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Fine-tuning college degrees to the job market

US institutions of higher learning are adapting aspects of "Tuning," a European program to give college degrees more job market relevance.

By Lee LawrenceCorrespondent / June 2, 2010

New York

Over the next few months, there will be anger, frustration, and the occasional fist-pumping, "Yes!" as this year's graduates send out résumés and students changing schools attempt to transfer credits. Their diplomas and transcripts, they will discover, often don't tell employers and deans what they need to know. As a result, professors often find students unprepared, while companies subject applicants to tests or hire only graduates of institutions they know well.

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Experts are encouraging reform that would improve transparency about what institutions of higher education are delivering. One promising effort is a European import called Tuning, a bottom-up process that has implications for the way professors teach and how students explain what they've learned.

Tuning grew out of the Bologna Process, a pan-European strategy to standardize the meaning of degrees across some 4,000 institutions.

The United States traditionally addresses the problem by requiring a defined number of credit hours per degree. And European policymakers "first thought the way to fix their problem was to set up an American-style credit system," says Dewayne Matthews of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education, which funds Tuning programs in the US. But Europeans encountered the same frustration many in the US institutions experience: Credits measure hours spent in class and not what's learned.

European policymakers soon realized, Mr. Matthews adds, that "the only way to make sense out of it was to figure out what a student actually needs to be able to know, understand, and do with any given credential." This gave rise to Tuning, which, unlike standardized tests, begins with faculty members sitting with employers and administrators to determine what students in a given discipline need to learn. The process has sparked sporadic reform centered on students' need for lifelong learning, says Tim Birtwistle, a Bologna expert for Britain and professor emeritus at Leeds Metropolitan University, in England. In the classroom, this means "making the implicit explicit," and at the policy level, he says, it translates into a desire for "a common vocabulary and transparency" about what a degree means.