Learning Matters

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2009

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

Thank you, and good morning everyone. I’m very pleased and honored to be here today for two important reasons. First, I am delighted to be back in the environs of the Atlanta University Center, where the important work being done by Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College and the Morehouse School of Medicine, and Spelman College deserves much greater national recognition. I particularly want to thank our host today, President Carlton Brown of Clark Atlanta University, whose vision and foresight have helped to lead the university during these challenging economic times.

I’m also honored because I know that this symposium represents an historic milestone for the Faculty Resource Network as it enters its 25th year. The quarter-century mark is a significant achievement, and you deserve congratulations for the wonderful work you’ve done during that time to deepen and broaden the skill sets of countless faculty members and administrators. Today’s gathering is also historic because it is the first joint meeting of the Network and another important and impressive group: the Leadership Alliance. For nearly two decades, the Alliance has been working to increase minority participation in the nation’s graduate programs. This effort is critically important, not merely to individual students, but to all of us as a nation.

The combined impact of these two organizations is impressive indeed – truly a legacy of learning. Mindful of that legacy, I very deliberately planned my remarks this morning to focus on learning – its definition, its measurement, and most important, the value and relevance of college-level learning to our nation and its future.

Before I go too deeply into that topic, however, let me talk a bit about the ongoing work of Lumina Foundation. Many of you probably know that Lumina is a national foundation, established just nine years ago in Indianapolis. We have assets of more than one billion dollars, which makes Lumina one of the nation’s 40 largest private foundations. We have just one mission: getting more Americans into and through college. In fact, we are the nation’s largest foundation devoted exclusively to increasing college access and success.

For most of the two years I’ve served as Lumina’s president, we have pursued that mission by focusing on one specific aim ? what we call our “Big Goal.” That Big Goal, simply stated, is this: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of the American population to hold high-quality college degrees or credentials. Right now, as you’re probably aware, only 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 have at least a two-year college degree. This 40 percent figure is virtually identical to that of Americans between the ages of 55 and 64. To put it plainly, we’ve done no better with the current generation than we did with their parents – in a span of nearly four decades.

Our Big Goal would have us change that dramatically. It calls for an increase in college-completion rates of 20 percentage points in just 15 years. So, yes, we’re aware that our goal is ambitious. Still, we are convinced that it is achievable. What’s more, we are convinced that it must be achieved.

If America is to compete and prosper in the global economy … if we are to meet the demands of the changing workforce … if we want to ensure a secure, stable, more equitable society … if we want any of these things, college-completion rates must increase, and they must do so dramatically.

And to make that happen, if we want to have even a chance of reaching 60 percent degree attainment, we must focus intently on the groups of students who have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education. As you are well aware, college-completion rates among certain population groups – including adults, first-generation college students, low-income students and students of color – are significantly lower than those of other students. These achievement gaps have endured for decades, and are now actually widening. That trend is especially alarming because demographers tell us that, by 2050, “minorities” will actually constitute a majority of the U.S. population. They already do in four states, including the two most populous ones -California and Texas.

We must do more – much more – to support the success of underserved students. In fact, we must as a nation fully commit ourselves to their success. Demography demands it. Economics compels it. Social justice insists on it.

I know these demographic statistics are nothing new to you, and I know that most of you long ago committed yourselves to the success of underserved students. In fact, as I look down the list of member institutions for the Alliance and for the Faculty Resource Network, I see dozens of schools whose very existence is a result of that commitment – HBCUs, HSIs, and other Minority-Serving Institutions with a long, proud history of service and scholarship.

At Lumina Foundation, we see MSIs as one of the nation’s most important but underappreciated educational assets. Nationally, MSIs educate more than 2.3 million students, or about one-third of all students of color, and these numbers are growing rapidly.

In my own career I’ve been privileged to work with many leaders of HBCUs, HSIs, and Tribal Colleges and Universities, and I have deep respect for the work they do. Many of these institutions have done amazing work for many years assisting students who might not otherwise have gone to college ? and they have often done this with severely limited resources. MSIs have decades of hands-on experience in fostering impressive achievement levels among large numbers of low-income, first-generation, and other traditionally underrepresented students.

At Lumina Foundation, we are committed to supporting MSIs, not merely to assist the good work they do on their own campuses, but to help spread the important lessons they have learned to all of higher education. That’s one of the reasons I’m so pleased that the Leadership Alliance is represented here today. I’m very heartened by the example the Alliance sets; it is a co-equal, cooperative effort that allows MSIs to share their experience and their expertise in ways that can inform and improve what happens on traditional, majority-dominated campuses. That’s an example that deserves replication – one that recognizes MSIs’ great strengths and gives them a leadership role.

At Lumina, we too are working to capitalize on MSIs’ ability to lead – especially when it comes to fostering success among underserved students. That’s why we recently launched a multimillion-dollar effort we call the MSI-Models of Success program. Our goal in that program is to help MSIs become even more effective and to help others recognize these institutions for what they truly are: national leaders in fostering the academic success of students of color.

The MSI-Models of Success program is supporting projects in several key areas:

  1. Improving MSIs’ capacity to collect, analyze and use data to inform decisions that promote student success
  2. Creating a collective voice for policy advocacy on behalf of MSIs.
  3. Strengthening policy and practice to improve developmental education.
  4. Increasing MSIs’ commitment to transparency and effectiveness in improving student outcomes.
  5. Increasing completion or graduation rates among underserved students, especially men of color.

Just a few weeks ago Lumina announced grants in the MSI-Models of Success program targeted to an outstanding group of partners from all three of the major MSI communities. One of the grantee organizations, the Southern Education Foundation, is based right here in Atlanta. The work it is pursuing with this grant is of particular interest to me today – not merely because of location, but because it dovetails so well with what has lately become a major aspect of our effort to reach the Big Goal.

In its Models of Success work, the Southern Education Foundation will seek to enhance the assessment, documentation and use of student learning outcomes at HBCUs and Hispanic-Serving Institutions. For Lumina, this focus on student learning is vitally important. As we pursue our Big Goal, we are increasingly convinced that ensuring the quality of degrees is every bit as important as increasing the quantity. Look again at the goal statement. We don’t just want more degrees and credentials; we want to ensure that they are of “high-quality.” We define a high-quality credential or degree as one that has “well-defined and transparent learning outcomes that provide clear pathways to further education and employment.”

For us, learning is the currency for quality. Quality, at its core, must be a measure of what students actually learn and are able to do with the knowledge and skills they gain.

Simply put: Learning is what matters.

Oddly enough, the concept of learning – a subject that seems critical to every discussion about higher education – is far too often overlooked. We all talk endlessly about the processes of higher education – about ensuring access and fostering students’ success, about increasing college completion rates, about aligning standards – and yet we seem reluctant or unable to discuss higher education’s true purpose: equipping students for success in life.

We need to confront some important questions: What exactly are our students learning – and what should they be learning? What knowledge and skills must they have so they can thrive – both as workers in the 21st century global economy and as productive citizens in this democracy?

Confronting these questions is not just an exercise. It is practical, tactical and very real – and it points to what we at Lumina see as a huge opportunity for higher education and for the nation. In fact, without a renewed focus on what students are actually learning, there really is no way to properly ensure the quality and value of a college degree or credential.

Research has already shown that higher education institutions vary significantly in the value they add to students in terms of what those students actually learn. Various tools and instruments tell us that some institutions add much more value than others, even when looking at students with similar backgrounds and abilities.

Such tools are helpful, but more work is needed in this area. We should not rely on single measures to assess learning. And we need to find more and more consistent ways to measure a college’s or a university’s “value-added” capabilities. We need to find ways to better ensure that credits, degrees and credentials actually represent the skills and knowledge students obtain and can demonstrate.

But learning – that is, the knowledge, skills and competencies a student gains by taking a college course or program – really needs to be recognized as the primary measure of quality in higher education. Right now, that is simply not the case.

In fact, for many Americans, a “quality” education has no real connection to the actual knowledge a student gains or the skills he or she develops in college. Rather, it is largely a function of reputation or prestige. In other words, a degree from an elite college or university is seen as a high-quality degree. Degrees and credentials from “lesser” institutions are thought to be of inferior quality.

That’s because, in nearly all cases, perceptions of quality in higher education are now based on “inputs” rather than on measurable outcomes. To put it crudely: “High quality” happens when high-achieving students attend highly selective, richly endowed institutions, where tradition, along with well-paid faculty and other resources, ensures their predictable success.

The question is: What do these students actually learn? How much do they improve? What do they really gain? – What do we, as a society, gain from their attendance? And do we as citizens and taxpayers gain more when a less selective public institution or a community college takes a “B-minus” student – or maybe even one not typically thought of as “college material” – and helps ensure the success of that student? In addition, the relevance of what students learn is important. Is the learning linked to the student’s needs and interests? Will it lead to further education and employment?

Right now, unfortunately, these questions are largely rhetorical. That’s because there is too little credible data to justify the quality distinctions that are often made in higher education. We simply aren’t doing enough to measure the specific learning that takes place in individual courses and degree programs. In most cases, we can’t really tell what value an institution truly adds to its students’ lives.

In the current system of higher education, credits are accumulated and degrees granted on the basis of contact hours and seat time – not because students demonstrate newly acquired knowledge or skills. Clearly, this needs to change. My colleagues and I believe strongly that the American higher education system must move away from the input-based definitions of quality that so often dominate rankings to a “value-added” approach, one that is firmly rooted in measurable outcomes.

Of course, the most important thing we ought to measure is the learning-because that is what matters most.

We understand that such measurement is relatively new … and that it is not easy. But there are tools that have already demonstrated that it’s possible. One of these tools you’re already quite familiar with: comprehensive portfolio assessment. With electronic portfolios – dynamic, Web-based collections of completed assignments and other evidence – students can demonstrate learning quite well … and in real time. Another tool is the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA, which helps institutions measure how well they contribute to a student’s mastery of higher-order thinking skills. A third assessment tool is being developed in a new project called Transparency by Design, which measures the learning outcomes of students in online programs.

These and many other assessment efforts demonstrate that, throughout American higher education, people are developing, using and reporting on common metrics that attempt to show what students really learn. But we should not limit ourselves only to American higher education when pursuing this new emphasis on learning. Because we operate in a global society, we also need to take a global perspective.

One way that we at Lumina are taking an international approach is by exploring what has taken place in Europe through what is known as the Bologna Process. As you may know, this is the process by which 46 European countries have been working for a decade to promote transparency, coordination and quality assurance among their various national higher education systems. As the Bologna group sought to establish a set of commonly understood and commonly accepted postsecondary credentials, the organizers came upon an idea called “tuning,” which I think may apply well in this country.

The idea with tuning is to take various programs within a specific discipline – chemistry, history, psychology, whatever – and agree on a set of learning outcomes that a degree in the field represents. The goal is not for the various programs to teach exactly the same thing in the same way or even for all of the programs to offer the same courses. Rather, programs can employ whatever techniques they prefer, so long as their students can demonstrate mastery of an agreed-upon body of knowledge and set of skills. To use the musical terminology, the various programs are not expected to play the same notes, but to be “tuned” to the same key.

A critical element of tuning is that it is a faculty-led process, rather than one that is added on or imposed from without, as far too many accountability mechanisms have been in the past. Not only does this generate more enthusiastic and substantive participation from faculty, it also allows for more flexibility among the various programs. There are no tuning cookie-cutters. Although everyone works toward a commonly accepted set of learning outcomes, no one need take the same path to get there. Individual institutions, as well as individual disciplines within institutions, design their own curricula, their own delivery methods, their own assessment techniques. This helps preserve the powerful diversity that has always been a great strength of the American system of higher education.

Done properly, the tuning process provides multiple benefits. It eases the student’s sometimes-difficult journey through higher education by laying out a clear path, with well-defined expectations for learning all along the way. It allows institutions to design programs that are rigorous, relevant, and cost-effective. And it gives employers assurance that graduates in a particular field are properly equipped for employment in that field.

And, again, the key to making tuning work is its emphasis on defining and measuring student learning as the way to ensure quality. My colleagues and I at Lumina Foundation are more and more convinced that this outcomes-based, value-added approach is one that should be applied throughout postsecondary education. An intense and systematic focus on learning should be the hallmark of higher education – from the freshman year through graduate school.

For us, learning doesn’t just matter. It matters most of all.

Again, that idea seems so fundamental, so basic. And yet, learning – how to define it, how to measure it, how to nurture it in students and ensure its relevance and currency in the world – the topic that should be the central conversation about improving education, has somehow devolved to background noise. If I may, I’d like to conclude my remarks this morning by bringing it to the forefront and discussing it in some detail.

Learning outcomes in higher education can be grouped in two fundamental categories: generalizable, transferable skills – such as abstract reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving, communication; and subject-specific skills and knowledge. Traditionally, we have thought of these as being acquired in different areas or levels of higher education. “General education” or the undergraduate core has been the place where students develop high-level thinking; field-specific knowledge and skills are developed in the student’s major or occupational field.

This two-track concept may help us understand the importance of each type of learning, but it can hamper our understanding of how learning really happens. That’s because it represents a false dichotomy. In today’s economy and society, both types of learning are necessary for everyone. Both are vital in the workforce and everyday life, and both must be developed together at all levels of higher education.

As I indicated earlier, the quality distinction in Lumina’s goal is critical. As I’m sure you’ll agree, increasing the number of degree holders without ensuring the quality of those degrees would be a very hollow achievement for this nation – a major step backward even. Clearly, maintaining high quality in college credentials – even improving on that quality in coming years – is a must if we hope to remain globally competitive and ensure a robust middle class.

Much work remains to flesh out the full definition of a “high-quality” degree. In fact, that definition will always be evolving as we work to determine what students in various fields of study must know – and what skills they must possess – to succeed in life and in their chosen fields.

That’s why a focus on what students are really learning must go hand in hand with efforts to improve graduation rates. We cannot allow quality and quantity to be a zero-sum game when it comes to reaching the Big Goal of college completion. “Either/or” won’t work. Not for your institutions. Not for your students. Not for American society as a whole. For all of those stakeholders, it must be “both/and.” This nation needs many more college-educated citizens, individuals who are truly equipped for future success.

You and the institutions you serve are absolutely key in finding, supporting and nurturing students as they make the transition to full and productive citizenship. You’ve done it amazingly well for decades – and you deserve our praise and thanks for that. Now is the time for all of us to redouble our efforts, and we at Lumina are eager to continue as we strive together to reach the Big Goal.

Thank you very much.

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Spring 2010: Challenge as Opportunity: The Academy in the Best and Worst of Times