Academically Adrift,” a 2010 book, shook the Ivory Tower to its foundations with evidence that a substantial share of college students show no significant learning gains between their freshman and senior years.

Here, with a guest post on that theme, is David Paris, executive director of the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability. He’s also a government professor at Hamilton College.

“Are students learning?”

This question should be the focus of almost everyone’s efforts in higher education: administrators, faculty members, staff. It should also be the question asked by those interested in higher education: parents, employers, policymakers — well, just about everyone, including students and prospective students themselves.

Unfortunately, this question isn’t the most common topic of discussion in higher education. Certainly many of us in higher education will talk about the wonderful faculty and students in our colleges and universities and the great programs and the facilities (and amenities) many institutions have. We rightly point to the wide opportunities institutions provide for many students who in previous generations could not have even considered college. But we don’t typically talk about the specific learning resulting from programs and opportunities provided in higher education.

Worse, what we do know from international comparisons and from “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s study of gains in critical thinking in a national sample, and from several other similar studies and surveys, suggests our students aren’t as engaged in rigorous academic work or learning as we would like. And most of these studies don’t even take into account the substantial portion of students who start but do not complete their undergraduate education.

Why? How is it that we are not focused on what should be the primary question for our institutions of higher education? Arum and Roksa offer a simple explanation: “individual and institutional interests and incentives are not closely aligned with a focus on undergraduate academic learning per se.” To oversimplify a bit, students prioritize obtaining credentials over learning and social life over academics; faculty view scholarship — as opposed to (rigorous) teaching — as a source of rewards and advancement; and institutions have no incentive to compete with regard to learning outcomes as opposed to status and amenities.

Similarly, policymakers and others interested in higher education have often placed more emphasis on legitimate issues of access, cost, and completion than on quality of learning. Tuition, retention, and graduation rates are more easily measured and (seemingly) understood. The question of learning may seem less accessible, and officials and others are likely to avoid discussing learning, deferring to faculty expertise, autonomy, and academic freedom. When they have called for greater accountability for results in higher education, their demands have seldom been well focused and often have been fiercely resisted.

How do we focus our thinking and action on the question of student learning? The New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability recently published “Committing to Quality: Guidelines for Assessment and Accountability in Higher Education.” These guidelines provide a checklist for colleges to take responsibility for assessing and improving student learning to set clear goals for student achievement, to regularly gather and use evidence that measures performance against those goals, to report evidence of student learning, and to continuously work to improve results. “Committing to Quality” has been endorsed by 27 higher education organizations.

“Committing to Quality” provides a guide for asking the questions that need to be asked about higher education. Anyone interested in higher education can use these guidelines to determine whether an institution is focusing on the question of student learning. Anyone can take the guidelines and ask its questions: “Is your institution setting ambitious goals?” “Is your institution gathering evidence of student learning?” “Is your institution using evidence to improve student learning?” “Is your institution reporting evidence and results?” Each of these questions is followed by a checklist that allows an assessment of how well an institution is doing in committing to quality, in addressing the one simple question, “Are students learning?”

Addressing this question will also help respond to other issues. Paying close attention to student engagement in learning and learning outcomes will likely help students remain enrolled and graduate. Similarly, we cannot completely evaluate cost without evaluating the quality of results for students. Perhaps most important, awarding more degrees will only be meaningful if those degrees reflect a high level of student accomplishment. As the need for postsecondary education expands to meet the demands of the economy and the desirability of an educated citizenry, the importance of focusing on quality becomes even more crucial.

What now? Committing to quality is the first step in a necessary rethinking of the professional responsibilities and policy priorities of all those concerned with higher education. Higher education is a diffuse, decentralized profession, with institutional and professional diversity and autonomy being highly prized aspects of our work. However, our cherished autonomy must be coupled with shared professional understandings about how we can best serve our clients, students, and society more generally. The publication of “Committing to Quality” and the endorsement by these organizations move higher education toward speaking with one voice on the central issue of student learning and the role of gathering, reporting, and using evidence in improving it.

In 1940, the American Association of University Professors published the “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” That document offered principles that it believed should govern the role of faculty members in higher education. At the time of its publication, only two organizations, it and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, endorsed it, and in the time since, the number of endorsements has risen to over 200. These principles have been adopted, used, and modified appropriately over the years and have had a significant impact in defining higher education in the United States.

We in the New Leadership Alliance intend “Committing to Quality” to have the same kind of impact in establishing evidence-based improvement of student learning as a central focus of higher education. We urge all those in college and university communities — presidents and chancellors, faculty members, academic and student affairs administrators — to share and discuss these principles and, ultimately, to put them into practice. As “Committing to Quality” concludes, “If colleges and universities focus on evidence-based improvement of student learning outcomes, they will be true to their societal responsibilities and serve the common good. Our students and our nation deserve nothing less.”