Setting Quality Standards in Higher Ed

The growing chorus of criticism of U.S. higher education is focusing on quality, and rightly so.

Quality is or should be the central issue in the higher education enterprise. It is too often overlooked in the quest for reform and change in other important areas such as cost containment, expansion, accessibility and higher graduation rates. We should always be on the lookout for ways to improve quality — but some caution in our approaches is warranted.

Those interested in improving quality face two major challenges. The first is to define what is meant by quality and the second is to determine who should write the definition and enforce its implementation.

Too often critics toss around "quality" as if it were a word we have the ability to define and measure. It takes its place alongside transparency and accountability as often-used words with little or no meaning. A recent Lumina Foundation for Education report contains the following:

We need a student centered higher education system — one that is flexible, accessible and accountable…one that supports success and ensures quality by fostering genuine learning…one that truly prepares students for work…

There are eight words (or phrases) in those three lines that defy definition in any meaningful or measurable way: student centered, flexible, accessible, accountable, success, quality, genuine learning and prepares for work.

How can those us of in the classroom take those words and turn them into something with which we can deal? What is genuine learning, for example? How does one know if one has learned or been taught genuinely? Are there some risks in using these words as the basis for reform when we have no definition of their meaning?

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