Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation for Education
Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence, Indiana University
Thanks very much for the opportunity to be here with you this evening.
Since this is the kickoff event of the 2008 Multi-Sector Forum, I’m tempted to play host and welcome everyone back to Indianapolis and IUPUI. But that would be presumptuous of me, especially since I’ve lived in the state for only four months. As scholars and practitioners from the corporate, non-profit, religious, educational, medical, and political leadership spheres, you probably know the city and campus a lot better than I do. I’m still trying to figure out how to explain what a Hoosier is to my five year-old son.
Four months ago I left Washington, DC… and a job that I loved … to move to Indiana to take on the challenge of my life. In my other existence—back inside the Beltway—I was president of a think tank: the Institute for Higher Education Policy. In that role I knocked on doors of foundations, asking for funds to support projects that ultimately would help students get into college and stay there until they earned their degrees.
Now I’m on the other side of the foundation table.
Now I oversee a foundation with assets of more than a billion dollars; a foundation that annually awards about 50 million dollars in grants; a foundation that ranks in the top 50 of all private foundations in the nation in total assets. In the world of philanthropy, money is muscle, so when your average grant is nearly $300,000, there’s a lot of flexing going on. Suddenly my former colleagues are knocking on my door asking for funds. Suddenly I have friends I never knew I had. Suddenly—in their eyes—I’ve morphed into someone who is taller, smarter, and better-looking than I used to be. They listen carefully to whatever I say. They take detailed notes on whatever I write. They look for clues to future projects that Lumina Foundation might support with its grant dollars. So I’ve learned to pick my words very carefully. I tell you this to warn you: If you quote me today …I may deny I ever said it.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Lumina Foundation, let me give you a snapshot of who we are and what we do. On July 31st, Lumina marks its eighth anniversary. This means it’s no longer the "spunky upstart," that one academic journal dubbed it back in 2001. But, compared with venerable foundations like Ford, Kellogg, and our good neighbor Lilly Endowment—all of whom have 70 years’ seniority on us—we’re still the new kid on the block.
What sets us apart is our mission.
As president of Lumina Foundation for Education, I lead an organization that is focused on a single, complex issue that affects everyone in this room…on this campus…in this state…in fact, everyone in our country. If I can borrow a catch-phrase from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, Lumina Foundation exists to accomplish one Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. This single purpose sets us apart from older and larger foundations that have a menu of missions. They cover a range of topics—from agriculture to urban sprawl, from religion to the arts, from global warming to world hunger. We cover just one.
Since its beginning, Lumina has devoted all of its youthful energy and all of its ample resources to lead the charge for increased access and success in higher education. Our sole purpose is to identify and remove roadblocks that prevent students—particularly students from underserved populations—from pursuing education past high school. We’re very specific about what we plan to accomplish: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold a college degree. This translates into 16 million more college graduates than we have today. That’s our goal. And for a spunky upstart, a new kid on the block, or even a veteran grant-maker, it’s a pretty audacious one.
Clearly, we can’t do it alone. We’re not big enough; we’re not rich enough. No one is. We believe everyone—and that includes each one of you here today—will benefit if we collectively achieve the goal. At Lumina, our work is motivated by the belief that higher education can change lives for the better. To take that a step further: We believe that if higher education changes enough lives, it also can change society…for the better.
And we’ve got the research to back it up. Here’s what we know:
College-educated people earn more, save more, and produce more. They’re less likely to commit crime, collect welfare, or depend on costly safety-net programs. They’re healthier, and they’re happier. They pay taxes; they vote; they volunteer; they give blood; and they support charity.
More good news: Once college becomes part of a family’s DNA, it’s passed on from generation to generation. Parents who attend college expect their kids to do likewise. Children of college grads are twice as likely to enroll in postsecondary programs as kids whose parents didn’t continue their schooling past high school.
Those are the benefits. They’re impressive. Now let me tell you about the obstacles. Because they’re equally impressive. Here’s what we’re up against:
The U.S. currently ranks tenth in the proportion of college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34. Tenth. That puts us behind Canada, Japan, Korea, Finland, Sweden…and the list goes on. We’re stuck in the same place we have been for nearly three decades, while developed nations in Europe, Asia, and the Americas are sprinting ahead. We used to lead the pack. We used to be #1 in the world. Not anymore.
More bad news:
A decade ago, China—our massive and powerful trade competitor—educated fewer than half as many college students as we did in the U.S. Today, China has the largest higher-education system in existence, surpassing our American enrollment. Again, we’re losing ground. Fast.
Another negative fact:
American students who make the transition from high school to college are dropping out at an alarming rate. A third of all students who are winding down their freshman year right now won’t return to the same campus in September. Only six out of ten students who start college next fall will leave with diplomas in hand.
Finally, looking ahead:
If projections are accurate, 12 years from now the U.S. will be facing a shortage of 14 million qualified applicants to fill jobs that specify a college education. Put another way, it’s probably not hyperbole to say that the success of today’s kindergartners is critical to our economic future as a nation.
I could go on, but you get the picture. The gap between Americans with college degrees and Americans without college degrees is wide. And it’s getting wider. This is a complex, national problem that requires a complex, national response. We all must mind the gap. Getting people into college and helping them stay through graduation is essential to our collective well-being. Closing the achievement gap isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do.
So how do we collectively pull it off? That’s a question we wrestle with every day at Lumina. In our brief eight-year history, we’ve accomplished a lot. But going forward, we need to accomplish a lot more. On my watch, we’ll be expanding our horizons. We’ll be thinking about creative new ways to use all the tools at our disposal to achieve the goal we’ve set.
Which gets us back to leadership.
This evening I want to paint, in very broad strokes, some of the leadership strategies that Lumina will be using to close the achievement gap and increase access and success in higher education. Some of the same leadership strategies that work for an organization like ours may have application in organizations like yours.
First: We want to connect everything we do to the big goal that we’ve set. We currently support three major initiatives that take three distinct approaches to boosting college access and success. One initiative reaches out to the sometimes-fragile, often-transient populations of community colleges. A second initiative addresses the complicated issue of college affordability. A third initiative is a public awareness campaign that targets teenagers and alerts them to the steps they should take to prepare for college.
These are our flagship programs, and they consume a fair amount of our time and resources—as they should. I believe in them, and I support them. But I also want to look beyond them and consider less visible ways to move us toward our goal.
As president of Lumina Foundation I’m more than the grantmaker-in-chief. I oversee all functions of the organization, which includes the legal, communications, investment, and financial functions, among others. So I’ll be looking to those areas for ways to advance our mission. This will take us beyond the traditional work of writing checks and supporting research.
As an example, Lumina Foundation has a large and lucrative investment portfolio. We’re starting to ask ourselves: Are there companies out there—possibly high-tech companies—that are developing innovative products that have the potential to help students succeed in school? If there are, should we be seeking them out and investing in them? Should they become part of our diversified portfolio?
Second: As focused as we are on our current work, we always want to entertain blue-sky ideas that push the boundaries of innovation and creativity. In a foundation such as ours, much of the innovation comes from people on the ground doing the work, collecting the data, and testing the theories. We have to reflect humility in understanding that this is where the expertise lies. If we ever lose our perspective and think we know more than our partners in the field, we’ve lost our way. Sometimes new knowledge comes in over the transom. That new knowledge may relate directly to our goal, but may not fit neatly into our initiatives.
In my former life as president of a policy organization, my colleagues and I called on foundations and offered proposals that we believed showed real promise for change. Sometimes the foundation leaders agreed with us and described our ideas as "interesting," even "fascinating." Then they would add: "But we don’t do that." We always wanted to respond: "Why don’t you do that?" "Why isn’t there room on your agenda for something that you haven’t yet imagined?"
Well now I’m one of those foundation leaders on the receiving end of countless "interesting," even "fascinating," ideas. I understand that we have to guard against becoming fragmented. I understand we can’t pursue every creative project that comes down the pike or over the transom. Still, we need to be flexible enough to deliver on our promise of innovation. We need to maintain an entrepreneurial spirit, and be willing to take calculated risks. Who knows: One of those blue-sky proposals just might become a model that we can test, take to scale, and then endorse as an agent of real change.
Third: We want to invest in leadership development. Much of our work involves supporting programs that help underserved students gain access to higher education. Of particular concern are students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and students who are the first in their families to pursue postsecondary degrees. This block of young adults are often under-prepared for the rigors of college and are easily thwarted by barriers they encounter once they arrive on campus.
Leadership needs exist across the system. We need more and better-equipped policy leaders who make decisions that can have a measurable effect on the lives of countless citizens. And we also need more top administrators at colleges and universities who have the skills, knowledge, and relationships to see themselves as interconnected, serving a broader purpose than simply leading a single campus or serving a specific population of students. We can’t just hope that these leaders will emerge. We have to be tactical about providing leadership opportunities.
When I was president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy we oversaw a leadership program to help train the next generation of presidents of minority-serving institutions. These schools, collectively called MSIs, include more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 37 American Indian Tribal Colleges, and more than 200 Hispanic-serving campuses. Combined, these schools educate more than 2.3 million students, or about one-third of all students of color. They confer nearly half of all teacher-education degrees awarded to African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans in the U.S.
The leadership-development program that we designed had two tiers. The first tier centered on individual leadership. The 90 participants were evenly divided—30 from historically black colleges, 30 from tribal campuses, and 30 from Hispanic-serving schools. They met independently to learn practical management skills that would help prepare them for executive positions at their respective universities.
What was more interesting was the second tier of the program. This involved bringing together all of the participants to share lessons and knowledge from across their communities. What these ninety educators found was that their communities faced a lot of the same challenges, and they had much to learn from each other’s experiences.
The total program lasted three years, and at the end, the participants knew the basics of campus leadership. They could interpret a budget, resolve conflicts, and oversee government relations. More importantly, they understood higher education from the perspective of not one but three different but related groups. They recognized their similarities and saw the value of creating a unified voice when they spoke out on policy issues that affect campuses serving large numbers of minority students.
Their collective voice has gained volume as several of the program participants have moved up the administrative ladder. The last time I checked, fourteen were college presidents and most of the others were at the provost or senior vice president level. Investing in that single leadership program has not only provided role models for students and administrators for campuses, it has also created a unified force to be reckoned with at the national level.
Fourth: We want to look for ways to leverage change. Private foundations historically have been hesitant to get too involved in public policy because of lobbying prohibitions. Let me assure you, Lumina Foundation is not going to lobby government officials. I’m very clear on that.
But we can support policy and advocacy groups that share our commitment to access and success in higher education. We also can seek ways to educate people who directly or indirectly shape education policy. These might be aides to legislative leaders or senior staff members who work at state or federal agencies. We’re not going to play politics; we’re not going to choose one side of the aisle over the other. I’ve spent my entire career working comfortably in the middle. I led a bipartisan federal commission and I ran a nonpartisan think tank. I understand that middle ground is a useful and often influential base of operation. Our responsibility is to work in a collegial way with anyone who believes what we believe—that access and success in higher education has long-term economic and social benefits for the country.
In my more than 20 years in Washington working in the policy arena, I discovered that there is a regrettably limited group of people who have the expertise to develop effective public policy related to higher education. That group needs to grow. We need to reach out to these people, and work with them to bring about meaningful change. This outreach can’t simply stop at the threshold of information and advice. We need to think creatively and strategically about how to build public will to address the issues of college access and success, and to partner with organizations that actually work in the legislative and regulatory environments to effect real policy change.
Fifth: We want to convene people around issues of common concern. Since arriving at Lumina, I’ve talked about seizing the opportunity to convene the nation’s best thinkers—particularly those people who bring new voices and perspectives to the debate about college access and success. Much the same as many of you have done here, I want to gather around the table people from diverse sectors—business executives, higher education administrators, policy wonks, and my counterparts at other philanthropic organizations. Through conversation, I want to foster discussion, debate, and strategies that lead to solutions.
An example of one of the numerous convenings we already have in the works is a small seminar of 30 or so experts who can help interpret what has happened in those other nations that have rapidly expanded their college attainment rates. What have those nations done to achieve scalable change? What lessons can we learn from those experiences? Surely we have much to learn from individuals and perspectives that are different from our own.
One thing I’ve learned in my career both in Washington and here in Indianapolis is this: Sometimes the best path to a solution isn’t the most expedient path. When Lumina Foundation came on the scene eight years ago and announced its ambitious mission and operating model, some people just didn’t get it. They endorsed a more direct route to increasing access and success in college. If the foundation wanted to remove roadblocks to higher education, why not just create a scholarship program? they asked. Why not just divide the money among the country’s colleges and universities and tell them to rewrite their financial aid policies?
I watched from a distance—from my office in Washington—and I applauded the visionary leaders who saw more to the challenge than merely spending down the Foundation’s wealth. Little did I know that someday their challenge would become my challenge. Like my colleagues who helped to launch Lumina, I see value in charting the longer-term, more strategic route to our goal. While there is certainly nothing wrong with the small percentage of enrollment gains that a scholarship program might cause, private philanthropy simply doesn’t have the resources to make a dent on the large number of individuals with financial need. What we can do is make investments in strategies and ideas that will lead to permanent, systemic change. Those investments ultimately can have a much more dramatic and profound effect on our nation than the modest effect we might have directly on individuals.
The ideas and strategies that I’ve outlined this evening aren’t the only way to get to where we’re going. But they represent the next steps along the way toward achieving that big goal of dramatically more Americans with high quality postsecondary degrees and credentials. If we succeed, we will have exhibited the kind of leadership that I think will have made a real difference.
As for myself, I see my role as the Foundation’s president ultimately being about stewardship. Private philanthropies exist to serve a common good. All of us at the Foundation have a solemn responsibility to invest the resources we have in the most effective and thoughtful way possible. My job is to lead the staff and serve the Board of Lumina Foundation to the best of my abilities and ensure that we meet our public purpose now, and in the future.
Thanks for the opportunity to be with you and for allowing me to share these thoughts.