Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation
Opening keynote at the annual conference of the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE), Indianapolis
Thank you, and good morning everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here and to welcome all of you to downtown Indianapolis. I’m delighted to help AAACE kick off this important conference—and not only because you’re meeting right in my own backyard. Lumina Foundation’s offices are just a few blocks from here … and I must admit it was a nice change for me to take a brief walk to a speaking engagement rather than having to take 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 hear Lumina’s message than you.
Your focus on the nation’s adult students is certainly one we share at Lumina. In fact, the adult student population is becoming an increasingly important area of emphasis for us—as it is for higher education as a whole, and indeed for the entire nation. Of course, as you know perhaps better than anyone, there are very valid reasons for this intense focus on adult students … and I plan to spend a good bit of my time this morning exploring those reasons and explaining Lumina’s work in this area.
You’ve heard a bit about Lumina Foundation in the introduction, and I know many of you are familiar with our work. I think what is interesting about us in the sphere of philanthropy is that our focused mission as a national foundation has never wavered. 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 our mission in a very targeted way. We focus all of our energies and our resources on 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. After all, it’s not called a Big Goal for nothing. Still, we are convinced that achieving Goal 2025 is vital—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.
New data from Tony Carnevale and his colleagues at Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce show just how important it is for us to increase college success rates. From the 1950s to the 1990s, Carnevale says, education accounted for fully one-third of the growth in productivity among American workers. And higher education’s capacity for promoting progress certainly hasn’t slowed since the 1990s. In fact, Carnevale says that, if each American added just one year of education by 2025, our nation’s GDP would increase by 500 billion in today’s dollars. This would add 150 billion dollars in tax revenue to local, state and federal coffers.
Carnevale and his fellow researchers also estimate that, by 2018, 63 percent of the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. And they predict that more postsecondary education will be critical to job success in virtually every major job category. It’s not that everyone will need a baccalaureate degree. But the data are saying that associate degrees, baccalaureate degrees and certificates that have value in the workforce—all will be critical to meeting future workforce needs.
So the economic imperative is clear: 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 other words, student success is now seen as critical to the success of our society.
And there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement. Today, only around 40 percent of Americans ages 25-64 hold at least a two-year degree. Many other nations have invested significantly in increasing attainment over the past decade, and for the youngest adult populations, several have actually passed the U.S. Compared to what we have seen in these other nations—and more importantly, in our own workforce projections—the U.S. attainment rate is far too low to meet employers’ needs, and it hampers our nation’s ability to compete in an increasingly complex global economy.
Of course, that’s the purpose of the Big Goal: to forge a better future by ensuring that 60 percent of Americans have high-quality degrees by 2025. And, to return to the specific theme of my talk—and to the central issue that all of you address every day—adult students are the key to that effort. There is simply no way to significantly improve student success in this nation without focusing on the success of adult students. The numbers tell us that, even if all of today’s high school students were to graduate, go on to college and earn degrees, we still wouldn’t reach the 60 percent goal. Adult students have to be the difference makers.
Of course, the adult student population is not a homogenous one. At Lumina, we’ve been looking closely at the various segments of the adult population to help guide our strategies. There are folks who never completed a high school diploma and are seeking a GED. There are those who have a diploma or GED with no college. And there are people with some prior college credits but no degree. We all know that this is not a one-size-fits-all group ─ each of these groups requires a different set of strategies.
Right now, it’s the third group of adults that Lumina is especially interested in—the more than 37 million Americans who have some college credits but have never earned a degree. That’s 22 percent of all 25- to 64-year-olds … more than one-fifth of the entire working-age population. And if you count the folks under age 25 with family and work responsibilities, who really are adults as well, the number is well above 40 million. It’s a huge group with massive potential—which is why Lumina focuses much of its work in this area.
We’re convinced that the postsecondary education system must be the national engine for human capital development. Students must not only be able to move successfully from high school to postsecondary education and then to the workforce—but also back and forth between college and career, with any number of side trips. It is these detours—and the on- and off-ramps of higher education—that are especially critical for adult learners … as many of you know quite well. Anyone who works in this area learns very quickly that returning adults require special attention … that they can’t properly be served the same way that traditional students are served.
Just a few statistics about today’s student population will underscore that fact.
- First, more than half (60 percent) of all first-time bachelor’s degree recipients attend more than one college or university; 35 percent attend two institutions, and 16 percent attend three. So, attending multiple institutions is the norm for many adults.
- Nearly half of undergraduate students in the U.S. are enrolled in community colleges, and the average age of community college students is 28. What’s more, 15 percent of the nation’s community college students are 40 or older. Obviously, the nation’s two-year schools are serving adult students in huge numbers.
- The costs of inefficiencies in the transfer process—credits that are not transferable; excessive credits taken after transfer because community college credits are not applied to degree requirements—these costs are borne primarily by states and students.
- Financial aid is critical for low-income transfer students, particularly since most are transferring to higher-cost institutions.
All of these facts point to a clear bottom line: it’s critical that we pay attention to the on- and off-ramps that exist among educational institutions—high schools, community colleges, universities, and of course, employers.
Within this context then, what is Lumina doing in the adult learning area and what trends and best practices are we seeing? If I may, I want to share several specific areas of work that Lumina is supporting as part of our approach to adult learning:
The first is having good data to inform policymakers and higher education decision-makers about adult degree completion. We’ve been paying special attention over the past couple of years to the creation of state data profiles on adult learners. As examples, we’ve supported the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning—or CAEL—to complete 50 state profiles on adult learners, which I hope you all know about. Lumina has also completed state profiles in a report, “A Stronger Nation through Higher Education.” In this report available at our website, you’ll find data on what it will take for each state to reach a 60 percent college degree goal by 2025. Again, we hope you know what the numbers are for your own state to reach the 60 percent mark.
A second area is prior learning assessment. Lumina has supported recent research, conducted by CAEL, that has found that prior learning assessments do help students complete degrees more quickly, saving both time and money. We see prior learning assessment as a key strategy in an adult degree attainment agenda.
To that end, Lumina has joined with several other foundations to support CAEL and its partners, the American Council on Education and The College Board, as they implement a virtual prior learning assessment center called LearningCounts. LearningCounts is designed to help students lessen their time to degree by assessing what they’ve learned—through military service, work, home study and life experience—and then helping them earn college credit for that knowledge.
A third area is developing accelerated degree models. An example is the accelerated associate degree program at Ivy Tech Community College right here in Indiana. Although this program doesn’t focus on returning adults, but rather on at-risk high school students, we believe many of the lessons learned will be important for developing more accelerated programs for returning adults.
Another example of an acceleration model is Western Governors University-Indiana, a competency-based model for degree completers, serving primarily returning adult students. There are currently two more WGU-state institutions well along in their development: WGU-Texas and WGU-Washington. And WGU is in talks with a half-dozen more states to establish this type of state partnership model.
A fourth area is developmental education. We all know that for many adult degree completers, returning to college means overcoming past failures and fears of returning to college, remediation in essential skills, and developing effective study habits and time management.
Lumina is supporting some work in developmental education with an eye toward the needs of returning adults. One example is the developing work around new math pathways (Quantway/Statway) being supported by a number of foundations (led by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching). A chief goal is to help create a statistics-based college-level math curriculum. This approach should serve many students better than the current calculus-based pathway, thus reducing the math logjams for so many students caught in the “Bermuda Triangle” of developmental education.
A fifth area of our work targets a group of adults called the “near-eligible.” These are students who left college without degrees, even though they had completed nearly all of the required credits. Some of our efforts in this area are embodied in a project known as Win-Win, which began in three states as a pilot led by the Institute for Higher Education Policy. We’ve helped scale it up to include more than 60 institutions in nine states.
Participants in Project Win-Win use statewide data systems to identify students who left an institution with a significant number of credit hours, say, more than 60. Win-Win staff then search the National Student Clearinghouse to determine if those students received their degrees elsewhere. If not, they conduct degree audits to determine which students meet the requirements for either a general associate or specialized associate degree (or in some cases, a bachelor’s degree). The institutions then contact students deemed to be eligible and look for ways to help them complete their degrees. It’s a proactive and very practical way to get folks back on the path toward graduation.
The sixth area is policy work. Increasingly, issues affecting adult learners and returning adult students are rising to the top of the policy agenda at the federal and state levels. As the economy continues to sputter and as jobs and job creation dominate the national conversation, we at Lumina are doing all we can to emphasize the critical role that higher education must play. Testimony before legislative committees … discussions with governors and state higher education officials … conversations with workforce-development agencies and employers … in all of these efforts, we try to put the needs of the adult learner at the center of the dialogue.
The last area I’d like to highlight is our work trying to “tell more stories” about the importance of returning adults by supporting in-depth independent journalism. We hope you have heard the recent one-hour documentary, “Some College, No Degree,” produced by American RadioWorks of American Public Media—with dissemination chiefly through NPR stations. Since August there have been close to 200 broadcasts across 164 stations in 10 of the 20 top markets. There have also been stories about returning adults in the Washington Monthly magazine—which has a huge following among policymakers—Change magazine, and numerous local news outlets.
So, these broad areas define Lumina’s work in the adult learning sphere. But we’ve also taken a major step to promote the work of others in this vital area. Last year, we issued a Request for Proposals to increase adult degree completion—with the goal of supporting large-scale efforts to increase degree completion among returning adult students.
Lumina received about 200 pre-proposals to the RFP, and ultimately we selected 19 projects to support through our Adult Degree Completion commitment of $15 million over the next four years. These efforts are primarily national, statewide and/or regional/metro in scope. They’re all about scaling-up efforts that have already shown promise, and they support a number of different strategies, including:
- Data mining to find adults who have prior college credits, recruitment and marketing campaigns to motivate adults to return to complete degrees.
- Advising and financial assistance services to returning adults.
- Accelerating progress toward the degree—through steps such as prior learning assessment, program redesigns that incorporate online delivery, and efforts to shift noncredit courses to credit-bearing ones.
- Strengthening partnerships among higher education institutions, employers, and municipal leaders to focus more attention on returning adults.
- Working with workforce boards to better link their programs of short-term training with college degree and credential programs.
One of the 19 projects that grew out of our RFP is being managed by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education—and this project can give you a window into all of this important work. WICHE’s charge is to develop a national learning network that can support the 18 other grantees and provide help to other organizations and individuals working on adult degree completion. The network is up and running, and I urge you and your colleagues to visit the website—adultcollegecompletion.org—and join the network.
So, that’s a brief rundown of the work that Lumina is pursuing in adult learning. I’ll be happy to answer questions about any of these efforts during the Q&A session that follows my remarks. But let me conclude by highlighting a few takeaways—items that have major implications for anyone working in this space.
- First of all, many promising practices are under way to serve adult learners … and many more are on the drawing board.
- Second, demographic and labor market factors will continue to keep adult learners at the center of the policy and practice conversations in coming years.
- Third, the higher education infrastructure is already being redefined to better accommodate adult learners—and the work that all of you do is certainly an active part of this redefinition.
- Finally, there is movement to align workforce and the higher education systems more closely, with the acceleration of industry-based certifications into academic and career pathways—so that working adults have more on and off ramps to expand their education and training.
The big challenge now is how to get to scale—how to better serve the large group of adults who need to complete degrees and certificates … how to institutionalize the effective programs and practices … how to embed the promising policy developments within higher education structures so that they are not marginalized or under-emphasized.
This is, of course, where all of you come in: making it happen at your institutions for this critical group of 21st century students. Clearly, your role is absolutely critical here—as the everyday advocates for adult students and the champions of their success.
Thanks for all the good work you do every day to serve this increasingly vital student population. Without question, they represent a very big group—both in numbers and in importance. We can’t reach the Big Goal without them … and we can’t really reach them without you.
Thank you very much.