Last week, the Lumina Foundation released, Unlocking the Nation’s Potential: A Model to Advance Quality and Equity in Education Beyond High School. This report details some of the ways in which the structure of post-secondary education has not fully adapted to the needs and expectations of our students and their potential employers. In reminding everyone that students attending college have different preparation and numerous demands on their time (jobs, families, etc.), one of the most important messages of this report is simply that education designed for traditional four-year experiences does not meet the needs of the students we are serving today.
Got it. We have been working on the differential needs and preparations of our students at WCSU for a very long time. We know that some of our students are working multiple jobs, some have children, some are hungry, and some are able to focus on college completely, without all of the distractions just listed. Clearly, those who have the benefit of not supporting themselves while in college are having a different college experience than those who do not. Equity issues immediately follow.
Consider the criteria for awards or induction into honor societies. Awards usually come from efforts like working with a faculty member on a research project or doing exemplary volunteer work. These will not be accessible to the student who is paying the rent and their tuition. That student may thrive in the coursework, but simply does not have the extra time in the week to do these above and beyond things. Some manage to accomplish this anyway, but that bar is far too high for the working student. This small observation is indicative of the long list of advantages and disadvantages we should be cognizant of as we consider the bestowing of honors or scholarships or other opportunities to excel.
Like many universities, WCSU has focused on strategies for supporting differential preparation for college. Some of that preparation is about being the first in the family to attend college. Higher education can have a lot of confusing vocabulary and hidden expectations that those of us immersed in education just know. Adding a First Year program is our way of trying to level the playing field and demystify our processes. Similarly, we focus on getting students the tutoring or academic coaching support they need to succeed. We invest in these resources because we know they can help us support the differential needs of our students as we strive to achieve some level of equity.
But the big can of worms opened by the Lumina report is about the quality of credentials. The report offers a framework for developing credentials of all kinds (certificates, two-year, four-year, and graduate degrees), so that the goals and outcomes of those degrees can be easily labeled and measured. Although this is motivated by the most important of observations – the advantaged students have access to credentials that have value, the less advantaged are often duped by low-quality certificates and degrees that may not – the solutions proposed are problematic. While trying to create a system that allows for differing missions and degree types, the outcomes measures proposed very clearly favor education that has direct career connections. Oh boy, I can hear my humanities faculty shudder as I write.
Here are my three problems with this approach:
- The report itself notes ,”65% of Gen-Z jobs don’t exist yet.” Then how can we look for direct career connections when we do not know what the jobs are? To be fair, Lumina does note clusters of skills rather than specific training, but even those clusters are suspect if the success of the credentials are going to be measured largely on employment outcomes.
- Input from business and industry about the gaps in preparation for work, always ends up being descriptions of the traditional outcomes of a liberal arts degree (communication skills, critical thinking, and more recently, teamwork and cultural awareness). Yet the measures of the quality of credentials do not seem to embrace the ambiguity that a liberal arts educational experience implies.
- In trying to solve the problem of regulating organizations that charge a lot of money for credentials that do not connect to jobs (and are not recognized as valuable), Lumina has proposed a solution that does not recognize all of the quality education that is taking place. It feels like No Child Left Behind all over again.
The problem, as I see it, is that we are trying to fit too many different kinds of post-secondary education into one set of outcomes. Certificates in technology support or carpentry skills or introductory graphic design are all great educational opportunities that can link directly to careers. A four-year degree in English, Communication, Chemistry or Psychology can also link to careers, but the focus of this educational experience is different. This approach adds breadth to the experience, emphasizing critical thinking and life-long learning, and helping students carve paths to careers that have yet to be defined. Each of these types of credentials is valuable, but they are different. Measuring them by the same outcomes measures is silly.
What is not silly is the reality of the equity issues that the Lumina report identifies. They are real, persistent, and troubling. Attending to these issues by focusing on designing supports for all students, better supporting K-12 education, and devoting adequate funding to public post-secondary education is very important. The work on credential design is also helpful. They offer some excellent frameworks for reviewing what we offer, and perhaps strengthening some of what we do. I imagine I will be working through those ideas for the next few months. Most of all, the report’s overview of how inequities are being created and replicated is very valuable. It definitely keeps my focus on the different kinds of things I should be looking at to support my wonderfully diverse student body.
But instead of looking at measurements of quality that are one-size-fits all, maybe, just maybe, we can start attending to the strengths and potentials of our differences and see where that takes us in addressing equity.