The Bologna dilemma

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Recently there has been a spate of articles in journals as diverse as Dow Jones, the New York Times, and Inside Higher Education which, when boiled down, ask about the fundamental value of a college education and raise the question of how, when we see that value, we will know what we are looking at.

I have advocated for learning outcomes at the course and program level for over 30 years. And the Bologna Process may just be the way to get learning outcomes embedded across multiple American institutions so that consistency and transparency become more than words we use at meetings. Having said that, however, let’s remember what we know about people who graduate from college.

1. They are healthier and live longer than those who do not.

2. They vote and participate in community activities at higher rates.

3. They earn more than those who do not.

There are other similar measures, but you get the point. Having more educational participation and attainment is better, for many reasons, than having less! So this push for alignment and standards should not come at the expense of access. On a more practical level, we will never meet the president’s stated goals if we go sideways or backwards on access for marginalized students.

Consideration of the commitment to access for millions of previously unserved Americans, and the need to preserve and expand it, serves to highlight the “Bologna Dilemma” facing the Department of Education, U.S. accreditors, and institutions alike. Essentially we are talking out of both sides of our mouth when it comes to outcomes. Why? Because there is an inherent tension between seat time, credits and credit hours, granting degrees signifying success in college, and actual learning outcomes.

Credit hours are the core counting system for American higher education academically and economically. Virtually every government regulation and all review mechanisms includes and uses them to determine “how much” learning occurred.

But, in a world where older learners bring significant learning with them from other sources, including their own experience; and where young people just might achieve significant learning in venues other than schools; the cost of and “time to” degree might well have little or nothing to do with credit hours, if measuring the learning is the objective.

If we give credit for learning, as opposed to course completion, giving more credit for experiences which yielded a lot of learning would make sense, regardless of the time consumed.

By the same token, giving a fair evaluation of the learning done elsewhere, like the military, or CLEP, as well as credit from experiential learning would sharply reduce the time and cost to degree.

In the current reality, however, giving too much credit is, in far too many cases, held out as an example of poor quality. We should be thoughtful and cautious about discouraging innovative and progressive institutions from seriously grappling with degrees that are defined by what you know, not how long you spent with your body in a lecture hall seat.

Former Congressman Peter Smith is Senior Vice President of Academic Strategies and Development for Kaplan Higher Education. He was the founding president of California State University at Monterey Bay and recently wrote a book, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent.