January 25, 2011; Source: Chronicle of Higher Education | The Lumina Foundation for Education wants a college degree to be more than something that hangs on a graduate's wall. The Indianapolis-based foundation has unveiled what the Chronicle of Higher Education says is "a suggested framework for defining the knowledge and skills students need to acquire before earning an associate degree, a bachelor's degree, and a master's degree."

The foundation's "Degree Qualifications Profile" is also meant to spell out what college graduates should know and be able to do regardless of their majors. The Foundation plans to work with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools' Higher Learning Commission, two regional higher education accreditation associations, and a private-college association, the Council of Independent Colleges, to test its framework.

This effort is an outgrowth of a major Lumina initiative launched in 2009 to increase the percentage of Americans with "high-quality degrees" to 60 percent. According to the foundation, only about 39 percent of American adults today hold a two- or four-year degree – “a rate that has held remarkably steady for four decades.”

Reaching the higher number, say Lumina officials, will require the United States to graduate nearly 800,000 more students each year over the next 16 years. To ensure that number of Americans holds high-quality degrees also requires a better understanding of what constitutes quality, according to Lumina President Jamie P. Merisotis. He says the foundation is "interested in really putting our hands on what quality means."

Lumina officials hope the conversations surrounding the framework ultimately ensure that a college degree is a measure of something more than how many courses a student successfully completed. Clifford Adelman, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and a co-author of the Lumina degree profile, says he hopes colleges welcome the opportunity the profile offers. "If higher education runs away from this," he adds, colleges "will continue to be criticized that their degrees are meaningless."—Bruce Trachtenberg