Making higher education count in today's economy

Making higher education count in today's economy

In today’s rapidly changing global economy, college-level learning has become a prerequisite for individual success and national stability in the United States. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to underscore the economic imperative of increasing college attainment.

Higher incomes, lower unemployment rates

First of all, college success has direct links to initial job success. According to data from late 2011, unemployment rates for 18 to 24 year old Americans who hold Bachelor’s degrees are 8.9% compared with 11.9% for those with associate degrees. Among those Americans with only a high school credential, the jobless rate is much greater, at 22.9%.

Second, the jobs available to college-educated workers pay more – and will continue to pay more – than those that require no post-high-school credentials. Individuals with Bachelor’s degrees can now expect to make an average of 84% more over their lifetimes than those with just a high school diploma. This is an increase even since the late 1990s, when the wage differential was about 75%.

Third, long-term employment trends clearly favour better-educated workers. Recent research from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that by 2018, 63% of all American jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. That’s a huge increase since the mid-1970s, when less than 30% of jobs required any education beyond high school.

Importance of soft skills

The fact is, almost all jobs are becoming higher-skill jobs. Not only are jobs more technically complex, they also increasingly demand the ‘soft skills’ that higher-level learning provides… the critical thinking and analytical skills that make workers more adaptable.

The key question for educators and policymakers is how to ensure that educational programmes, institutions and systems meet and maintain the standard of educational quality that the rapidly changing world demands?

In our view at Lumina Foundation, the key to quality assurance is obvious: focus on student learning. Right now – for many, if not most Americans – the definition of a ‘quality’ education has no real, demonstrable connection to the actual knowledge or skills that a student gains from college.

Clearly, this needs to change. We at Lumina believe strongly that higher education systems must move away from input-based definitions of quality and toward a ‘value-added’ approach, one firmly rooted in measurable outcomes. And the most important thing to measure: student learning.

New measures for quality assurance

The good news is, this movement toward an outcomes-based model for higher education is under way in many countries. Here in the US, one especially promising quality-assurance effort is the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), which is being tested in more than 100 institutions in 30 states. The DQP is a matrix that institutions and systems can use – in a way that fits their own unique circumstances – to clearly define learning outcomes.

The DQP combines flexibility and broad utility and can serve as a useful tool in defining the meaning and relevance of a postsecondary credential degree – the true quality of college-level learning.

And in today’s changing world, educational quality is one thing that demands certainty.

If you are interested in reading more on this topic, EAIE members and EAIE Conference participants can download the Conference Conversation Starter from the My Conference section on the EAIE website, which contains a contribution from Jamie Merisotis, the author of this blog post.

Jamie Merisotis is President and CEO of Lumina Foundation, a private US foundation committed to enrolling and graduating more students from college – especially low-income students, students of colour, first-generation students and adult learners. Lumina works toward one goal: ensuring that, by 2025, 60% of Americans hold high-quality post-secondary degrees or credentials.