Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Are our courses and programs appropriately rigorous?

Posted on January 3, 2015 at 7:50 AM

It was decades ago that someone first told me higher education’s dirty little secret: higher education is the one commodity where the consumer wants the least for his or her money. According to the latest CIRP freshman survey, the most common reason first-year students are going to college is to get a better job. A lot of students want the credential but not necessarily the learning that goes with it.

Unfortunately, with recent pushes to get students to persist and graduate, plus the efforts of some private colleges to avoid a “death spiral” of declining enrollments and revenues, I see way too many colleges today playing into this. Some examples I’ve seen here and there over the last couple of years:

• Course numbering systems that are meaningless; 200-level courses are no more advanced than 100-level courses; 300- and 400-level courses are no more advanced than 100- and 200-level courses. First-year students and seniors are in the same courses.

• Community colleges that let students take any course without any prerequisites, including an internship in their very first semester

• Associate degrees that can be completed with all 100-level courses; more advanced study at the 200-level is not required

• Graduate programs that offer graduate credit for courses that should be undergraduate prerequisites

• Courses with undergraduate curricula that earn graduate credit (for example, a first-year business statistics course that’s part of an MBA program)

• Degree “programs” at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s levels that are simply collections of elective courses, without coherence. As I’ve said many times, a collection of courses is not a program.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to turn this around. Accreditors and state higher education agencies do their best, but they don’t have the capacity to carefully examine every course and program curriculum. (Some specialized accreditors do have this capacity, because they examine limited numbers of programs in depth.) The answer is, instead, making this a matter of integrity throughout the higher education community, a national priority, and a focus of national conversations. The Degree Qualifications Profile can be a starting point for the conversation, but at this point many colleges are still ignoring it.

In my book Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability, the first dimension is Relevance and the third is Focus and Aspiration. Both dimensions call for rigorous curricula that give our students the education they need.

Categories: Curriculum & teaching, State of higher ed