Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation
Opening keynote at the annual SENCER Summer Institute, Butler University, Indianapolis
Thank you, and good evening everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here with you … and to welcome all of you to the Butler campus and to Indianapolis. I’m delighted to be here tonight, and not only because this venue is right in my own backyard—unlike most of the places I visit in my role as Lumina’s leader. I admit it’s going to be nice to take a five-minute car trip home this evening rather than an hours-long flight. Still, proximity is just a bonus for me. The real drawing card is relevance … and I can’t think of an audience better suited to my message than you, the participants in SENCER’s Summer Institute.
I must say, I feel a genuine kinship with all of you because of the work you’re doing. No, I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, but the idea of linking classroom learning with active, hands-on civic engagement is one that has always resonated with me. In fact, service learning was an integral part of my professional life for many years. Fairly early in my career, I played a modest role in helping to create and launch the Corporation for National and Community Service. In those days, it was my job to advise the architects of AmeriCorps and the other CNCS programs on issues affecting the quality and effectiveness of national service initiatives. As you can imagine, that experience gave me a real appreciation for programs that help students apply their knowledge and skills to real-world problems. And, of course, that’s the same approach that SENCER is using so well.
In preparation for today’s talk, I looked through the materials that describe the projects you’re involved in on your campuses. Believe me, I am truly impressed with the creativity and scope of those projects. Everything from food security … to urban agriculture … to green energy … to a program that combines music and neuroscience—the variety is amazing. And yet, despite their variety, all of these STEM-based efforts are similar in a critically important way: All have a direct, on-the-ground connection to what’s happening in people’s actual lives … and homes … and neighborhoods.
In other words—and I warn you that these are words are a bit above my normal level on the hipness scale—you guys are “keeping it real.”
Realness. That, in a nutshell, is what I want to talk about today: the absolute necessity for reality-based thinking—and real-world action—in higher education today. But before I delve too deeply into that topic, let me back up a bit and offer a bit of background for those of you who may not be familiar with me or the organization I represent.
Lumina Foundation was established in 2000 here in Indianapolis. I was named president and CEO in early 2008, and I came here to pursue the Foundation’s original and ongoing mission. At Lumina, we seek to enroll and graduate more students from college—especially low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners. In fact, Lumina is the nation’s largest foundation dedicated solely to the mission of increasing college access and success.
As I hope most of you know by now, we pursue that mission by focusing all of our energies and our resources toward achieving one Big Goal, what we like to call “Goal 2025.” Let me state it for you clearly: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality postsecondary degrees or credentials.
We know this goal is ambitious, but we’re convinced that it is vital—and that it is achievable. And we’re not alone in that conviction. Experts tell us every day about the growing importance of higher education—not only for workforce preparation and economic recovery, but also for job creation and steady growth in the long term. Economists cite international data to show that attainment rates among Americans must increase significantly for the nation to remain globally competitive. Equally as important, social scientists point out the civic and societal benefits of having a well-educated populace.
For these reasons and many others, policymakers in Washington and in a growing number of states have adopted college-attainment goals that are virtually identical to Goal 2025. They all agree that millions more students must enroll and succeed in higher education in the coming years—for the students’ own benefit, for the health of the national economy and for the stability and security of the nation as a whole. In short, student success is now seen as critical to the success of our society.
Again, this is not exactly a revelation to us at Lumina … and I’m sure it’s nothing new to the people in this room. After all, most of you are well aware of the vast benefits that postsecondary education can provide. That’s why you have dedicated your professional lives to helping students succeed.
Of course, we realize that defining student success can be a tricky thing. I can even understand how you might be a bit worried about how Lumina defines it. After all, at first glance, our embrace of a Big Goal may seem unwise in that it appears to focus exclusively on degree attainment. But look closely at the Goal 2025 statement. For one thing, it doesn’t define student success solely in terms of four-year or even two-year degrees; certificates and other credentials with relevance in the workforce should count, too.
But even more importantly, remember that the Goal 2025 calls for 60% of Americans to hold high-quality degrees and credentials. Quality is the key. All of the evidence we have seen about the need for more Americans to complete some form of postsecondary education points to the fact that it is the underlying skills and knowledge that are important—not the credential itself.
At Lumina, this is our way of keeping it real—by focusing ever more intently on what students are actually learning, and by how they can use the knowledge and skills they gain.
We believe the learning that any postsecondary credential represents must be explicit and transparent to all concerned. Faculty 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 embedded in a two-year degree in English or a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.
Our commitment to learning as the true measure of quality is what led Lumina to the recent release of its Degree Qualifications Profile. The Degree Profile is a framework for clearly defining learning outcomes—a baseline set of reference points for what students in any field should do to earn their degrees.
I’ve brought copies of the Profile with me today, and I hope you’ll pick one up and take time to review it—and, really, to help us refine it. We at Lumina truly see this as a living document, and we’re relying very heavily on people like you—those who are on the front lines of instruction—to test it and improve it … again, to make it applicable in the real world.
Still, even though this “beta version” of the Degree Profile is a work in progress, we see it as a very promising tool. We think it can help us reach a widely held goal—a goal that I’m sure you all share: ensuring the quality, transparency and predictability of academic programs without limiting the flexibility and variety that have always been the hallmarks of American higher education.
Make no mistake: We recognize that it is vital to preserve that flexibility and variety. As every instructor knows from experience—students’ needs and institutional approaches are infinitely diverse. The best way to ensure that these two things mesh—that an institution’s programs and processes are truly meeting students’ needs—is to design the programs from the ground level, not impose them from the top. That means shifting the perspective from an institutional view to a student-centered one … making sure that every decision, every action, every program and process, is geared toward enhancing student success.
Clearly, the SENCER approach aligns perfectly with this thinking. The programs you are pursuing on your campuses and in your communities begin at the student level. Instructors start with an issue of current interest or concern, and they teach through that issue to reach broader and deeper truths, leading students to a full understanding of the subject.
In short, the SENCER approach combines relevance with rigor to produce an education that is real. And that is exactly what’s needed in higher education today. In fact, it’s the only way we can hope to position our students for success in the 21st century global economy and ensure the nation’s economic, social and cultural well-being.
We know this type of instruction can be challenging and time-consuming. Keeping it real isn’t easy—and no one faces the difficulties more often or more directly than front-line faculty, students, and academic administrators. That’s why it’s so important that you be the leaders in this effort. It’s not enough merely to support or contribute to the quality agenda in higher education; you must own that agenda. Real quality in education—in other words, learning that is rigorous, relevant, student-centered and meaningful—simply cannot occur without you.
And, of course, fostering high-quality learning is tougher than ever in today’s challenging fiscal environment. Obviously, we are in very tight economic times, and the squeeze is unlikely to end anytime soon. So, take that fiscal reality, combine it with the demographic trends that are reshaping the student population, and add it to the urgent national need to meet the 60 percent attainment goal. That formula leads to an inescapable conclusion: If higher ed conducts business as usual, we won’t be able to properly serve the vast numbers of students who must be served if we hope to reach Goal 2025. In other words, higher education simply must become more productive.
We know and understand that the word “productive” is laden with meaning for many people who have spent their lives in higher education. Lumina is not in favor of shifting burdens or placing blame. But we are in favor of doing constructive work to actually define and shape what a more productive system should look like. Admittedly, we’re not there yet, but we can certainly pinpoint some of the attributes of this ideal, more productive system of higher education. For example:
- In such a system, there would be transparent higher-education readiness standards that are aligned across the education spectrum, from K-12 through postgraduate work.
- In this more productive system, colleges and universities would be financially rewarded primarily for rates of student success, not for mere enrollment.
- Further, students would be able to accumulate learning through a variety of different avenues and delivery systems, and seamlessly add up that learning to build universally accepted degrees.
All of these attributes of productivity reflect a fundamental shift in thinking about higher education, one that is clear and powerful, and one we all need to embrace. That shift is from the individual to the group, from singular benefits to societal ones. Put another way, the drive to boost productivity and increase attainment isn’t about helping institutions—or even just about empowering individual students. It’s about seeing higher education as an essential public good … and making sure the academy is recognized as the nation’s irreplaceable engine of human-capital development.
That, too, is an exercise in keeping it real, and Lumina is working hard to convey those messages. Rest assured, we will continue in that effort … funding programs that show promise, facilitating dialogue among various stakeholders in higher education, educating policymakers and the public, working to build the public will for change.
And yet, even as Lumina pushes for systemic and structural change at the macro level, we know that the changes have to work at the ground level to generate the results we seek. In other words, when it comes to increasing student success and reaching Goal 2025, we know where the rubber meets the road … and we know who has to drive.
Let me speak specifically to the faculty who have done such an excellent job of leading the work that is embraced by SENCER. As professional educators who touch the lives of students daily and directly, you have a critical role to play. It is you, perhaps more than anyone, who can reshape the system so that it truly serves the needs of 21st century students. It is you who must make it real and keep it real—and STEM-oriented service learning is certainly a wonderful and profoundly important way to do that.
It’s my hope that SENCER’s approach can serve as a model on a much broader scale. After all, the real-world, student-centered nature of your projects is something that could—and should —be applied to virtually every discipline in any classroom on any campus.
Of course, as promising as it is, this approach can’t be seen as the solution. After all, there is no single, simple answer to all of the challenges inherent in Goal 2025. Ground-level decisions will have to be made at every institution, and customized plans will need to be implemented in every state, region and metro area. With a goal this big, adoption of one specific set of strategies isn’t possible. In fact, it’s not even necessary. What is necessary, however, is genuine engagement and dialogue—a sincere, cooperative commitment to something bigger than self-interest. A commitment to students, to society, to the greater good.
As higher education professionals, you demonstrate that commitment every day, and you deserve our thanks for that. Your professionalism, your love of learning and your dedication to students have already enriched so many lives. But there are millions more out there who need your best effort—the best efforts of everyone here this evening.
And so, in closing, I urge you rededicate yourself to that effort. Continue to do what you do so well. Keep on keeping it real. My Lumina colleagues and I are proud to be your partners in that work.
Thank you very much.