In all the recent talk about boosting the number of Americans with college degrees, some worry that an essential element has been missing: whether the degree has value.
On Wednesday, a national association of colleges called for a "far-reaching national commitment" to improve "the breadth, level and quality of students’ actual learning."
The group stopped short of calling for quality-control measures. But it noted that President Obama and others have proposed a number of goals aimed at increasing college access and completion rates.
"If the administration is proposing to put billions into the renewal of higher education, we want to make sure there is clarity about learning outcomes," says Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It outlined concerns in a statement, "The Quality Imperative."
The association, which advocates for the importance of broad-based knowledge, including exposure to diverse cultures, critical thinking and civic preparation, also released a survey that suggests most employers would agree.
Of 302 employers surveyed, just one in four said two- and four-year colleges were doing a good job preparing students for the challenges of the global economy. One in five said significant changes were needed.
Education Department undersecretary Martha Kanter, who previewed the statement, says administration officials "welcome the new determination to make learning outcomes a driving focus for campus effort and attention."
The group raises particular concern about "programs that provide narrow training or short-term credentials," which it says will "limit opportunity for better jobs."
Jim McKenney of the American Association of Community Colleges says such programs often meet students’ immediate needs. "Many times students come to you asking for just the beef, if you will, because they’re staring at a job" with particular requirements.
Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in New York, says some programs may be better than others, but quantity must not trump quality.
"Any training program that was not part of a career ladder that could move people forward would be of concern to me," she says.