their higher educations—what a bachelor’s or master’s degree actually represents, in other words—rather than simply relying on how many hours they’ve sat through how many courses.

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“Students don’t need just credentials. What they need—and what our global economy and democratic society increasingly demand—is the learning those credentials

signify,” said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, which is underwriting the effort in coordination with the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment as part of its campaign to increase the proportion of Americans with degrees. (Lumina is also among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

“It’s not enough to simply count credentials,” Merisotis said. “The credentials themselves must count.”

Student learning won’t necessarily be measured by exit tests, although those have also gained momentum. The Degree Qualifications Profile, which has been under development for four years and is already being tested at 400 colleges and universities in 45 states, simply establishes standards that faculty would measure through class assignments and other means—attracting the ire of some faculty, who bristle at the idea of being told what their students should learn.

It also standardizes expectations that may differ from one university or college to the next. This, too, is a trend in higher education; the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI, which makes sure that everything from computers to appliances produced by different companies are standardized, is doing the same thing for professional certificate programs offered by colleges and universities, which some employers won’t recognize unless they’ve been cleared by ANSI.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.