With so many college students “majoring in Fun” and focusing their studies on “sexual scholarship”, education experts are facing a daunting challenge.

The annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education featured rigorous debate on how student learning outcomes fit into the Obama administration’s new proposed federal ratings system.

As the Obama administration pushes ahead on a controversial plan to create a new federal system for rating colleges – with a focus on affordability, access and outcomes – the subject of how best to assess higher education learning and other outcomes was a particularly hot one here at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

The first speaker, Lisa Lattuca of the University of Michigan, argued that the most pressing need is for measures of learning as opposed to measures of achievement. Lattuca, a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, proposed a system in which students would be evaluated on their progress in broadly applicable areas such as critical thinking and communication competency as well as specific learning in their major. The data gleaned from these assessments would serve both to show educators where they are succeeding and where they need to improve, and to inform policy makers and members of the public about what institutions and programs are trying to teach students and whether students are learning it.The importance and the difficulty of measuring student learning proved a central theme of the discussion, as well as the point of most disagreement.

That’s not surprising considering the current state of the broader debate on assessment: while affordability and access are also key aspects of the equation (and are not necessarily easy to measure, either), the issue of learning outcomes has tended to be most contentious. “Throughput” outcomes (i.e., completion rates) are simple enough to track – though even their accuracy is disputed – but the question of what exactly students are gaining on their way through is another matter entirely.

Despite a federal focus on educational quality that began some eight years ago with the Spellings Commission, efforts to quantify actual learning have made little clear headway – and many in higher education remain concerned that any such efforts must be dangerously reductive.

One panel speaker, Robert Shireman, former U.S. deputy under secretary of education and now executive director of California Competes, said that the best-case scenario would be a sort of “Thinkbit” for students – like a Fitbit, a wearable device that tracks the user’s physical activity. But the Thinkbit would tell you, “Is there real learning going on?”