The case for outcomes-based quality assurance

With his announcement of the American Families Plan last week, President Biden has placed postsecondary education as part of the core of his economic recovery agenda. The plan asserts that education beyond high school will enable individuals to “build their skills, increase their earnings, remain competitive, and share in the benefits of the new economy.”

At a high level, the priority is rightfully set. Seventy percent of jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by 2027, and yet 139 million Americans over the age of 25 lack a postsecondary degree.  Worse, access is becoming even less equitable, as this year saw dramatic drops in college enrollment among young people from low-income and high minority high schools. We urgently need to expand pathways for all learners — particularly those furthest from opportunity — to build skills that connect them to family-sustaining careers.

As we galvanize efforts to expand access to higher education, however, we should rethink old assumptions about how to go about it.

 

Old ways of measuring learning don’t indicate real value

Biden’s plan calls for two years of community college for all, thereby using seat-time, rather than outcomes, as the goal. This echoes old ways of measuring learning, which assume that the number of years a student spends earning a degree somehow indicates the intrinsic value of that education. Meanwhile, the extent to which those degrees translate into concrete, long-term value to learners has essentially been a black box

Simply put, measuring the value of education based solely on inputs like time is flawed. Setting goals based on seat time effectively treats all learning as equal and ignores the wide variation of value imparted to students across institutions and programs. For example, recent data from Third Way shows that one-fifth of higher education institutions left low-income students earning less than high school graduates — even a decade after enrollment. 

Furthermore, framing the options for higher education as either 2- or 4-year institutions is out of step with today’s postsecondary landscape. College students today are less and less likely to be the traditional recent high school grad who lives on a campus. Working learners make up a significant portion of students — and they have to balance their learning with the demands of work and childcare. A wide range of alternative providers are tailoring to those needs by offering short-form, career-aligned certificates and diplomas. 

The amount of time spent learning, credits earned, or the type of institution granting a degree do not translate into accurate measures of educational quality. A better approach is to invest in pathways defined by the outcomes they generate for learners and their families.  

 

Outcomes-based quality assurance drives value for working adults

 

That’s why, at Guild, we are developing approaches to measure the quality of education based on the outcomes that matter most to learners and, in turn, their employers. In addition to looking at the extent to which programs drive high levels of completion, we assess key outcomes including:

Earnings increases. To what extent do learners experience salary increases, and how does that compare to expected earnings had they not pursued additional education? 

Career advancement. How successful are graduates of a particular program in advancing along particular career pathways? Furthermore, are these pathways aligned to growing, in-demand fields with strong potential for upward mobility? 

Demonstrable learning. Beyond accumulating credits, have graduates from this program demonstrated mastery over a specific set of skills and competencies? In other words, instead of measuring how many papers students wrote or how many lectures they heard, to what extent can they apply what they learned in a real-world context? 

Likelihood to recommend. How do program graduates view the value of the education they received? Although not a perfect metric, the extent to which graduates of a program are likely to recommend their program to others can be a powerful signal of the extent to which programs effectively meet student needs.

Equity in outcomes. How do all of the above outcomes break down based on student subgroups such as family income, race/ethnicity, and gender? Equitable programs should produce strong results for all students regardless of background. Disaggregating outcomes also helps to identify which programs are particularly successful with which types of students.

Sadly, most of these factors are not visible to students as they make decisions about their education. Instead, students are left to make decisions based purely on cost and accessibility or factors like reputation and word of mouth. Why is it easier to make an informed decision about what shoes to buy than what education pathway is most likely to align to your goals? A better approach is possible. 

By developing a robust outcomes-based quality assurance process at Guild, we can deliver stronger outcomes for our students and demonstrate to the field at large that there is a better north star for education — one that is not defined by simply by the type of diploma earned but by the skills imparted and the tangible ways in which those skills unlock potential for learners.

Written by Sam Olivieri
Senior Principal, Quality Assurance and Impact

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