What does a degree mean? It’s hard to tell

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The millions of college students walking across graduation stages this month will face brighter job prospects than others in recent years, with employers reporting a 10 percent increase in hires over 2014. But even with this positive momentum, most organizations still lack confidence in graduates’ readiness for those jobs. One reason: Despite a century of experience with higher education, our system tells us far too little about what a college degree or other postsecondary credential means. 

In the vast majority of our nation’s colleges and universities, a bachelor’s degree is really just an accumulation of credits, usually 120, plus the specific major and graduation requirements of the school.  So the degrees students earn represent an accumulation of classes successfully completed and the amount of time they’ve spent in the classroom. It’s hard to discern, though, what students know and are able to do as a result of those classes and time.  

{mosads}Today, it’s critical for every postsecondary education credential to demonstrate that it offers students two types of competencies: general knowledge and skills that help them succeed in any career and in their daily lives as citizens or family members; and content-area knowledge relevant for a specific job or field. In other words, students need to be equipped with competencies that will help them problem-solve, communicate, work well in teams, and think critically.  But they also should know something and be able to apply that knowledge in whatever field they choose—chemistry, graphic design, accounting, or whatever the case may be. 

Throughout college, students ought to be able to clearly see their pathway towards gaining both. And when students graduate, employers should be able to determine what sets of skills and knowledge they bring to the workplace. Achieving both of these will help address the looming confidence gap and build the pipeline of talent necessary for our students and nation to thrive. 

Today employers spend roughly half a trillion dollars annually on training, most of which goes towards upgrading the skills of existing employees. That will only increase as the number of jobs demanding workers with postsecondary education is projected to grow. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some form of education beyond high school, and unless we rapidly accelerate the pace of attainment, the gap between the number of jobs and the number of workers to fill them will reach five million by the same year.  

Making degrees’ meaning clear is especially important in the liberal arts, whose viability as a pathway is under great scrutiny, even though many liberal arts majors fare well over the long term.  Median salaries for liberal arts degree-holders right out of college earn about $29,000, according to a recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.  But a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (based on 2011 data) showed that figure increases to more than $66,000 per year by the time graduates are in their late 50s. And unemployment rates among liberal arts graduates are comparable to graduates with degrees in other areas.   

It may be that liberal arts graduates gain a solid set of general knowledge and skills, and go on to get more specialized knowledge and skills in graduate and professional schools. It’s hard to know for sure, though, because there’s a lack of transparency about what degrees mean in terms of learning. 

A few recent efforts have attempted to show what learning outcomes those who hold degrees have achieved.  One is the Degree Qualifications Profile, authored by four higher education experts and supported by Lumina Foundation.  It provides a framework that colleges and universities can use to help define the proficiencies students should gain from associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. More than 400 colleges and universities have used the tool since it was first launched five years ago to help colleges and universities strengthen their curricula and improve learning outcomes. Another is the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, launched by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which outlines key benchmarks for college learning and principles to help students meet those goals. 

These steps are a good start, but more must be done. All colleges and universities must recognize the importance of explaining what a college degree means – and embrace these and other tools as ways to achieve that. We also must go a step further to explain the meaning of other important postsecondary credentials, such as the certificates earned through skills-based training programs and certifications earned through industry programs, which also are vital currency to earning a 21st century job. 

It’s not enough for graduates to get a job. They must know they’re ready to excel in it. That requires a bold reorientation of how we think about postsecondary credentials, not just in terms of classes completed, but also competencies gained. And it demands a new way of explaining what degrees and other credentials mean – for the benefit of students, employers, communities and our future. 

Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to increasing Americans’ college attainment.


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