Do you think higher education is due for a make-over? The fact alone that tuition has increased 600 percent since 1980 should be an indication that the system is broken. Honestly, how long can we continue down that road before college is completely out of reach for anyone other than the top one percent of the wealth in our country?

Money aside, a big stumbling block in higher education is its lack of consistent standards. Other than taking four years to accumulate 120 credits (or the equivalent) and then graduating with at least a 2.75 G.P.A. there really isn’t much commonality between higher education programs. Which is exactly why most college credit is not transferrable if you decide to switch schools before you graduate (a huge setback that needs to change, especially in today’s economy).

But what if we could establish higher education quality assurance standards similar to those we’ve put into place for K-12? And I’m not talking about something as loony as No Child Left Behind, but rather a set of academic values that ensure our college graduates can compete academically in the job market on a global level—something, possibly, along the lines of Europe’s Bologna Process for higher education.

The Bologna Process

Back in the late 1990s a proposal was made by a group of educators at The University of Bologna to establish standards for higher education across Europe. As a result, The Bologna Process was born in 1999. At the time twenty-nine European countries got together and founded the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) with the charter to create a set of academic degree standards for participating European colleges and universities. The idea being if European schools wanted their students to academically contend on a global level, then colleges and universities at home would have to raise the bar to compete. That’s not to say each school couldn’t establish its own curriculum, but rather that the curriculum had to adhere to a minimum set of quality assurances.

But here’s the best part. The EHEA is not (and was not) meant to be a government agency that dictates what higher education should do. But rather it’s a collective of major players in higher education, each getting the opportunity to weigh in on what changes should be made to improve higher education and how those changes would be implemented.

Of course, such an educational overhaul was a huge undertaking at the time, and thus its success depended on its architecture. Ultimately the three key structural details agreed upon by the EHEA included:

A) Collaborative Efforts: The governing board would be made up of a variety of higher education representatives, including government officials from each country’s Ministry of Education, college and university administrators, student leaders, representatives from international organizations, and even unions leaders.
B) A Reasonable Timeline: The process itself would be created and implemented over years.
C) Attainable and Measurable Goals: A finite amount of goals would be set annually, with clear and definable benchmarks that established the success or failure of each goal.

Did It Work?

It’s been over 10 years now since The Bologna Process was established and many aspects of it are quite successful (although it does have its critics.) The goal of being able to easily move between universities for study or work without losing credit or seniority was accomplished. Academic performance has increased, and thus participating schools have become more respected on a global level, which means they are more attractive to foreign students (which in turn creates more student diversity). As a result, noted professors have flocked to these schools to teach and do their research (and of course, this helps local economies).

But most importantly, people in these new programs are in fact graduating and getting jobs locally and in the global markets. A big reason is due to the fact that both the four-year baccalaureate and vocational degrees have been condensed down to three years (with the same amount of study packed in), making both the time and fiscal commitment of going to college less than it had been before. Suddenly higher education becomes an attractive (and more attainable) option.

Would It Work Here?

Unfortunately, having such a diverse group dictate higher education policy at a federal level does not seem very likely in today’s political climate. Our representatives can’t even agree on a health care plan or pass a complete budget, so coming to terms on who should even BE ON such a committee would be akin to moving cement. All 50 states would have to work together, and the federal government would have to pass legislation every year to move the overall multi-year plan forward.

It’s a nice thought, but one that seems destined to be put on the back burner until other issues can be resolved first, like will there ever be a family health insurance plan that doesn’t cost more than a house payment, and is there a way to use the money in my bank account for free?

So how do we reform higher education? Or does it even need reforming? Some claim it’s just fine the way it is. (This argument usually comes from the administration and staff of highly endowed schools.) Should the market dictate who can be educated beyond high school? Or do we need to do something to level the playing field? (Hmmm…I guess it’ll take some really big, college-educated thinkers to figure THAT one out.)

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