Colleges Set Degree Standards

In the first American effort of its kind, universities and colleges in Indiana, Minnesota and Utah are starting pilot projects to make sure that degree programs in their states reflect a consensus about what specific knowledge and skills should be taught.

Instead of defining degrees by the courses taken or the credits earned, the three states will establish what students must learn. In the pilot project, supported by the Lumina Foundation for Education, a private group in Indianapolis that works to expand access to higher education, Indiana will draft learning standards for education, history and chemistry degrees; Utah for history and physics; and Minnesota for graphic design and chemistry.

The project, announced Wednesday, is based on the principles of the decade-long Bologna Process, named for the Italian city where European higher-education authorities agreed to seek an alliance in which thousands of institutions of higher education in dozens of countries would award degrees based on comparable standards. In Latin America, 18 countries have begun their own process, known among educators as tuning, and many other countries around the world are tracking the Bologna Process closely.

The goal is to give universities, students and employers in a global economy enough quality assurance and comparability that wherever a student obtains a degree, it would stand for the same thing and be widely accepted.

In the United States, there is little understanding, or consensus, about what a particular degree at a particular institution stands for, said Clifford Adelman, of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, an expert on the Bologna Process.

“Go to a university catalog and look at the degree requirements for a particular discipline,” Mr. Adelman said. “It says something like, ‘You take Anthropology 101, then Anthro 207, then you have a choice of Anthro 310, 311, or 312. We require the following courses, and you’ve got to have 42 credits.’ That means absolutely nothing.”

The new approach, he said, would detail specific skills to be learned: “If you’re majoring in chemistry, here is what I expect you to learn in terms of laboratory skills, theoretical knowledge, applications, the intersection of chemistry with other sciences, and broader questions of environment and forensics.”

In each state, the project includes education officials and faculty members and students from a wide variety of institutions.

Minnesota’s team, for example, includes such disparate institutions as the University of Minnesota; Carleton College, an elite liberal-arts college; and North Hennepin Community College. One goal of the tuning process is to make it easier for students with associate’s degrees to get full credit as they continue on to bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

The announcement of the pilot project was timed to the release of a report by Mr. Adelman, “The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes: Re-Learning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence.”

While the Lumina project will design a framework, and reference points, for different degrees, it will not standardize curriculums. Each university would still determine, for itself, how best to teach the required skills.

“This is not a top-down process,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president of Lumina. “It’s a faculty-led discussion about what students need to know. The ways you can get to students demonstrating certain skills are infinite.”

Still, there are concerns that too much tuning could stifle some voices, interfering with academic freedom.

“One of the aims of the tuning process is to produce comparability,” said Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors. “But if you’re teaching history of physics and for you it becomes central to teach the development of the atomic bomb, it may be difficult to shape your course in a way that is completely understandable to history-of-physics courses elsewhere. Being able to decide how you’re going to shape and weight your course is central to academic freedom.”