This is the question asked by the Bologna Process, an alliance of some higher education authorities.
The question itself is a bit of Bologna, since, at least in the United States, there is an accreditation process that ensures some minimal standards for higher education. For those who believe that is a low bar, keep in mind that some institutions fail to reach even that standard (cf Michael “Heckuva-Job” Brown’s law school).
The Bologna Process have something more aggressive in mind: “quality assurance” and “easily readable and comparable degrees.” As described in a recent New York Times article, this involves establishing “what students must learn” rather than simply “defining degrees by the courses taken or the credits earned”:
“Go to a university catalog and look at the degree requirements for a particular discipline,” Mr. Adelman [education policy expert] said. “It says something like, ‘You take Anthropology 101, then Anthro 207, then you have a choice of Anthro 310, 311, or 312. We require the following courses, and you’ve got to have 42 credits.’ That means absolutely nothing.”
The new approach, he said, would detail specific skills to be learned: “If you’re majoring in chemistry, here is what I expect you to learn in terms of laboratory skills, theoretical knowledge, applications, the intersection of chemistry with other sciences, and broader questions of environment and forensics.”
The idea, as I understand it, is to help prospective students choose the best schools and to help prospective employers evaluate applicants. Although I recognize this is a problem in need of a solution, I just don’t see how this is supposed to work.
Imagine somebody wanted to set up standards for college football teams, in order to allow prospects to better compare potential schools and also to allow pro football scouts better evaluate college talent. You can define football fundamentals and even develop a test for them, but if you want to evaluate both Michael Oher and the left tackle at the local community college by the same standards, they will be either trivially easy or so steep as to “fail” the vast majority of college football players.
Academics has the same issues. Even leaving aside the fact that different colleges attract students of different abilities, the average student at one state school I know puts in about 5-6 hours of studying per week. At other schools, that’s the number of hours per course. The amount you are expected to learn is vastly different.
It’s also not clear how you would deal with emerging disciplines. Just looking at my own corner of academia, not long ago, few undergraduate schools had neuroscience courses. A handful of schools (Brown & Johns Hopkins being obvious examples) have “cognitive science” degrees. My alma mater had psychology, neuroscience, and “biopsychology” — a blend of the two former. MIT has one department cellular, systems and computational neuroscience, along with cognitive psychology (clinical and social psychology are absent). In contrast, some years back Harvard had the now-disbanded Department of Social Relations, consisting of social psychology, social anthropology and sociology.
How can we define one set of standards that would apply to all those different departments? Perhaps it is exactly this multitude of department structures that so frustrates the folks at the Bologna Process, but I’m not sure there is an alternative. The late 20th century saw incredible growth and turmoil in the social and neurosciences, and nobody is quite sure what is the appropriate way of carving up the subject matter. Both the Harvard and MIT strategies have something to recommend them, but they are polar opposites.
In the end, I’m just not convinced there is a problem. Ultimately, what employers care about is not the quality of the employee’s education, but the quality of his/her work product. So maybe that’s what we should be evaluating.