Remarks by Jamie P. Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation for Education

Thank you, and good morning. I’m honored to be with you today for the 13th annual IBLC Symposium. I applaud the good work of the Caucus, and in looking at today’s agenda, I’m very impressed with the depth and scope of the topics you plan to discuss today. Clearly, the Caucus is tackling some vital issues—not just for your own constituents, but for all of Indiana and the nation as a whole.

Also, I must say the theme for this year’s gathering—“Education as a Continuum”—intrigued me immediately. I think the concept of a continuum—a spectrum of achievement stretching from preschool all the way through college and into the workforce—is an apt way for us to think about education here in Indiana. This expansive view is certainly the one that my Lumina colleagues and I try to take—though we’re admittedly most focused on one end of the continuum: the part that encompasses postsecondary education and the workforce.

I’m here today to share a few thoughts about our work, and about how that work might intersect with yours. But before I delve too deeply into the details, let me first offer a little background about myself and the organization I represent.

First, some background on me. I’ve been in Indiana almost three years now as President of Lumina Foundation. I grew up outside of Hartford, Connecticut in an immigrant family with limited financial means. I studied hard and worked along the way to achieve my college dreams. I did everything from making pizza to delivering newspapers to working in a machine shop. But it wasn’t enough. College was and still is expensive, and my family didn’t have the resources. So I took advantage of every financial-aid program I could. Pell grants, state scholarships, student loans, work-study—you name it, I applied for it and got it.

It was fitting, then, that my first job came as a financial aid research analyst for The College Board in Washington, DC. Being in Washington allowed me to do a lot of really interesting things over the next few years, culminating in my appointment as Executive Director of a bipartisan national commission on higher education, selected by the US President and Congressional leaders, in the early 1990s.

The continuing national exposure afforded me ever greater opportunities. Only two years after the national commission job, I co-founded the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC that still prospers more than 17 years after it was established. IHEP was made possible in part by the fact that the national commission issued a unanimous report from five Republicans and four Democrats, and an equal mix of conservatives, moderates, and liberals. This perspective of valuing the center and striving to be both goal-oriented and consensus-driven has very much motivated my life’s work.

I had many extraordinary opportunities at IHEP. I served as a policy advisor at the federal level, in more than a dozen states, and to governments in several other nations, mostly focused on places undergoing transformation of their systems in short periods of time, including several nations in southern Africa as well as various post-communist nations of the former Soviet Union.

One of our most significant accomplishments at IHEP was the establishment of the Alliance for Equity in Higher Education, an unprecedented coalition of national associations whose members include more than 350 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Hispanic-Serving Institutions.

I’ve tried to apply the lessons I learned at IHEP and in the earlier part of my career to the important work we are doing at Lumina Foundation. For those who may not be familiar with Lumina, we are a national foundation with assets of about a billion dollars. Lumina is, and has 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, less than 40 percent of the population has at least a two-year degree. And here in Indiana, the attainment rate among working-age Hoosiers is just 33 percent.

Clearly, we have a long way to go to reach our goal, in Indiana and throughout the nation. But 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 at Lumina are convinced that this ambitious goal is actually achievable—so long as the various stakeholders work together and work according to a plan.

Of course, significant increases in college attainment will require commitment and energy from all sectors—from the higher education community, from our peers in philanthropy, from employers, and from federal and state policymakers. But there is tremendous momentum behind this effort right now. Economists and policymakers at every level and in virtually every state see higher education as a key factor—perhaps the key factor—in long-term economic growth. And in the current job market, it’s easy to see why.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that by 2018, 63 percent of all of the nation’s 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.

For better or worse, the Great Recession is putting the relationship between higher education and the economy into stark relief, and we are making the connections between economic forces and higher education attainment. Two simple facts point to the nature of this key relationship.

The first is that college graduates are employed at much higher rates than are non-college graduates. For example, while overall unemployment rates are hovering around 10 percent here in Indiana, less than 5 percent of college graduates in the state overall are unemployed, with unemployment for bachelor’s degree holders at less than 2 percent. It has become clear, not just to economists, but to millions of Americans, that completing some form of higher education is the best insurance against unemployment.

Data on wages are even more telling. Of course, it is well known that college graduates make more money than those who have only completed high school, who in turn make more money than high school dropouts. Frankly, that doesn’t prove much; in a tight employment market, employers can be expected to favor those with credentials over those without. What is less well understood is that the gap in earnings between these groups is growing. Even in this job market, employers are paying an increasing premium for college graduates.

In other words, employers increasingly depend on the skills and knowledge of their workers, and they are paying to get those skills. Meanwhile, the well-paying, low-skill jobs that American industry used to provide in abundance are disappearing quickly. What is left is a stratified job market in which jobs are either high-skill/high-wage or low-skill/low-wage. In this economy, workers with jobs in the former category are in the middle class or above; those with jobs in the latter category are, overwhelmingly, poor. Just as importantly, the only route between the two strata is through education to obtain the skills and knowledge the global marketplace demands.

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. And that’s why Lumina’s Big Goal is all about ensuring that many more students enroll in and complete such programs.

As I said, the 60 percent attainment goal is achievable, but we can’t get there without partners—and we certainly can’t get there without a plan. Lumina’s strategic plan for achieving the Big Goal is really a blueprint for what needs to happen in the nation. Simply put, our plan identifies three critical outcomes, all of which we work toward simultaneously: preparation, success and productivity.

First, preparation. By this we mean that students must be prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school. One of the things we’ve learned in working to improve students’ preparation for college can be summed up in four words: “the earlier the better.” Families with an established college-going culture—and those that stress early reading—have much higher college success rates later on. A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Learning to Read, Reading to Learn,” underscores this fact quite clearly. By encouraging efforts to ensure that all children read at grade level before the end of third grade, this report offers striking evidence to support the idea that “college-prep” really must begin in grade school, or even sooner. And, of course, good preparation means more than academic readiness. The financial and cultural aspects of college prep must be addressed with equal vigor. If they’re not, research shows that the path to and through college becomes very difficult to navigate.

And that brings us to the second “critical outcome” leading to the Big Goal: Success. Here we mean that success and completion rates in higher education must be improved significantly. And the goal is not merely to push students through college, but to help them achieve high-quality degrees and credentials—those that have currency and relevance in the 21st century workforce. This emphasis on quality has become a huge factor for us at Lumina. Without a strong commitment to quality assurance, no one will fully benefit from our efforts to reach the Big Goal: not students, not employers, and certainly not society at large.

Finally, the third critical outcome: productivity. By this we mean that postsecondary institutions and systems must become more productive so they can increase capacity and serve more students. Clearly, our efforts to reach the Big Goal cannot succeed without significant changes in the traditional systems and processes in higher education. While the current system serves some students quite well, it simply cannot conduct business as usual and serve the vast numbers of students who must be served if we hope to reach the Big Goal.

After all, 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.

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 passing a particular course in a university’s catalog.

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 … and it won’t serve Indiana as a state that must compete in an in increasingly global economy. 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.

That central concept—supporting a system that meets the needs of students—is one I can’t emphasize enough, because that’s the key to meeting the needs of all stakeholders. For us at Lumina, students are the starting point; they are the “who” in the “who-what-how” approach that increasingly governs our work.

In that approach, who we want to serve are the 21st century students who form the backbone of our economy, our civic well-being, and our collective prosperity. What we want for them is high-quality higher education: education that is well-defined, transparent and 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.

Lumina Foundation is working to build such a system, and we’re certainly not working alone. Our list of partners and grantees is substantial given our national focus. Work targeted specifically at African American student success is a significant part of our strategies. For example, nationally we have supported efforts to increase the postsecondary access and success of African-American male college students through the work of the Student African American Brotherhood (SAAB). We’ve also contributed to strategies that improve the retention and graduation of African-American males within various universities, including the University System of Georgia.

Another important national partnership is the one we enjoy with the nation’s minority-serving institutions—including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and Tribal Colleges. As I noted earlier, my personal involvement with this vital—and vastly underappreciated—sector of American higher education stretches back nearly two decades. I learned in those early years that MSIs play a unique and vital role—and it’s a role that we at Lumina are now working hard to expand.

Recently, we launched a program we call MSI−Models of Success. In that program, nine organizations have received grants to help them in their efforts to serve and graduate their students. Soon, we’ll be working to share the stories of success that emanate from these institutions. In short, the lessons MSIs have learned are absolutely crucial to the future success of our nation’s higher education system—and it is well past time that those lessons were shared and applied more broadly.

We’ve also had the benefit of wonderful partnerships here in Indiana. We’ve supported projects to improve the academic persistence and success of African-American males at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, Indiana University Northwest and Indiana State University. Both IUN and IUPUI partnered with Ivy Tech Community College to create and expand SAAB chapters. We also proudly count the Center for Leadership Development and other local organizations as partners in our work.

At a broader level here in Indiana, we’ve been working closely with the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and with Ivy Tech Community College on several important projects. One of the most exciting has been to experiment with new instructional models at Ivy Tech. The idea is to deliver high-quality programs much more quickly and offer multiple pathways for students to earn credentials. This new “accelerated” model promises to increase completion rates significantly, particularly among the students who face the highest barriers to college success.

The existing acceleration model we are supporting targets traditional-age students. But we’ve also started to explore the idea of applying this concept even more broadly at institutions like Ivy Tech and other community colleges around the country. What if we could apply the same type of accelerated learning to the large number of adults who require significant up-skilling and retraining in order to be able to compete for the best jobs available?

The unemployed and underemployed need to earn a degree quickly, so they can get back into the workforce in higher paying jobs. But the prevailing academic model forces most community college students, who face tough economic pressure and are not well prepared for college, to pursue a slow, part-time approach to their credential. Many have to begin with one or two full semesters of remediation in math, reading and writing before even starting their program. Then, they have to piece together an array of unconnected individual courses delivered in small chunks of time over 16-week semesters. Students can take only one or two courses at a time, and as a result, it simply takes too long. Time is the enemy of completion. Complicated lives intervene; students don’t finish. This is costly and inefficient for these students, and even more for Indiana.

Working with our partners at Ivy Tech, we are thinking about different models where block scheduling, cohort enrollment, and embedded remediation help students accelerate through rigorous programs more quickly. If we can succeed in launching such a program, we could envision a system where clear and consistent information about schedule, costs, duration, success rates, and job outcomes enables students to assess costs and benefits, see the reasons for intensity and persistence, organize their life to support it, and make the sacrifices necessary to achieve their goals. One model where this has worked—the Tennessee Tech Centers—has produced a 75% completion rate and 85-90% placement rate for students just like those here in Indiana.

Those students, by the way, are overwhelmingly going to need to come from the ranks of the unemployed African American and Latino communities who disproportionately shoulder the burdens of these challenging economic times. Remember those unemployment data I mentioned earlier? Well they are starkly worse for our state’s minority populations. For example, in 2009, unemployment in Indiana was most prevalent among African American workers at 15.3% percent—nearly three times that of the average Indiana rate for whites. So these types of accelerated learning models would have a significant, positive impact on African Americans and other groups who make up the 21st century workforce.

The demographics are inescapable. We know that, in the coming decades, a growing proportion of the college-going population will be 21st century students, including low-income students, first-generation students and students of color. I know you understand and share my zeal in serving these students. After all, they are your constituents, your friends, your neighbors and family members. Many of them are now on the very same road you yourselves traveled years ago. Perhaps in them, you see an echo of the past.

But make no mistake, these students are our future—our collective future, as a state, as a nation and as a society. We all need these students to succeed, and they all deserve our very best effort to help them do so.

At Lumina, we’re proud to make that effort, and we’re eager to work closely with others who are committed to making the dream of college a reality. I look forward to our collaboration with the Caucus, and to exploring new ways in which we might work together.

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

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