The Value of Learning

Margaret Miller, University of Virginia and TIAA-CREF Institute Fellow

December 2006 |

Given the repetitive calls for information about student learning that have been directed at the academy for the past couple of decades, it should come as no surprise that such a demand figured prominently in the report of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of Higher Education. In that report, the commissioners recommended that “the results of student learning assessments, including value-added measurements that indicate how much students’ skills have improved over time, should be made available to students and reported in the aggregate publicly” (p. 23). Accordingly, “in an effort to increase transparency and accountability,” Secretary Spellings’ “Action Plan for Higher Education: Improving Accessibility, Affordability, and Accountability” includes “plans to provide matching funds to colleges, universities and states that collect and publicly report student learning outcomes.”

Why should policymakers concern themselves with learning outcomes? After all, students who complete a certain number of credits with a certain set of grades that purport to reflect what they have learned enter the workforce and civic life with a clear advantage over those who have only a high school degree. Thus, it might be argued, higher education has passed the test of market. What more do we need to know?

In an attempt to answer that question, this paper will begin with an overview of learning assessment over the past couple of decades. Both states and accreditors have been asking institutions to assess student learning outcomes for at least that long. But as literacy levels among U.S. adults have dropped over the past 10 to15 years and the country’s college participation and completion rates have declined relative to the rest of the world, questions about higher education quality, student access, and college completion rates have become of growing concern.

The paper will also describe certain breakthroughs in assessment measurement and momentum-building initiatives that may give students, educators, and policymakers alike greater confidence that the learning that colleges are in the business of fostering is being provided, mastered, and measured.

© 2013 and prior years, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association - College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), New York, NY 10017