Utah colleges, universities 'tune' degrees to align student outcomes

Published: Sunday, May 4 2014 3:27 p.m. MDT

Students during the University of Utah commencement services at the Jon M. Huntsman Center Thursday, May 1, 2014 in Salt Lake City. Since 2009, with the help of a $390,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation, Utah's colleges and universities have been working to align the expectations and outcomes of certain degrees.

Hugh Carey, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — You have a bachelor's degree in history, but what do you actually know how to do?

That's a question that could be asked of a student by a potential employer, and it is one that Utah higher education officials hope to answer through a practice called "tuning," in which colleges and universities work together to establish a common list of expectations and skills for their degree-earning students.

"When we tune a degree what we’re asking is, 'No matter where you got it, or who got it, what is it that you have in common?'" Norm Jones, a history professor at Utah State University, said. "We always ask what is it you must understand, that you know and that you must be able to do."

Jones said the process of tuning stems from the formation of the European Union, which made it easier for workers to be employed in a country other than the one they reside in.

That democratized labor market led to some initial confusion, Jones said, as employers tried to sort through the varying qualifications of multiple nations' education systems.

"They had to figure out what it meant to have a college degree," he said.

The phrase "tuning," Jones explained, is an allusion to an orchestra, where disparate instruments are tuned to the same note to produce harmony.

"The violins are not the oboes, but they work well together," Jones said.

Since 2009, with the help of a $390,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation, Utah's colleges and universities have been involved in the tuning of degrees.

The practice is currently limited to the subjects of history, physics, elementary education and math general education, with funding going toward the facilitation of meetings and collaboration between participating staff.

Liz Hitch, Utah association commissioner for academic and student affairs, said tuning is a more in-depth counterpart to the state's practice of aligning course requirements and course numbering throughout the state.

Faculty in 30 disciplinary areas meet regularly, she said, to determine a common understanding of what a course comprises, meaning a student who completes Chemistry 1010 at USU can expect to be reasonably prepared for subsequent chemistry courses at another school.

"There’s a common understanding of what they’ve accomplished, and they’re ready for the next class even if they transfer from institution to institution," Hitch said.

Tuning is similar in spirit to that practice, Hitch said, but involves a more thorough collaboration between institutions to determine the common skills that a particular degree holder is expected to have mastered.

She said tuning has the added benefit of providing peer-to-peer training and collaboration for faculty in those subject areas.

"It really is an opportunity for faculty representatives from each of our institutions to gather together and work on their chosen discipline in deciding what constitutes the knowledges and skills and abilities that students would have in that particular discipline area when completing an associates degree, a bachelor's degree and eventually a master’s degree," Hitch said.

Jones said the goal of tuning is to help a student understand what they've learned during their time at school and to be able to convey those skills to an employer.

Too often, a student will complete the requisite 120 credit hours to receive their degree, but will struggle to translate their senior thesis on a particular subject to the research and data analysis skills that an employer would value, he said.

"It’s a cultural change," Jones said. "It’s a change in the way in which we think about how we explain what we do."

"It’s not that we were producing underprepared graduates in these disciplines," Jones continued. "It’s that we’ve never had the conversation about what is it we have in common."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

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