Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation for Education
American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, Miami, Florida

Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to be here with you this evening. I want to express my deep appreciation to the Board of Directors of AAHHE, many of whom I count as my mentors, colleagues, and friends in the field of higher education. I’d like particularly to thank Loui Olivas for his gracious invitation to deliver the Tomás Rivera lecture. When I looked at the list of past speakers, I was truly honored to be included in such company. Michael Olivas, Toni Morrison, Norma Cantu, Tomás Arciniega, Arturo Madrid, Alfredo de los Santos Jr….these are all people whose life and work in higher education have been an inspiration to me in my career. I am humbled to have my name stand beside theirs.

I also want to say a few words about Tomás Rivera. Some of you in this room had the privilege and joy of knowing Tomás personally. But like many of you, to my deep regret I never had the opportunity to meet him. There are but a handful of people in the last 50 years whom I think we can all agree had an impact on American higher education that transcends their own life and work in the field. This is particularly true for the trailblazers, the people who came first but who were not satisfied to just be first but to be the best, and to serve as an example for those who follow them. Benjamin Mays, Johnetta Cole, David Gipp, Tomás Rivera. These are leaders who have been pioneers at expanding opportunity for underserved populations in this nation, college presidents who served as the voice of those without the platform to speak for themselves.

When you think about it, it’s a pretty remarkable thing to have not just one of the nation’s most respected think tanks, the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, named in your honor, but also to have the elementary school in your hometown bear your name—the Tomás Rivera Elementary School in Crystal City, Texas. And it’s not just this lecture that carries his name, but also the nation’s leading award for Mexican American children’s literature. What an amazing legacy!

Fortunately, I have had the chance to know Tomás Rivera through friends and colleagues who worked with him and knew him personally, some of whom are with us here today. I know how they talk about him. I know the deep affection they feel for him. I know the sense of loss they still feel for his untimely passing. So while I never had the chance to meet Tomás face to face, I still feel a connection to him through his work, his life, and his legacy, and this adds immeasurably to the honor you have given me by inviting me to deliver this lecture.

As many of you know, two months ago I took on the challenge of leading Lumina Foundation for Education, the nation’s largest private foundation focused exclusively on higher education access and success. The appeal of directing Lumina is not hard to fathom—it mirrors the issues and values that have driven my work for years, and that I know energizes so many of you. Lumina’s mission is to increase access and success in postsecondary education, and this work is motivated by a belief in the fundamental power of higher education to benefit society and to transform lives.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is not doing nearly enough to make the promise of higher education a reality for the millions of Americans who need it. There are many ways to make this case, but one of the most compelling is to look at the international comparative data on higher education attainment. From this evidence, the need to significantly increase higher education attainment is very clear. The proportion of the U.S. population with two- or four-year college degrees has remained remarkably stable over the past 40 years at around 39 percent. Several decades ago, this level of higher education attainment was the highest in the world, and in fact the U.S. still ranks first among the member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the proportion of adults between the ages of 55 and 64 who have a college degree. However, other OECD countries—the developed nations in Europe, Asia, and the Americas—began years ago to increase their rates of higher education attainment, and have now passed the U.S. by a wide margin. Some countries are already reaching higher education attainment rates as high as 54 percent among their young adult population ages 25 to 34, compared to a rate of just 39 percent in the U.S. The U.S. has now fallen to tenth in the world in the percentage of the young adult population with college degrees. Canada … Japan … Korea … several of the Scandinavian countries… All are in front of the United States. Several other European countries and Australia are poised to soon overtake us.

Why should we care about our ranking in international comparisons of degree attainment? Certainly our rallying cry as a nation should not be Beat Finland!, as one of my Lumina colleagues likes to joke. But I and my colleagues at Lumina think we should care, and urgently so, for at least two reasons. First, we should ask ourselves why other countries are doing a much better job than we are in educating their people, and why we are satisfied with an attainment level that we reached 40 years ago and that other countries have pushed well beyond. Do we believe that we have achieved the maximum human potential of the people who comprise our wonderfully diverse and constantly evolving nation? I certainly hope not. The second reason we should care is that the international data is pointing to a critical underlying trend that is affecting all industrial and post-industrial economies. As a result of globalization, the demand for higher levels of skills and knowledge is spreading throughout the workforce. Simply put, the jobs that provided low skill workers with a comfortable middle class life are gone, and are never coming back. At the same time, opportunities do exist for those with the skills and knowledge to take advantage of them, but these jobs increasingly require postsecondary education. Lumina estimates that there will be a shortage of 16 million college-educated adults in the U.S. workforce by 2025 at the current rates of production of college graduates.

Some have argued that the growing demand for college-educated workers is not real, and merely reflects "credential creep" and not an actual change in the workforce. But the available evidence simply does not support this conclusion. In all but one of the OECD countries that have increased degree attainment, the earnings of college graduates are rising faster than those of workers who have not completed college. If the increased supply of graduates in these countries was not reflecting an actual demand in the workplace, you would expect the gap in wages to narrow as the supply increased. This same phenomenon is happening in the U.S. Since 1975, the average earnings of high school dropouts and high school graduates fell in real terms—by 15% and 1%, respectively—while those of college graduates rose by 19%. What is most important about this growing premium for a college education is that there is solid evidence that it reflects demand for the actual skills and competencies developed by graduates while in college, and not just the credential.

Analysis of this international and workforce data is not just an idle statistical exercise. Just look at the case of Ireland, where it became national policy about 15 years ago to increase higher education attainment levels. In just a few years, higher education attainment has increased in Ireland from 16 percent of the older adult population to 40 percent of the young adult population between the ages of 25 and 34. At the same time, in just 15 years, Ireland has changed from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. Keep in mind that 15 years ago Ireland had one of the highest high school dropout rates in the developed world. Many people around the world have looked at the Irish example and concluded that increasing educational attainment is an effective strategy for expanding economies. Why haven’t we made this same connection?

Let’s not kid ourselves about the scale of the changes we need to be making. Based on global trends and workforce demands, at Lumina Foundation we believe that rates of college attainment must increase to at least 60 percent of the U.S. population by the year 2025—an increase of 16 million graduates above current levels of production. Frankly, I’m not sure even this lofty goal will be enough. Former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt says that on a recent visit to Korea, officials there told him that they have set a goal of increasing college attainment to 100 percent. If you look at the data on what Korea has already accomplished, you will conclude this is not a pipe dream.

Reaching these levels of college attainment will require us to find ways to assure that all Americans have the opportunity to succeed in higher education, especially those who come from groups who are severely underrepresented in higher education. In particular, the need to dramatically increase the higher education attainment of Latinos is now, finally, a clear national priority. The reason, as you well know, is simple demographics. Hispanics are the fastest growing racial and ethnic group in the U.S. There are now 45 million Hispanics in the U.S., and by the year 2025, will represent at least 22 percent of the college age population in the U.S. Non-Hispanic Whites become a minority group in the U.S. by 2050, and are already minorities in 10 percent of U.S. counties. As dramatic as these statistics are, they don’t even tell the whole story. Non-Hispanic Whites are much older than Latinos as a rule, meaning that an even larger proportion of the workforce will be made up of people that higher education has not served well. Of the total U.S. population growth of 56 million between 2000 and 2020, 46 million will be members of minority groups—mostly Latinos.

In some parts of the country, this transformation is dramatic. In Texas, the non-Hispanic White population below the age of 45 will actually decline in real terms between now and 2020. At the same time, the Hispanic population of Texas will grow by over 3 million.

Why do I bring up Texas? Do you remember what I said a couple minutes ago about how the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in higher education attainment? Well, if you look at that gap by state—and the data to do so are readily available from the U.S. Census—fully one third of the shortfall in college graduates in this country is in just three states—Texas, California, and here in Florida. So let me repeat what I said earlier—Increasing the higher education attainment of Latinos is a clear national priority.

We all know that educational opportunity in the United States is not equally available to all Americans. While more than 30 percent of White, non-Hispanic American adults have at least four years of college, only 18 percent of African Americans and 12 percent of Hispanics have reached this level of attainment. Because the average income of Americans with a four-year degree is $43,000 per year, compared to $27,000 for those with just a high school diploma, this chronic gap in educational attainment contributes to the disparities in income between racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.

This is not just an issue of economic growth and transformation. These disparities in education attainment are at their core issues of social justice. When we say that higher education attainment has become the only reliable route to the middle class, this has implications beyond just earnings potential. Almost 95 percent of college graduates have employer-provided health insurance, while only 77 percent of high school graduates have coverage. Likewise, 90 percent of college graduates have employer-funded retirement funds, compared to 81 percent of high school graduates and 53 percent of high school dropouts. The consequences of not succeeding in higher education are increasingly dire, and it is a fact that these consequences fall disproportionately on the members of those groups who are not succeeding in higher education. The current generation faces a radically different future—one that mandates some form of postsecondary education for virtually all of the careers that lead to a more secure and prosperous life.

Clearly, change is needed. Lumina is very much committed to being part of that change—and not merely by making grants to support the work of others, although it is critical that Lumina continue to do so. I believe private philanthropy has a unique and vital role in helping our nation meet these challenges. As a private foundation, Lumina Foundation needs to utilize all of the tools it has at its disposal to accelerate progress toward the goal of dramatically higher numbers of Americans with high quality postsecondary degrees. For example, as I begin my service at Lumina, I expect to increase the Foundation’s activity in two important areas: policy and convening.

The increased emphasis on policy should be no surprise, given my background. I know first hand how policy can act as a lever for systemic change in higher education. I also know that philanthropy can play many important roles that government cannot. These include supporting innovation, disseminating research and program lessons and building capacity in intermediary organizations that help support our mission. At Lumina, we will be looking for ways in which we can support effective policy that promotes access to—and success in—higher education on many different levels.

At one end of this policy spectrum are activities like building the capacity of state governments, along with regional and national organizations, to support effective policymaking. We can also support issue framing and analysis through our research and demonstration projects. These are the kinds of tactics that philanthropy has historically supported. But my hope is that we can more directly invest in public will-building—media outreach, coalition building—as well as in agenda setting by participating in policy development. Ultimately, we hope to provide resources that promote development of model legislation, regulatory frameworks and other practical tools that go beyond the conceptual work that defines much of what philanthropy has done previously.

The second strategy will be to invest in convening as a tool for supporting and promoting change. Since arriving at Lumina, I have talked about the need to convene the nation’s best, most innovative thinkers, particularly by bringing new voices and perspectives to the debates about college access and success. Foundations have the power to convene policymakers, business and higher education leaders, and experts on higher education in a way that can accelerate progress on key issues. These gatherings could be forums sponsored directly by the Foundation or through the work of our grantees and partners. We want to foster discussion, debate and strategies that lead to solutions.

And we very much want these discussions to include leaders from the business and policy worlds as well as higher-ed experts from the full range of colleges and universities in America, whether they be majority institutions, minority-serving institutions, two year colleges, or any of the other sectors and perspectives that reflect the true diversity that is a hallmark of American higher education’s success.

All of these steps reflect Lumina’s effort to meet a dual challenge: to accelerate progress so that more Americans gain access to a high-quality postsecondary education and to ensure that what students learn aligns with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to function in a rapidly changing economic and social context. To meet this dual challenge, Lumina—and all foundations that invest in this vital arena—must search for answers in some overlooked places. We must take a 360-degree-inquiry approach to problem-solving instead of focusing on intriguing and sometimes spectacular examples that often cannot be brought to scale.

One place we are looking for solutions is in Minority-Serving Institutions. I believe MSIs do more than any other group of institutions to promote the dual goals of investing in students who might not otherwise go to college and ensuring accountability to those students. Hispanic-Serving Institutions, along with Tribal Colleges and Universities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other predominantly Black institutions, represent some of the nation’s most important but under-utilized higher education resources. Combined, more than 2.3 million students are educated by these institutions, or about one-third of all students of color, and these numbers have been growing rapidly in recent years.

The best MSIs are deeply engaged in the success of their students. This engagement has important lessons that should be shared and replicated not just at other Minority-Serving Institutions—but at all colleges and universities. We believe that Minority-Serving Institutions should be seen as sources of knowledge and inspiration—as fertile ground for scalable solutions.

I am immensely excited about the work that is before us. Ultimately, that work must be informed and driven by the knowledge and skills of everyone who supports the mission of increasing access and success in higher education. Certainly, that includes all of you, as it included Tomás Rivera, and for that reason I am honored and humbled to be with you this evening. Thank you very much for this opportunity.

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