In and around Minnesota higher education, a sense has been building that major changes are needed. Colleges and universities are producing too few graduates with the skills that a fast-changing economy demands. Demographic and economic trends suggest that today's "skills gap" will grow, even as high costs and inadequate student preparation constrain enrollment. Both employers and students are asking whether higher-ed results justify the cost.
A consensus about how best to correct these problems has been slow to appear. But recently, a promising possibility is emerging. Its shorthand handle is "the proficiency platform."
Consider: What if willing colleges, public and private, two-year and four-year, measured their senior students' proficiencies in the skills employers say they want from college-trained workers? (See a list of such skills, above right.) What if they employed the same nationally recognized measurement tool, so that one college's effectiveness could be compared with another's?
Imagine offering college students the option of seeking a degree, proficiency certification or both. Proficiency certification would rely on demonstrated ability as judged by scorers outside their institution, not on the number of classes taken or credit hours or grades earned. It would not be high-stakes standardized testing, of the sort that has proven controversial in K-12 education. Rather, students would be judged on a portfolio of their best collegiate work.
Graduates could share their judged "proficiency portfolios" with prospective employers. They could add to their portfolios in the future to demonstrate the fruits of lifelong learning. Meanwhile, colleges could tailor their programs to students seeking proficiency certification at any age or station in life, or to employers' specific needs.
Those are some of the ideas contained in a report that's been getting considerable attention in Minnesota higher-education circles since it was issued last month.
Entitled "From lagging to leading: Making Minnesota postsecondary education a national model," it's the product of nearly a year of research and discussion by a number of Minnesota educators under the auspices of the Twin Cities-based Center for Policy Studies. The center's senior fellow, former Gov. Arne Carlson chief of staff Curt Johnson, is the report's chief author.
Though these stirrings are recent, they're already receiving national notice. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) is proposing to work with up to 10 Minnesota colleges, both public and private, in a "proof of concept at scale" pilot project on student proficiency assessment.
What's needed to bring this idea to the pilot stage, not surprisingly, is money -- about $90,000 for each participating institution over two years, according to an AACU project proposal. Noting Minnesota's "long history ... of enlightened business and foundation leadership," AACU senior fellow Daniel Sullivan, a former Carleton College senior administrator, suggests that the state's business and philanthropic community should provide the requisite seed money.
That's the right place to look. A report last summer by the business-backed Itasca Project called for closer ties between this state's employers and higher education, and the development of curricula that better meet employers' needs. A proficiency platform could fill that bill. It ought to be worth something to this state's major employers to find out.