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David Bergeron on Redefining Outcomes

October 2013

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Operational efficiencies and innovations occurring on college and university campuses are a means to providing greater value, yet they are not an end in themselves, says David A. Bergeron, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Bergeron, who spent more than 30 years at the U.S. Department of Education, moved to CAP in March 2013 after serving as the education secretary’s chief adviser on higher education issues. In this interview, he argues that higher education leaders—and policy makers—must maintain focus on better and more relevant educational outcomes.

President Obama set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. How do you see states supporting the 2020 goal?

Most of our nation’s students at the postsecondary level are enrolled in public institutions, and so states play a critical role in ensuring access and success in higher education. In my view, states must demonstrate leadership by reinvesting in higher education and doing all they can to improve educational outcomes. For instance, Tennessee’s performance-based funding model offers one example of a wise reinvestment strategy.

Part of it is also making sure that our higher education system is well articulated with our elementary and secondary education systems. Through implementation of the Education Department’s Academic Competitiveness Grant program several years ago, we learned that strong high school graduation requirements that are articulated well to the college admissions requirements for the flagship public institutions in the state produce much better outcomes for the students who move on to postsecondary education—wherever they land in the higher education system. To the extent that states can make those alignments more intentional as they reinvest in higher education, we have a better chance of high-quality outcomes for our higher education system as a whole.

You mentioned Tennessee’s performance-based model. What can we—as an industry—learn from this approach?

What I like about the Tennessee model is as much the process the state went through as the model itself. The work done to get buy-in is the kind of thing we need to see other states embrace. I am also interested in performance-based models that address an array of outcomes. It’s easier to measure graduation rates or employment and earnings outcomes for completers of postsecondary education. 

But, there are other important measures we should look at—for example, improvements in health-care outcomes for students, or increases in civic participation and community service. These are harder to measure, but to be stuck in a model focused only on graduation rates or employment outcomes is too limiting when we think about what higher education is trying to accomplish.

The president’s 2020 goal recognizes higher education as a public good. Does the diminishing investment by states reflect a shifting belief that a college degree is more of a private benefit? 

Even if all we’re talking about is greater earnings and lower unemployment rates, those are not private goods only. They reflect increased productivity of the economic system overall. Likewise, if we could better measure the greater involvement in community as a result of participation in higher education, more might begin to see higher education as a public good. That’s a necessary step toward getting additional public investment, whether that’s local, state, or federal investment. 

The rising cost of college at public and independent institutions is a significant concern not only for students, parents, and policy makers, but also for college administrators. What observations can you share with business officers as they grapple with the challenges posed by the current business models of their institutions? 

Something that should be clear to everyone by now is the need to fundamentally rethink the business models in higher education. At the most basic level, the traditional business model in higher education assumes that faculty shape the curriculum, teach the courses, mentor and coach students in those courses, and then assess learning based on performance, course by course. 

In recent years we’ve seen institutions begin to deconstruct the role of faculty to a point where some faculty aren’t really teaching courses but are instead helping students manage their learning. 

This transformative change, which is well under way, reflects the transformations occurring elsewhere in our economy. For instance, increasingly health care is focused on people holistically. It’s about preventative approaches through diet and exercise as well as treatment of particular illnesses.

The analogy for higher education is that we need to begin evaluating the progress of students through the higher education system more holistically—not simply course by course. Alongside changes in the economics of higher education and the growth of alternative modes of delivery are new possibilities that can and should result in better learning and educational outcomes for students and the broader community. 

How might a competency-based model embrace this notion of assessing the holistic experience that students have as they progress through their college work? 

If you ask employers today what they need in someone with a bachelor’s degree in business, they will tell you the specific knowledge and skills they expect. Almost certainly among those skills will be specific business competencies, but they will also talk about the interpersonal skills employees need, such as the ability to engage and work with colleagues who are different from them, or to communicate clearly both verbally and in writing. 

How a student accumulates that broad range of competencies today is largely through the courses that a student takes, which are captured on a transcript with an associated letter grade.

In the future, I think we will see assessment of a student reflected back to the prospective employer on a competency-based, rather than a course-based, transcript. To some extent this is reflective of the degree qualifications profile Lumina Foundation has been working on with institutions and accreditors, and it is consistent with the Bologna approach in Europe or the Australian/New Zealand approach for degree qualification frameworks. 

Models like this are developing here in the United States as well, with Southern New Hampshire University as one example. (See “Break With Tradition” in the July-August 2013 Business Officer.)

In recent years, CAP—along with other think tanks and foundations—has expanded its involvement in the higher education public policy realm. How has higher education policy work changed with this growing interest and investment from more voices? 

CAP recognized early on that a well-functioning higher education system was necessary for economic growth and the growth of a middle class, and that understanding has factored into the work of other organizations as well. From my perspective, these new voices are competing for influence with more traditional ones like the American Council on Education, NACUBO, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, among others. Far too often when we’ve had policy debates around higher education in Washington, the voice that’s been missing from those conversations has been that of students. 

We now have a statutory requirement in the Higher Education Act that, when the Education Department regulates, it assures that the parties represented at the table include students. For the most part, it was only with that statutory requirement that the traditional groups began to think about providing a student voice. That’s not the case here at CAP, where it’s been important from the center’s earliest days to find ways to provide a student perspective. 

Tell me more about CAP’s interest in higher education and what issues you intend to pursue in your new role.

Over the past several years CAP has focused on ensuring that students and prospective students have good information about their higher education choices. I’m a strong advocate on issues of access, particularly for vulnerable populations to postsecondary education, and that will inform what we do here. Clearly, higher education is the path out of poverty for many low-income students and is the way in which the middle class will grow and be sustained. 

So a second substantial focus is affordability—thinking about how we can make our higher education system more affordable by reducing the cost of delivery and also thinking about the needs of students in terms of having the resources they need to pay postsecondary bills. The issue of student debt is central to this conversation.

Finally, we plan to focus on the issue of how we promote practices that improve the outcomes for students, particularly for vulnerable populations. How do we ensure that students graduate? What are the models that demonstrate that students are able to take the knowledge and skills they gain in postsecondary education into the workforce? 

Too often we don’t think about the negative consequences for students. Some institutions that have low graduation rates are disproportionately doing more harm than good for students. How do we move to a model where, when we look at outcomes for students, we know that they’re universally positive? Not every student will be successful, but we need to ensure that students will—at any institution they enroll in—gain more than it costs them, not only in terms of money but in their personal sense of worth and their human capital.   

LIZ CLARK is director, congressional relations, at NACUBO.

In the future, I think we will see assessment of a student reflected on a competency-based, rather than a course-based, transcript.