Defining College

Amid talk of higher education's possible disruption and unbundling, the Association of American Colleges & Universities stakes out an aggressive middle ground. Are people listening?

August 14, 2015
Mount Holyoke College
Carol Geary Schneider giving a commencement address at Mount Holyoke College.

WASHINGTON -- The Association of American Colleges and Universities has worked to make its voice heard in discussions about competency-based education, MOOCs and other trendy alternatives to traditional higher education.

Yet as the academy’s primary defender of the value of a liberal education, the group’s real goal must be to defend the status quo and keep the upstarts at bay, right?

When asked about that possible ulterior motive, the association’s longtime leader, Carol Geary Schneider, says she’s just as likely to hear the opposite criticism -- that she’s doing the bidding of technocrats who want to dismantle higher education.

Schneider, who is retiring next year, realizes her opinions can be provocative to both camps. Like this one from a wide-ranging interview this spring:

“We have a radical idea that the aims of education ought to be the outcomes of education,” she says, adding that “we shouldn’t use the digital revolution to continue outdated forms of higher education, like the lecture.”

That sort of talk might sound strange coming from an industry trade group with support from many academics who are skeptical of both online education and efforts to measure the learning that occurs in a traditional college classroom. But AAC&U is an outlier among the associations based here.

AAC&U is focused on liberal education (defined below), but its members aren’t just liberal arts colleges. The group, which was founded 100 years ago, represents 1,300 institutions, ranging from community colleges to research universities. Its members also include state agencies, like the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and nonprofit groups such as the Posse Foundation. And while AAC&U's meetings attract plenty of college presidents, attendees are more likely to be provosts or deans. The meetings also feature presentations by faculty members, more so than most other college associations.

The group’s role is both rare and important, says Amber Garrison Duncan, a strategy officer with the Lumina Foundation. They are “boundary spanners” across the spectrum of higher education, she says, adding that AAC&U has credibility with faculty members, associations and many others, all while maintaining a clear focus on what undergraduate education should be.

Gary Rhoades agrees.

“Of all the national associations,” says Rhoades, a professor of education at the University of Arizona and the former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, “AAC&U most consistently and publicly points to the significance of quality in a broad and deep sense, emphasizing the ways in which the accountability and completion agendas and discourse can undermine that quality.”

He added that the group and Schneider “consistently understand, emphasize and promote the significance of local faculty.”

What Is College?

AAC&U defines liberal education as an “approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.”

General education is the part of a liberal education curriculum that is shared by all students, AAC&U says. And a common thread for the association and its members is the belief that a general education core should be an intentional pathway, a contiguous arc that spans disciplines and different forms of learning.

“College is more than a collection of credits,” said Debra Humphreys, the group’s vice president of communications, policy and public engagement.

AAC&U’s focus on learning outcomes means assessing what students know and can do, and ensuring that a college degree includes the sort of learning students need in their life, work and citizenship.

That approach is a natural fit for competency-based education, an emerging form of higher education that 300 or so colleges are trying. Competency-based education, loosely defined, assesses students on their mastery of learning objectives, sometimes allowing them to move at their pace.

Amy Laitinen is a prominent expert on competency-based education as well as a skeptic of overreliance on the credit hour standard. She is deputy director for higher education at New America and a former White House and U.S. Department of Education official.

Schneider’s voice is a valuable one, Laitinen says.

“When I think of what competency-based education should be, she articulates it so beautifully,” says Laitinen.

For the most part, AAC&U is agnostic on the rise of competency-based education. But, as Schneider has written, the movement can be a “potent force for good” if it is about applied learning -- students’ demonstrated ability to connect their learning with real-world challenges.

And the group is trying to make sure that happens. It has pushed for competency-based programs to share goals with the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), a Lumina-funded effort that attempts to define what degree holders should know and be able to do. That would mean competency-based degrees in nursing or business, for example, wouldn't just be based on a student's knowledge of those subject areas. A credential under the DQP would reflect demonstrated skills in written and verbal communication, understanding of other cultures, critical thinking and other areas -- all anchored in a quality general education.

Schneider has played a prominent role in the ongoing DQP project, having helped co-author its tenets.

AAC&U has given competency-based education and digital learning prominent slots in its annual meeting, bringing both advocates and critics to the stage.

“Right now we’re a bigger-tent organization,” says Humphreys. “Things really are changing. And we have to change as well.”

Field Work

A broad range of higher-education insiders echo Rhoades and Laitinen’s praise for AAC&U. But in an environment where presidential wannabes talk about college debt every day, nuance tends to get lost on the cutting room floor. And the liberal education group isn’t exactly a household name.

As a result, much of AAC&U’s meaningful contribution takes place in the weeds, particularly as colleges wrestle with their general education curriculums.

“AAC&U really helps to translate some of the values and principles of the academy at its best,” says Elaine Maimon, president of Governors State University.

That’s not an easy task. Even higher education reporters can struggle to adequately understand and convey the group’s message.

“They’re doing all the right things,” Maimon says, “but I don’t think they’re getting enough attention.”

One of the group’s most successful projects is the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) program.

The decade-old effort seeks to bridge what AAC&U sees as a false dichotomy between the intellectual and the practical in higher education, with a narrow, vocational training for some students on one side, and a more ethereal, high-minded liberal education for the lucky few at residential colleges.

Rather, the group says, a quality liberal education should be both. And it says research shows that what works for honors students -- deep, hands-on learning with collaborative assignments and major “signature” projects -- also works for students who aren’t in the top quartile.

AAC&U brings a similar tough-love approach to the national college completion push.

“We overlap with the completion agenda,” Schneider says, adding that its proponents often have “an obsession with the numbers.”

For example, as the group said in written statement, policy makers tend to prioritize completion and a narrow connection between college and jobs, with “literally no attention to whether students are achieving the learning they need for a fast-changing workplace and economy.”

A broad range of institutions have incorporated LEAP into their curricula or discussions about learning outcomes, including the University of Wisconsin System, Miami Dade College, Mount Holyoke College and the University of Richmond.

The California State University System, one of higher education’s largest, also has drawn heavily from LEAP. It used the program to help develop its Give Students a Compass project, which combines liberal learning and efforts to help underserved students get to graduation through learning communities, internships and peer mentoring.

“The Compass is to point them in the right direction in college and careers,” says John Tarjan, a professor of business at CSU Bakersfield and former leader of the systemwide Academic Senate. “It improved the learning experience for students.”

Ken O’Donnell, a senior director of student engagement for the CSU System, says LEAP has been helpful in ways beyond the Compass project. For example, he says the system has used its guidelines in working on the thorny transfer challenge with the state’s community colleges, in part by helping to define “essential” learning outcomes outside of the traditional credit hour system.

“I know that I have current national thinking behind me,” he says of the assistance from AAC&U, adding that the group is “really good at listening to the field.”

What's Next?

The unbundling or fragmentation of the college degree into smaller, often disparate, parts poses both a challenge and an opportunity for the group.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle want to encourage the growth of promising nondegree credentials, including those issued by coding academies, boot camps and MOOC providers. But Schneider wonders if those credentials will include clear learning outcomes that fit together into a well-conceived, meaningful whole.

“Students’ educational experience needs to be designed so that it adds up,” she says, with an end product that is “integrative and applied.”

Schneider says microcredentials need a cohesive core of applied learning. And at this point, she’s skeptical about whether that’s happening.

“It does require that people are thinking about the next steps and not just how to monetize them,” says Schneider.

Likewise, Schneider and the group were notable outliers among those who were excited about three-year degrees -- an enthusiasm which appears to have faded somewhat. Five years ago, however, pundits and politicians were excited about the idea of snipping a year off the required time to a bachelor's degree. But Schneider called the concept unrealistic and silly, in part because, she says, it clashed with employers' demands for a better-educated college graduate.

AAC&U applies its skeptical standards to both innovators and established programs. And all too often, the group says, both sides fail to rigorously assess students’ learning and skills.

“When a program’s approach to competency assessment is built on reading assignments followed by multiple choice quizzes and tests,” Schneider says, “the programs are ill designed to build any competency graduates actually need, either in the workplace or in civil society.”

After earning her Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, Schneider taught at DePaul University. One of her projects there in the early 1980s was to work on competency-based education rubrics. Yet while some of the issues haven’t changed, Schneider acknowledges that the pressures on higher education, and the transformations driven by those pressures, are accelerating.

“We’re in the midst of change. We need to figure it out together,” she says.

As for the group she’s leaving next year, Schneider says, “We certainly hope to influence the conversation going forward.”


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