Remarks by Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation
Academic Cultural Enrichment Series at Bennett College for Women, Greensboro, NC
Thank you, Dr. Malveaux, and good morning, everyone. It’s an honor and a privilege to join you today. As President Malveaux mentioned, I am the president of Lumina Foundation. Lumina is a philanthropic organization, specifically a private foundation, that ranks among the nation’s largest. We’re based in Indianapolis, but we have a national mission … a mission that I’m sure every one of you can relate to: We work to enroll and graduate more students from college—especially the growing numbers of what we like to call “21st century students”: adult learners, low-income students, students of color and first-generation students.
What is unusual about Lumina is that, unlike many foundations, 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 call “Goal 2025.” Let me state it for you clearly: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees and credentials.
Clearly, you are all well on your way to becoming part of that 60 percent. I commend you for that, and for all that you’ve already accomplished by enrolling here at Bennett College for Women. The thing is, this nation needs a lot more of you … millions more, in fact. Right now only about 40 percent of Americans hold at least a two-year college degree. A 40 percent attainment rate was fine historically in the U.S., because plenty of good American jobs existed for people with only a high school diploma.
Well, as I’m sure you’ve learned—perhaps quite painfully in recent years—those days are gone … and the experts say they’re gone for good. In today’s world, college-level education is critical for anyone who wants to build a life that is productive and secure and satisfying. And that trend will only intensify in coming years. In fact, labor economists at Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce have estimated 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 success in virtually every major job category.
Of course, it’s not just about individual achievement. The drive to increase college success is a critical step toward national prosperity and security. That’s because the economic and social benefits of advanced education tend to extend outward from each graduate, like ripples in a pond.
For example, those same Georgetown University researchers have calculated that, from the 1950s to the 1990s, 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, the Georgetown economists tell us 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.
So, the facts are clear, and the numbers add up to one important message. That message is simple: Every one of you is exactly where you need to be: in college, working hard to prepare yourself—not for a life of financial ease, but for one of true reward … a life of fulfillment and meaning … a life that matters.
The educational experience you are receiving here at Bennett is a gift more valuable than you might even imagine. If you do your part and make the most of this opportunity, your years at Bennett will enrich your lives tremendously—intellectually, culturally, socially, and yes, financially … in every possible way. And, again, what you gain personally will ripple outward to affect others. You will exemplify—and become advocates for—the transformative power of college. In effect, you will be ambassadors for Goal 2025 … living proof of the value of a high-quality college credential.
And let me emphasize the word “quality” in that last statement—because quality is key in the drive to reach that 60 percent goal for college attainment. You see, as the nation pushes to reach Goal 2025, we can’t just be focused on increasing the number of degrees earned. Of course, the numbers must increase, but we can’t afford to increase those numbers by decreasing the quality of the learning that those degrees represent.
After all, what’s important is not the degree itself, but the skills and knowledge inherent in that degree. In other words, what really matters is what students are actually learning … what they know and can do with the knowledge and skills they gain.
At Lumina, we’re very much committed to helping make sure that the degrees awarded by colleges and universities are high quality, even as we recognize that it’s no simple task to clearly define quality in simple terms. Still, we know that any useful definition of quality MUST focus on specific learning outcomes—on what a student knows, understands and can do after completing a course of study.
That’s why we’re experimenting with something called the 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 won’t go into detail about the Profile today, except to say that we’re confident that it can develop into a very useful tool to help colleges and universities identify, clarify and quantify what their students learn. Clearly, this will help colleges ensure that their students earn degrees and credentials that reflect high-quality learning and have genuine value.
The one specific aspect of the Degree Profile that I want to highlight today is that it stresses the equal importance of different types of learning. In fact, it mandates and creates a structure for ensuring that colleges provide what one might call a “well-rounded education.” It embraces the idea that a truly valuable college experience provides not only intellectual skills and specialized knowledge, but also practical, hands-on learning … as well as civic and social development and growth.
In other words, it embraces the type of education that Bennett College for Women is committed to providing each and every one of its “Bennett Belles.” Of course your academic courses are rigorous and challenging; they must be to prepare you for the challenges of the workplace and the world. But your Bennett education extends well beyond the classroom and the lab and the library.
For example, this very event and the program of which it is a part—the Academic Cultural Enrichment Series—these are important aspects of your education as well. And, in a few minutes—as you leave this chapel and walk together to the polling place and cast your vote in today’s election—that too will be an important teaching moment. In that moment, you’ll learn first-hand that you are personally and directly responsible for shaping and securing the society in which you live. The responsibility isn’t yours alone, of course; it’s one you share with your friends and classmates and professors … indeed, with every American citizen.
And that lesson in civic learning—the notion that each of us is connected to and invested in all of us—well, that may just be the most important lesson of all. Certainly, it’s a notion that underpins our work at Lumina Foundation. In fact, it’s at the very heart of our efforts to reach that Big Goal of 60 percent degree attainment that I’ve talked about this morning. When we as a nation reach that goal, the benefits will ripple outward and touch us all.
I know that President Malveaux, Representative Adams and all of the instructors and staff here at Bennett College understand higher education’s powerful ripple effect. I know that they have felt it in their own lives, and that they have committed themselves to re-creating it in the lives of others. In fact, I want to urge all of Bennett’s faculty and staff to rededicate themselves to that effort. Ladies and gentlemen, continue to do what you do so well. My Lumina colleagues and I are proud to be your partners in this work.
And for you Bennett Belles, I have some modest advice as well. First of all, I thank you for your commitment to earn your degrees … to be part of that 60 percent. And I urge you to do all you can be help others join you in that commitment. Encourage and inspire your younger siblings and friends to prepare for college. Help your peers—your sisters here at Bennett and your fellow students at other institutions. And most important: ignite and support the college aspirations of others in your lives, even those who may not see themselves as “college material.” All of these people need your example and your encouragement. And we, as a nation, need all of them to succeed.
Nearly 30 years ago, when I was a student at Bates College in Maine, I wasn’t sure what I would do with my degree after I earned it. I couldn’t see past graduation day. I had served as the editor of my college newspaper, and thought seriously about a career in journalism. But I had the nagging sense that I didn’t want to just witness social change as a journalist; I wanted to be a part of it.
One of the most important influences on my decision to be more than just an observer was a fellow alum of Bates—someone who graduated more than a half century before I did. His name was Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, a man who was well into his 80s by the time I had begun my college education. I know many of you here are well aware of Dr. Mays’ incredible legacy. He was the son of slaves, had dropped in and out of college several times to work for the railroad so he could pay his way, all the way, through grad school. He went on to become president of Morehouse College, was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mentor, and was head of the Atlanta school board when that city peacefully integrated its schools. His philosophy was that we’re all responsible for our future, but in being responsible for our future, we also have a responsibility to others. That philosophy drove his life. And it certainly has driven mine.
So today, as you head to the voting booth and contemplate your own futures, think about where the wonderful education you are getting at Bennett College might take you. And think about the words of Dr. Mays, when he said:
“It is within your power to dream, to build air castles, to think great thoughts, to aim at the stars, and grasp the moon. Whatever you do, strive to do it so well that no person living, no person dead, and no person yet to be born could do it any better.”
Thank you very much.