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.

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.

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.

A pilot Tuning project funded by the Lumina Foundation led Prof. Frances Titchener of the State University of Utah (USU) to completely revamp her Greek history course last year to emphasize marketable skills and base only 25 percent of the course grade on historical knowledge. Some students, Professor Titchener was finding, had never learned how to research and write – a competency employers and graduate schools value.

Instead of her usual introductory lecture, she surveyed students about which history department goals they most valued: ability to find and process information from a variety of sources? Knowing a foreign language? Teamwork? Communicating effectively? The survey sparked discussion about student versus faculty priorities, and why such things as critical thinking are of paramount importance. It allowed her to articulate what she expected students to learn. She would grade mostly on their ability to frame research questions and evaluate sources and their awareness of different scholarly interpretations of the same material.

"Students reacted well to being brought in as collaborators instead of victims," says Titchener, who devised a lab approach to Greek history. After lectures and classroom discussions on a given topic – money, politics, ritual, plastic arts – she had students choose a topic and come up with keywords. Then she took the students – some of whom had never checked out a library book – to the library, where they plundered the stacks, brainstormed in teams, tapped keywords into databases.

Titchener and two graduate assistants helped students focus on viable research questions. The journey took one student from "weaponry" through "ancient ballistic weaponry" to "did they have catapults in the Bronze Age?" Another found himself wondering why Persians used wicker shields, while a third asked whether Britain should return the Elgin marbles to Greece. Then it was back to the stacks and databases, comparing information, formulating answers.

"Some of them still had basic enough problems with writing that it was just beyond my scope," Titchener says. But the class was a success for others: They learned that Persians were such good archers that the enemy rarely got in more than a glancing blow and that the lack of catapults in Bronze Age Greece gave the Egyptian flotilla an edge. And they understood what they learned.

"They can explain it in terms of their ability to collect and manage information, to acknowledge different points of view, assess the validity of sources, and develop their own contribution to a debate," says Dan McInerney, associate head of USU's history department. "That's where Tuning fits in with larger public goals – it helps universities account for their use of public money," and lets students present accomplishments in terms that resonate with employers and admissions officers.

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