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Higher Ed Reconsidered: A Non-Standard Assessment of Where Standards May be Taking Us?

03/04/2015 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

Even college presidents have their existential moments.

During a meeting of the Council on Independent Colleges' Steering Committee on the Future of Independent Higher Education last fall, a lively debate ensued around what constitutes a college education. Is it about the delivery of a curriculum? Or is it about the quality of the student's experience? While the question can certainly be answered in myriad ways, I recall a divide among the 22 presidents in attendance, with a slight majority (including myself) arguing that, given current practices, the value of college education lies in the student experience, not necessarily the curriculum.

On reflection, that led me to one pivotal and, yes, troubling question: Has U.S. higher education lost its purpose?

There is at present an alphabet soup of frameworks for learning, accreditation and results measurement in higher education. Please allow a brief digression as we seek to decipher that soup; taking this detour will better enable us to address the uber question, above. As they say, you can't tell the players without a scorecard:

Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP/Tuning). A learning-centered framework for what college grads should know to earn a degree at the associate, bachelor's or master's levels, DQP/Tuningis an international movement aimed at establishing standard specifications of required proficiencies at the three levels. Along with most California State University campuses, my institution, Woodbury University, is an adopter of DQP.

American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). A conservative group that has been critical of U.S. higher education accreditation, ACTA advocates what appears to be a common core for liberal arts education. The organization goes so far as to actually rate colleges and universities accordingly. ACTA describes itself as an "independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities." The group says its initiatives "promote academic quality, affordability, and cost effectiveness in higher education."

Common Core. The Common Core State Standards Initiative --encompassing new, rigorous standards for math and language arts in some 45 states --was unveiled in 2009 in a bid to ensure that students are"college and career-ready" by the end of high school. While ostensibly aimed at elementary and secondary schools, the Common Core's ripple effect on colleges and universities is pronounced. As Inside Higher Ed reported, "[the Common Core marks the] first time college and career readiness for every high school graduate [is] an explicit, nearly nationwide goal... The state-led initiative isn't only intended to transform elementary and secondary education. If the Common Core is implemented as advocates intend, its effects would significantly alter how many things work in higher education, too. Those adjustments, if the Common Core vision is realized, could transform dual enrollment programs, placement tests, and remediation. They could force colleges within state systems, and even across states, to agree on what it means to be 'college ready,' and to work alongside K-12 to help students who are unprepared for college before they graduate from high school."

A veritable cottage industry has sprung up around the standards movement. While there simply isn't room to cite them all, two new undertakings epitomize the trend:

National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA). Committed to"Making Learning Outcomes Usable and Transparent," NILOA was established in 2008 to "discover and disseminate ways that academic programs and institutions can productively use assessment data internally to inform and strengthen undergraduate education, and externally to communicate with policy makers, families and other stakeholders. NILOA assists institutions and others in discovering and adopting promising practices in the assessment of college student learning outcomes."

Higher Ed for Higher Standards (HEHS). HEHS consists of a coalition of college presidents, trustees, chancellors, and state system leaders committed to the implementation of college- and career-ready standards. HEHS is the outgrowth of a grant-making initiative, created with the pooled resources of a diverse group of regional and national education foundations committed to improving public education.

So, the question on the table is this: At what point does standardization morph into commoditization? If all schools carry the prescriptions of DQP, Common Core, ACTA, and various accreditation standards on curricula to their ultimate conclusion, we will likely end up with one standard curriculum for liberal education and for each degree program. If that occurs, higher education will become a commodity and schools will start to compete based not on content, but on amenities and other attributes of student life. These amenities have come in many shapes and forms. Just consider these examples: a 30-foot rock-climbing wall; a $70 million wellness center with hand scanners for secure entry; a college theme park complete with plasma televisions in dorm rooms; a free movie theater; a steak restaurant.

Parenthetically, we at Woodbury have taken the "student experience" imperative to heart. We of course want to be competitive, and we see pedagogical value in some experiential programs. Under our new Woodbury Integrated Student Experience, or "WISE," program, by the time a student graduates, he or she will have compiled a portfolio of enriching educational experiences, including an internship, study-away or abroad experience, student leadership development, community service engagement, and faculty-mentored research. At a time when colleges and universities are struggling to remain relevant to their students, we are seeking to differentiate our institution from our peers by offering students the opportunity to enjoy and benefit from a liberal arts-based professional education that will make a difference in their lives, as well as the lives of others.

WISE and experience-based programs like it have tremendous value. And yet, we must ask: what about the curriculum? What price standardization? Is this what we want higher education to be?

This discussion necessarily brings us back to the classic work of John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University (1852), which articulates the purpose of university education and has been the "bible" of liberal arts colleges.

During my first year at Woodbury, I articulated that "the curriculum is the soul of the university; the budget is its conscience" as the rationale behind the philosophy that our resource allocations should reflect our academic and strategic priorities. If the destination of college/university strategic investments is amenities or the student experience, what then has become of the purpose of higher education?

And if standardization of liberal education and degree programs in fact occurs, the American system of higher education will be no different from the higher education systems in countries where the government mandates a prescribed curriculum for each degree program. Government regulators would be tasked with accreditation and would rate institutions based on their compliance with the curriculum standards, their graduates' outcomes (e.g., licensure passing rates), and organizational sustainability. Is this what we want?

The Common Core, like the CommonApp, appears to strive for equity. But lost in that aspiration is the ability to be idiosyncratic. To be different.To be that square peg.

Commoditization in the guise of standardization may indeed be a Trojan horse. But if so, the horse is being wheeled into the courtyard under our very noses. We need to look up and see it for what it is. We owe our students no less.

Luís María R. Calingo, PhD., is president of Woodbury University (www.woodbury.edu) in Burbank, Los Angeles, and San Diego.