Lumina's New Degree Profile: As Elusive as the Snark

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

The Lumina Foundation has just issued a report, The Degree Qualifications Profile, that deserves close attention. It is especially timely, arriving a week after the release of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book Academically Adrift, which documents a key failure of contemporary higher education. As Arum and Roksa show on the basis of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), it appears that more than a third of college seniors achieve little or no intellectual progress since their first semester of freshman year. The CLA doesn’t measure everything. It focuses on liberal-arts skills such as critical thinking. But it is a substantial measure of key abilities, and the surprisingly low level of performance by American college students poses a problem that demands an answer.  

The Degree Qualifications Profile is, in effect, an attempt to provide that answer. To be clear, the authors (Cliff Adelman, Peter Ewell, Paul Gaston, and Carol Geary Schneider) do not cite Arum and Roksa, and may have been unaware of their research. The Lumina Foundation, however, was one of the sponsors of Arum and Roksa’s work, and Adelman and his co-authors are wrestling with the same underlying problem. In their phrasing, “Helping many more students earn degrees has not been grounded in any consistent public understanding of what these degrees ought to mean.”

The key phrase here is “public understanding.” Where Arum and Roksa focus on the “limited learning” of contemporary college students, Adelman and company want to specify the “student performance appropriate for each degree level through clear reference points that indicate the incremental and cumulative nature of learning.”

If that sentence seems a little baffling, it is because the Adelman and company are undertaking a challenging rhetorical feat. They want to lay down a tough national standard while simultaneously assuring the world of higher education that they scrupulously respect everyone’s right to do his own thing. Thus they deny that the Degree Profile [their capitalization] is an attempt to “standardize degrees” or to “define what should be taught or how instructors should teach it.” What, then, is it? Try this for clarity:

“Focusing on conceptual knowledge and essential competencies and their applications, the Degree Profile illustrates how students should be expected to perform at progressively more challenging levels.”

This is followed by still more hedgerows. The Degree Profile is a kind of “outcomes framework,” but it doesn’t attempt to “address every element of a college education.” It leaves out, among other things, “religious exploration” and “proficiency in the performing arts.” And the Degree Profile assiduously avoids whatever interest a college may have in “fostering personal growth.”

At this point the Degree Profile begins to sound as rare and elusive as Lewis Carroll’s snark. The captain of the vessel in that tale, it may be remembered, pleases his crew by bringing a map that lacks poles, Meridians, and land:

Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!

But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:

(So the crew would protest) “that he’s brought us the best —

A perfect and absolute blank!”

But that’s not the case at all with Degree Profile. It does have islands, capes, and some Meridian lines. They are just a bit…off.

The substance of the Lumina Foundation’s proposal is that we should consider higher education in terms of five “reference points” or “benchmarks.” Let’s note right away that “reference points” and “benchmarks” are metaphoric language and nowhere in the report do the authors attempt any deeper explanation of what their five conceptual categories really are. The five reference points are: specialized knowledge, broad/integrative knowledge, intellectual skills, applied learning, and civic learning.

These make a certain rough sense, but I suspect the report’s carelessness with the level of abstraction will pose practical problems to anyone who tries to use this scheme.

Specialized knowledge and broad/integrative knowledge are only superficially distinct. Integration, when it happens, is often a matter of recognizing that seemingly disparate details—the kind that one can only learn by concentrated focus on particular matters—come together in larger patterns. Darwin’s integrative theory of evolution emerges from his mastery of innumerable bits of specialized knowledge. Jacob Burkhardt’s formulation of the idea of the Renaissance is a synthesis of his immensely detailed and specialized knowledge of Italian history and art. In both the sciences and the humanities, the relation between what’s specialized and what’s broad and integrative is essentially one of dialogue. It is hard to make much progress in either without the other.

I’m not clear that Adelman and compeers would deny that. Their “Degree Profile Matrix,” a two-page chart at the end of the report, sets out contrasting examples of “specialized knowledge” and “broad, integrative knowledge” that don’t add much force to the view that these are really different kinds of knowledge. “Specialized knowledge,” in their illustration, for example, includes learning “the field’s current terminology,” while “broad, integrative knowledge” entails selecting and applying “recognized methods in integrating discipline-based problems.”

But if “specialized” and “integrative” are not all that distinct, but are, to the contrary, part of the same intellectual enterprise, why set them out as two of the five “reference points” for all of higher education? The Lumina report doesn’t philosophize and we don’t really get any clue as to the educational rationale for this division. But I have a guess. The muddled quasi-distinction between “specialized” and “broad/integrative” is a way to avoid confronting the problem that in the contemporary university the core curriculum has dissolved. The genuine breadth of shared knowledge that comes from a college or university determining that all students must master certain key ideas, texts, words, and intellectual experiences is replaced in the Lumina scheme by the idea that “broad/integrative” knowledge is its own thing—in effect another specialization rather than the common ground of all learning.

Some similar problems arise with the other three “benchmarks.” Intellectual skills probably should be seen as differing in a basic way from knowledge, so long as we don’t fall into the error of imagining that the skills can flourish on their own. “Appropriately [citing] information”—one of the intellectual skills that the report mentions by way of illustration—requires knowledge of the facts.

The separation of “intellectual skills” from “applied learning,” however, is a little more troublesome. The report explains it as the difference between “what graduates know” and “what they can do with what they know.” Fair enough: knowing and doing are not the same. But when it comes to the illustrations, it turns out that the “doing” that constitutes Lumina’s “applied learning” is heavily weighted to what gets done “outside the classroom,” “in a work or community setting,” and in the “community.” This suggests a surprisingly weak notion of “intellectual skills” on the part of Lumina: a view of learning pretty much at odds with the concept of a liberal education, in which intellectual skills are inseparable from their use. Lumina appears to have quietly endorsed the idea favored by one branch of postsecondary education that students can, at least in some fields, concentrate on the “doing” while not wasting too much time on the “knowing.” That division of labor is certainly a practical possibility, but is it really one of the “benchmarks” we want for judging how higher education should proceed?

The last of the five benchmarks, “civic learning,” is the most troublesome of all, in that it is in no way a distinct “area of learning.” This seems rather a concession to the times in which acquiring a political identity is elevated to an indispensible part of acquiring an education. Lumina’s decision to recognize the elevated status of identity politics on campus will surely comfort those who are committed to the further politicization of the academy, but in the eyes of the general public for whose “understanding” of higher education Lumina says it prepared The Degree Qualifications Profile, the “civic learning” benchmark will mean something else—namely, the continued playing out of efforts to “transform” students’ beliefs and attitudes to conform to progressive ideals. The report, of course, doesn’t say that. It doesn’t have to.

Does American higher education really need a “degree qualifications profile?” I understand the grounds on which Lumina offers it. Lumina has invested itself heavily in the idea that Americans should in massive new numbers seek college degrees. Its announced goal is to elevate by 2025 the number of Americans holding college degrees to 60 percent of the population—an “aspirational” goal far beyond the realm of what is practically possible in a society that is groaning under the expense of the current system that serves a fraction of that many students. But Lumina’s goal is impeded by more than its impracticality. It faces the growing obstacle of public skepticism about the actual worth of attending college, and that skepticism is bound to be fueled by studies such as Academically Adrift, which show that indeed for more than a third of students, the intellectual gain of attending college is nearly zero.

In that light, it would be helpful to have a compelling vision of what college is all about and a crisp vocabulary for explaining the different emphases of various colleges. Perhaps Lumina’s “Degree Qualifications Profile” will be taken up by enough colleges and universities that it will succeed at this venture. For my part, I’d rather hold out for something better grounded in science, philosophy, history, and higher education’s own better sense of itself. The Degree Qualifications Profile achieved here still reminds me of the snark, which as the Bellman warned, could turn out to be a boojam.

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