Jamie P. Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation for Education
Embassy Education Breakfast Series: Australian Embassy, Washington, DC

Thank you, Ambassador Beazley, and good morning everyone. I’m pleased to be with you today—for several reasons. First of all, it’s always good to be back in Washington, where I spent so many years immersed in the world of higher education policy. I want to thank Mark Darby and his colleagues at the Embassy of Australia for inviting me here today—and not just because it gives me a chance to visit with friends and colleagues here in DC.

It’s an honor for me to address such a distinguished audience, particularly in this truly global era. Our nations’ economies—in fact, our very futures—are increasingly intertwined and mutually dependent. Clearly, the world is getting smaller … and I know you’ll agree when I say that, as the world shrinks, our minds and our spirits need to expand. We must take every opportunity to listen to each other and learn from one another.

That’s certainly true in the area of education. And, of course, that’s why I’m here today: to talk about how Lumina Foundation—and some of our partner organizations here in the States—are applying the lessons that other countries have learned. But before I delve too deeply into those details, let me first offer a little background about myself and the organization I represent.

I came to the Foundation nearly three years ago after a career here in Washington. All of it was spent in the space of educational access and student success, including the last 15 years as president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, an independent, non-partisan organization I co-founded in 1993 that is just a few blocks from here. In that role, I worked as a policy analyst and adviser at many different levels, including advising US state governments, the US federal government, as well as governments in other nations.

Much of my experience in higher education outside of the US has been in places undergoing systemic transformation in short periods of time, including several nations in southern Africa as well as various post-communist nations of the former Soviet Union. I’ve also spent time in Europe and China as an observer of countries that have gone through significant, though very different, kinds of changes. In China, I’ve seen first-hand the tremendous advances that have been made, both in social and educational terms, in just a short period of time within the world’s most-populous country. Just a decade ago, China educated fewer than half as many people as the US enrolled each year. Today, as you know, China has the largest higher-education system in the world.

As for Lumina Foundation for Education, we are a domestically-focused foundation based in Indianapolis. We have assets of about a billion dollars. Our work includes significant grantmaking, as is true for most US foundations, but in our case it also includes work in public will-building, public policy, and other spheres that can benefit from our tightly-focused mission. Lumina Foundation is, and always has 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, less than 40 percent of the population has at least a two-year degree.

Our plan for how to achieve this goal is really a blueprint for what needs to happen in the nation—supported through the work of Lumina and many, many others—in order to reach the Big Goal of 60 percent by 2025. Simply put, we suggest that three critical outcomes must happen concurrently:

  • First, students must be prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school. All three of these areas must be addressed as co-equals. If they’re not, research shows that the path to and through college becomes exceedingly difficult to navigate.
  • Second, higher education success and completion rates must be improved significantly. Here the goal is not merely to push students through college, but to help them achieve high-quality credentials that will be useful to them in the 21st century workforce.
  • And third: postsecondary institutions and systems must become more productive so they can increase capacity and serve more students.

My comments today focus mostly on what we are learning and applying from other nations in the second category. This is because what we are seeing from other nations in terms of increasing high-quality degree attainment offers powerful lessons that have the potential to be adapted to the unique circumstances and context of the United States.

Many other industrialized nations have degree-attainment rates that surpass ours. Some are represented in this room today. And many are actually improving attainment rates while ours remains stagnant. Naturally, those trends are cause for concern, particularly in a global economy that—as I said—is intertwined and highly competitive. But Lumina’s commitment to the Big Goal of 60 percent high-quality degree attainment isn’t focused on eclipsing our global competitors. It’s not about beating Canada or moving ahead of New Zealand on the top 10 list, and it isn’t about debating the data. 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.

There is no question that the global economy has raised the bar on workforce preparation … and raised the stakes for all Americans. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. That’s a huge increase since the mid-’70s, when less than 30 percent of jobs required any education beyond high school. Carnevale’s analysis shows that in virtually every major job category, more postsecondary education is critical to job success.

It’s also important to note that increasing the supply of college graduates won’t just help us fill jobs, it can actually help create them. Economists tell us that much of the economic growth over the last half-century is largely attributable to two things: technology, because it fundamentally changes the nature of work, and increasing educational attainment. What’s more, when employers are given a more highly educated workforce, they’ve actually been shown to organize the work in more efficient and productive ways.

The key to our success—indeed, the key to any nation’s long-term success—is the development of a knowledge-based economy, one powered by adaptable workers with high-level skills and knowledge. Those skills … that type of knowledge … can only be offered in well-designed and rigorous postsecondary programs.

Again, let me return to our statement of the Big Goal and emphasize the importance of that phrase: “high-quality degrees and credentials.” That emphasis on quality means we can’t simply fixate on increasing the number of degrees being granted. Those degrees must mean something. They must demonstrate that students have attained the knowledge and skills that position them for success—in the workplace and in life.

In short, quality is key. And for Lumina Foundation—and for employers as well—quality means one thing: learning. The learning that a degree represents must be explicit and transparent to all concerned. Faculty (or teaching staff, in the parlance of some of your countries) must agree on—and students must clearly understand—what skills and knowledge a graduate in a particular discipline should possess. Policymakers must be able to allocate resources based on those required outcomes. Employers must be able to hire graduates with confidence, knowing what skills and knowledge are represented by a two-year degree in English or a bachelor’s in history or a master’s in electrical engineering.

So that is really what this is about. Our drive to achieve the Big Goal is an effort to ensure that a much larger proportion of our people are equipped with the tools they need to build a better future—one that benefits us all. Those tools can only be forged in the type of postsecondary programs that Lumina and others are working to encourage.

As I’m sure you’re aware, many nations have been treading this path for some time. They have some important lessons to share, and we at Lumina are very eager to learn and apply those lessons here in the States. In particular, we have learned a great deal from the 47 European countries that are, to varying degrees, implementing the higher education reform effort known as the Bologna Process, now officially known as the European Higher Education Area or EHEA.

I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the cross-national discussions about the creation of the European Higher Education Area, both informally, as an analyst and speaker on the subject, and in a more formal role as an expert member of the US delegation to the last two ministerial-level meetings of the Bologna Policy Forums in Louvain-la-Neuve in 2009 and in Vienna in 2010.

The Bologna Process has much to offer us. First of all, its scope and scale are huge; this alone makes it an important model as we work to make the significant gains necessary to reach the Big Goal. As a transformative higher education change process it provides intriguing lessons. Second, it is instructive because it strives to be student-centered, not institution-focused. The ultimate aim of the process is to design higher education according to students’ needs, not according to institutions’ choices or policies. In short, Bologna is important because it gives us a chance to take a new and more expansive look at how we define quality in higher education.

Without a clear definition of quality—in other words, without a mechanism to measure the meaning of degrees—most American institutions instead focus on time spent in school and on credits earned. Once students accumulate a sufficient number of credit hours in the required courses, they graduate. Questions of quality are the purview of the teaching staff who determine the content of degree programs and to accreditors who review programs and institutions every so often. Yet accreditation conveys little public information about the value of a degree. And many faculty are hesitant to assign specific public value or meaning with regard to the quality of their offerings. In fact, about the only public information that surfaces is what’s available in rankings such as those provided by U.S. News and other mainstream media. And that information has generally been of little use because the rankings are based primarily on subjective or reputational measures, not on measures of actual student learning.

The Bologna Process strives to tackle that problem head on. As I’m sure you know, what is now known as the European Higher Education Area was launched in 1999 as an effort to boost educational quality and facilitate students’ mobility across national borders.

Now let me pause here for a moment before going further and note three important concepts. First, we all know that there are many who are not enthusiastic supporters of the Bologna Process—this includes Europeans, Americans, and many others. Second, I want to emphasize what I noted earlier in my remarks. When I comment that we find the Bologna Process intriguing and note that we should learn from it, I am not suggesting that the US should replicate or adopt the Bologna Process.

Further, it is important when considering change efforts within the context of American higher education to appreciate the diversity, autonomy and decentralized structure of higher education in this country—this diversity is a part of the strength of our higher education system. As we look at increasing degree attainment and strive to learn the lessons from the Bologna Process, it is essential that we build on the strengths of our system and on the work that has been done.

As the process has unfolded over the years, we at Lumina believe there are essential elements that may be particularly relevant and promising for us here in the States. It is probably worth noting that in some ways these three elements actually were not created as part of the Bologna Process, but have their origins elsewhere and thereby became critical elements defining the work that is being undertaken. In any case, those three elements of what we have learned from other nations are:

  • First, the idea of “Tuning” various academic disciplines.
  • Second, the development of a degree profile or framework.
  • And third, the creation of a process to facilitate the accumulation and transfer of college credits.

Our research and our experience have convinced us that these elements provide new ideas, concepts, and structures that might boost degree attainment and ensure the quality of college degrees here in this country. And so I’d like to talk in some detail today about each of these three elements. After that, I look forward to your questions about our efforts in this area—or about any of the ways that my Lumina colleagues and I work toward the Big Goal.

First: Tuning. To understand Tuning, it’s helpful to return to one of the main goals of the European Higher Education Area: increasing educational mobility. Clearly, to create the kind of mobility sought by EHEA, degrees must be comparable: A bachelor’s degree in biology from a university in France, for example, must represent knowledge and skills that are substantially similar to those represented by a biology degree from a higher education institution in Ireland or Estonia. This sort of synchronization is what Tuning is all about.

Significantly, Tuning does not mean that degrees and programs of study are standardized. It simply means that they are harmonized. To paraphrase my colleague and friend Cliff Adelman from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the various institutions aren’t all singing the same song; yet they are all in tune, singing in the same key.

Tuning is a faculty-led process in which a range of stakeholders—including students, employers and recent graduates—jointly determine the specific learning outcomes required for a student to earn a degree in a certain discipline. The idea is to establish clear learning expectations for students in each subject area, while balancing the need to retain the academic autonomy and flexibility of individual programs. Again, it’s not about standardizing programs across institutions; it’s about establishing and ensuring the quality and relevance of degrees in various disciplines.

Lumina has been interested in exploring the ways in which Tuning might have merit for use here in the United States. For that reason, we funded pilot Tuning projects in three states: Utah, Minnesota, and Indiana. In those year-long projects, which were completed very recently, institutions in three states worked to harmonize their degrees—Indiana in education, chemistry and history; Minnesota in graphic design and biology; and Utah in history and physics. Texas has now joined this work and is conducting its own effort with engineering. In each field, faculty, employers, students and others worked together to articulate specific competencies that should be expected from the holders of each degree.

These pilot projects taught us many important lessons, not the least of which is the importance of collaboration and of working from the ground up to define quality—that engaging the faculty is critical and essential. The pilots demonstrated the importance of creating a framework that clearly shows how expectations for learning must increase as students progress from credential to credential. These pilots also taught us that Tuning builds on, but is different than, other learning outcome work being done in the United States.

And that brings us to the second promising element of what we have learned from other nations: the development of a degree qualifications profile—or what has sometimes been called a qualifications framework in several nations.

Simply put, a degree qualifications profile creates an architecture that makes the implicit aspects of higher education quite explicit. The profile lays out the competencies a student is expected to demonstrate for a degree to be awarded. This is a definition of the learning that a degree represents, regardless of discipline or major. The profile also provides a mechanism for defining what quality means and plots clear routes to post-graduate education and careers. In other words, a degree profile—if adhered to—can be assurance for students, employers and other higher education stakeholders that a degree has value.

We are well aware of the concerns that some express about degree qualification profiles or frameworks. Some experts even say such profiles would be impossible to construct in the United States because of the diverse, decentralized nature of American higher education—and because the very idea of standards constitutes a threat to academic freedom. But in our view, a framework or degree profile is not a rigid set of standards, not a mechanism for prescribing content, curriculum or pedagogy. Rather, it is a practical, workable way to ensure that a degree awarded in Wyoming is comparable to a similar degree conferred in Wisconsin.

Finally, the third promising element: the European credit transfer system. The architecture of the degree profile then provides an opportunity to envision a different way of approaching credit and we see this as an innovation with particular relevance here in the United States.

Today’s college student no longer proceeds neatly along the traditional four-year path. And yet, the American system of higher education remains largely stuck on that path. It does far too little to accommodate the growing majority of students who earn credits from several institutions. It also lacks a way to award credit for experience gained and skills learned outside the classroom—in volunteer positions, for instance, or in paid jobs.

Particularly for lower-income students, this system often results in wasted credits, which translate into lost time and money. The lessons of EHEA have the potential to benefit all students because they might help us shift from credit hours to learning as a true measure of educational attainment. After all, credits can be wasted or lost. Learning can’t.

We believe that the U.S. credit system must reflect these new realities. We need a system that allows today’s student—the 21st century student—to accumulate credits from different institutions over several years to earn a degree, minimizing waste and duplicative learning. That system should also acknowledge skills developed through non-academic means—skills that often reflect a student’s abilities even better than earning credit for a particular course in a university’s catalog.

So, that summarizes my exploration of the three most promising aspects of what we have learned from other nations, especially those constituting the European Higher Education Area. Really, though, all three can effectively be wrapped up in one central idea, and it’s one I mentioned early on: the idea that the system of higher education should be student-centered rather than institution-focused. That central concept—meeting the needs of students—is one I can’t emphasize enough, because that’s the key to meeting the needs of all stakeholders.

At Lumina, we believe strongly that higher education needs to be far more focused on the needs of students and less on the needs of higher education institutions. And it’s critically important that we focus on today’s students—the ever-growing number of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students whom we are calling 21st century studentsthe people who constitute the “real world” on campuses these days.

Today’s 21st century students are amazingly diverse—racially, ethnically, socially and demographically. Now, I want to be clear that my Lumina colleagues and I don’t refer to them as 21st century students just because it’s a catchy term. For us, the term has a particular and powerful meaning. It demonstrates that these students are essential to our nation’s future. It reminds us that the time is long past when we can put such students in a box labeled “non-traditional” or “under-represented.” By calling them 21st century students, we’re trying to shift the dialogue from a deficit model to a growth model—one in which all of society sees these students, not as challenges to be worked around, but as future leaders, as taxpayers, as full contributors to the quality of life we all cherish.

Clearly, no one-size-fits-all system of higher education will work for these students … it won’t serve this nation … and it won’t create the kind of global citizens that this world desperately needs. If we are to reach the Big Goal, all types of students must succeed, and they must succeed in far greater numbers. That means we need a student-centered system—one that is flexible, accessible, accountable and committed to quality.

Stated quite simply, who we want to see educated by our higher education system are the 21st century students who form the backbone of our economy, our civic well-being, and our collective prosperity. What we want them to get is a quality higher education that is well-defined and transparent and is focused on the learning that a degree or credential represents. And how we want to get there is through a productive system of higher education that efficiently and effectively delivers higher education to those dramatically larger numbers of people who need it.

At Lumina, we’re working to build such a system, and the good work you’ve done in your countries has already helped us in that effort. We are grateful for that help, and we look forward to an even more fruitful partnership in the years ahead.

Thank you again for the honor of speaking with you today.

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