Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation for Education
Envisioning the Future of Higher Education, Kickoff Summit for DGREE.org, Sausalito, CA

Thank you, and good morning everyone.

I am very pleased to be here today. Those of you who know me are aware that I’ve devoted virtually all of my professional life to higher education and to increasing student access and success. For me, being a part of this effort to envision the future of higher education is truly exciting because of the collective brainpower of such a diverse and creative group of thinkers. You are not the usual suspects, and some of you have mostly indirect experience with higher education. This is a very good thing, for reasons I will touch on in a moment. First, though, let me say that my colleagues and I at Lumina Foundation are very happy to be supporting this work, and we want to thank Tara and her colleagues at LENS Ventures for the good work they’ve already done to launch the effort.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Foundation, let me offer a quick overview. Lumina Foundation for Education is a national foundation with assets of about a billion dollars. We are, and have always been, committed to one cause: enrolling and graduating more students from college—especially low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners. In fact, we are the largest foundation in America that focuses exclusively on that mission.

Lumina pursues its mission in a focused way. All of our energy and resources are focused on the achievement of one ambitious but specific goal. By 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees and credentials. Right now, only about 40 percent of the population has at least a two-year degree.

In our view, the achievement of this Big Goal is vital—not only to maintain a good quality of life for individual Americans, but to ensure the long-term stability and security of our society as a whole. And we’re not alone in our thinking on this. More and more experts in social and economic policy—representing all points along the political spectrum—agree that U.S. college-completion rates must increase dramatically if we expect to compete in the 21st century global marketplace.

The key to our success as a nation—both for short-term recovery and for long-term transformation—is the development of a knowledge-based economy, one powered by adaptable workers with high-level skills and knowledge. Without a doubt, today’s workers need a 21st century education, the kind that can only be offered in well-designed and rigorous postsecondary programs.

And the demands on tomorrow’s workers will be even greater. Projections based on official government data show that in the coming decade we will need at least 15 million more postsecondary degree holders than we are currently on pace to produce in order to fill new jobs and replace those vacated by retiring baby boomers. And individuals who fail to meet this new educational standard will surely pay the price. The earnings gap between high school graduates and college graduates is wide and getting wider. In short, for individuals, getting some type of college degree is a prerequisite for entry into the middle class. Even more bluntly, without a college degree, there is a very good chance you will be poor.

All of this is clear evidence that the United States needs more and better college graduates. With some form of postsecondary credential now a requirement for individual success, and with the production of more high-quality college graduates now seen as an American imperative, it’s easy to understand why Lumina’s Big Goal is fast becoming a national goal.

I will not atttempt to walk you through the Lumina plan for how to get to this goal in any detail, because you can read about that on our website and in various other venues. I think you know that one critical outcome we will need to achieve as a society is for students to be prepared in a holistic way for college success—and by holistic, we mean academically, financially and socially. We also need to do a much better job of improving the rates of success among students who actually enroll in postsecondary education. We have unacceptably high rates of failure at all levels, and this represents a serious drag on our capacity to get to that Big Goal.

Much of Lumina’s work as a grantmaking body, a public policy advocate, and public will-builder addresses these critical issues of student preparation and success. They are all aimed at building on the strengths of the existing higher education system. And those strengths are considerable: impressive institutional diversity, decades of expertise in serving particular populations, and extensive physical and human infrastructure. We need all of those talents and tools to help us reach that Big Goal of 60 percent degree attainment.

But it’s clear that we cannot reach that goal simply by improving on the existing system. We can’t “reform” our way to 60 percent; we’re also going to have to reframe and rethink by relentlessly focusing on the outcomes of higher education. And that brings us to the third and final critical outcome that leads to the Big Goal: increased productivity. We must find new and innovative approaches that can result in a more vibrant and more productive system of higher education, one with the capacity to produce far more high-quality graduates than ever before.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I think we’re all here: To work together and brainstorm ways in which higher education can go one better than the “usual.” With your help, we want to envision new, more productive and more efficient methods for higher education to do what it has always done: empower individuals and support our nation’s economic and social prosperity. We’re here to imagine together—to play a real-life game of “what if” with the American higher education system.

  • What if all states had transparent higher-education readiness standards that were aligned across the K-12, adult learner and higher education systems?
  • What if colleges and universities were financially rewarded primarily for student success instead of merely enrollment?
  • What if students could seamlessly accumulate their learning from a variety of providers and partners in order to build a degree?
  • What if students, employers, and education leaders all knew clearly what a degree truly represents—what students know, understand, and are able to do with that credential?
  • In short, what if we could truly create the “student-centered educational ecosystem” that Tara and her colleagues at LENS Ventures are helping us envision?

We are here today to explore ways to make “what if” a reality—to begin to build that student-centered system that will meet the needs of American society in this new, globally interconnected century in which we live. Until we have such a system, we will not be able to reach that Big Goal which is so vital to our collective well-being as a nation.

So thank you for being here today and helping us blaze new pathways toward that goal. I truly value your ideas, your commitment, and your sustained involvement in this work, and I look forward to our discussions over the next two days.

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