Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
Opening keynote, “College Changes Everything” conference, Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), Tinley Park, IL

Thank you, Lieutenant Governor Simon, and good morning, everyone. I’m very pleased to be here today, and I want to thank ISAC for giving me this opportunity to speak with you at this terrific conference. Clearly, I am in the midst of dedicated professionals who truly understand the value of postsecondary education, and who share my passion for extending the enormous benefits of college to millions more Americans.

The leaders of this state have shown a commitment to higher education that is strong, sustained, and second to none. Certainly, Lieutenant Governor Simon personifies that commitment, and I want to begin this morning by thanking her personally for being such a strong champion of college attainment and for working in partnership with Lumina to advance this important work. It’s hard to overestimate the impact of her very public decision to support the college-attainment target that we at Lumina call Goal 2025. If leaders in every state embraced this “Big Goal” with even half of the energy and zeal shown by the Lieutenant Governor, and by Governor Pat Quinn … well, let’s just say the nation would very quickly see just how thoroughly “college changes everything.”

Of course, all of you here today are well aware of higher education’s transformative power. In fact, many of you have made it your life’s work to channel that power. You don’t need me to tell you how college changes individual lives because you make those changes happen every day. Still, what I hope to do this morning is to offer some insights into how college can change things, not just individually, but on a much larger scale … a societal scale. I want to explore the vital connection between college success and overall economic success … and to suggest some ways in which you can help to tighten that connection.

Lumina Foundation is committed to that societal scale of change. Our mission is to enroll and graduate more students from college—especially low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners. And since I arrived at the Foundation in 2008, the Lumina Board and staff have committed themselves to achieving that ambitious college-attainment target I mentioned earlier: “Goal 2025.”

Of course, you already know what that target is, because it has resonated so strongly here in Illinois. We want 60% of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees, certificates and other credentials by the year 2025.

Clearly, we have a long way to go to reach 60 percent. Today, only 38.3 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have at least a two-year degree. Here in Illinois, the picture is a tiny bit brighter, with 41.3 percent of the state’s working-age residents holding at least an associate degree.

In nearly every state, attainment rates are well below the level that positions us for success and stability in the 21st century

These attainment data—plus a wealth of other information about college completion throughout Illinois—are available in the handout you’ve been given this morning. All of the data has been excerpted from Lumina’s signature report on college completion—an annual update titled A Stronger Nation through Higher Education. All of the numbers in Stronger Nation point to one urgent message: Nationally, and in nearly every state, college-attainment rates are well below the level that positions us for success and stability in the 21st century.

At Lumina we are working to make a robust case for Goal 2025. The 60% threshold is important because degrees, certificates and other credentials matter. A massive amount of research, going back many years, shows that increasing attainment is critical for two key reasons: economic prosperity, and social/cultural vitality.

The economic case is getting stronger and stronger. As most people in higher education now know, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that two-thirds of all of the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training by the end of the decade. That’s a huge increase since the mid-’70s, when less than 30 percent of jobs required any education beyond high school.

Here in Illinois, 64 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education by 2018. So, in the next six years, Illinois will need to fill about 2 million vacancies resulting from job creation, worker retirements and other factors. Of these expected vacancies, then, 64 percent—more than 1.3 million jobs in the state—will require postsecondary credentials.

But we also know that in the coming years and decades, more and more jobs—and increasingly better jobs—will go to those who are college-educated. It’s not so much that low-skill occupations are disappearing; rather, almost all jobs are becoming higher-skill jobs. Even in the “declining” industries, the need for college-educated workers is becoming acute as jobs become more complex. So-called “middle-skill” jobs in manufacturing, in mining—really, in nearly any practical field you can name, from auto repair to X-ray technology—now require some level of postsecondary education. What’s more, all jobs increasingly demand the so-called “soft skills” that higher-level learning provides … the critical thinking and analytical skills that make workers more adaptable in an ever-changing workplace.

The economic case is also bolstered by the fact that unemployment rates for those with college degrees are considerably lower than for those who lack postsecondary credentials. This is true even for recent graduates. According to data from late 2011, national unemployment rates for 18- to 24-year olds (not enrolled in school) are about 8.9% for bachelor’s degree recipients and 11.9% for those with associate degrees. For those in that age group with only a high school credential, the jobless rate is a whopping 22.9%.

The wage differential for those with college degrees and certificates also is significant. Lifetime earnings continue to rise for those with postsecondary credentials, even in these challenging economic times. And median salaries for 2012 graduates are up a healthy 4.5%, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, well above inflation and other key cost-of-living indicators. Starting salaries in some of the fastest-growing industries, like business, computer science, engineering, and health sciences, range from the mid-40s to the high-50s. These are all strong indications that the labor market is hungry for people with talent, and that employers are willing to pay a premium for that talent.

So for all of these economic reasons, and others, it’s clear that the nation’s long-term economic success is a 21st century labor force, one with adaptable workers who possess high-level skills and relevant knowledge. And as you all well know, those skills … that type of knowledge … can only be offered in well-designed and rigorous college-level programs.

We also know that there are important, and at times undervalued, social and cultural reasons for dramatically increasing educational attainment. Again, there is a wealth of evidence that shows better education yields more engaged citizens who are globally aware and competent, and who participate more in our democratic processes such as voting and volunteering. As just one example, in the 2008 elections, among adults between the ages of 25 and 44, there was a stunning 32 percentage point gap between the voting rates of four-year college graduates and high school graduates. This has enormous implications for our democracy.

With higher levels of postsecondary education attainment, moral and ethical decisionmaking increases

Similarly, we know that with higher levels of postsecondary education attainment, moral and ethical decisionmaking increases. Improved reasoning and judgment, and a greater appreciation for diverse views and perspectives, have all been associated with college attainment.

In other words, getting to that 60% level will yield major public and private benefits that contribute both to individual success and to collective well-being.

So that’s why Goal 2025 exists: to ensure that many more Americans enroll in and complete such programs. And that means all types of Americans. This nation needs to ensure that millions more people—people of all ages, all backgrounds, all income levels—enroll in and complete postsecondary programs. The college-attainment gap exists in virtually every state and city, and it poses a serious threat to our future. What’s more, this degree gap reflects a persistent and pernicious equity gap. These gaps exist based on income, race, first-generation status, and for adults. For instance, according to 2010 Census figures, the degree-attainment rate among white, working-age residents of Illinois is 47 percent. Among African-Americans, it’s 28 percent. Among Latinos, it’s only 18 percent.

As you know perhaps better than anyone, these troubling disparities in educational attainment aren’t new; they’ve endured for decades—here in Illinois and across the nation—and we ignore them at our peril. Consider the nation’s Latino population. The median age for Hispanics in this country is 27; for everyone else, it’s nearly 40. That means our nation’s schools are already serving a disproportionately large population of Latino students. And, since Latinos represent the fastest-growing segment of the national population, these numbers are sure to increase.

We must do a better job of helping these students—again, all types of students—enroll and succeed in college. And as we tackle this task, we can’t just fixate on the numbers. It’s not just about pushing these growing numbers of students through college. Rather, the goal is to help students earn high-quality degrees and credentials—those that have currency and relevance in the 21st century workforce.

Truly, it’s the learning that matters. In this economy, college-level learning is a precious commodity. In fact, it’s critical … to the prosperity of individual Americans, to the preservation of the middle class, and to the long-term success and stability of the nation as a whole. That fact is unassailable—even now, during this period of heightened anxiety over college affordability and rising student debt.

As college-access professionals, many of you deal daily with families’ concerns over rising costs. And the angst doesn’t stop there; it’s being expressed everywhere we look. Partisan wrangling in Congress over how keep rates low on student loans … students on many campuses gathering to protest tuition hikes … major stories in the media, from the New York Times to 60 Minutes. Today, as never before, rising college cost and ballooning student debt are issues that dominate the national discourse.

As a result, an increasing number of so-called experts are questioning the value of a college education and raising doubts about the quality of postsecondary credentials. And yet, the benefits of increased postsecondary training are evident to anyone who’s looked closely at the facts. So I encourage you to cite the facts I mentioned earlier, and to develop your own indicators to counter the narrative of the naysayers.

Now, one question I often get in public forums about Goal 2025 is whether every person with a degree will get a good job and lead a middle-class life. I think you all know that the answer is, of course not. The point is, in this environment, a college credential is a prerequisite. There’s no guarantee that a graduate is going to get a good job and have a middle-class life. But in the future, anyone who lacks a quality postsecondary degree or certificate will almost certainly be poor.

Again, as the title of this conference makes clear: college changes everything. And here’s the really exciting part: You … as access professionals, as policymakers, as educators and administrators … you are in position to be the key agents of that change. That’s especially true here in Illinois because, as I pointed out earlier, officials in this state have set the stage for real progress in the effort to increase college attainment.

Let me lay out just a few commendable examples of this from the policy perspective:

  • First of all, your General Assembly recently approved—and the Illinois Higher Education Board has begun to implement—performance-based funding of state institutions. If the goal is to increase college-attainment rates, it’s critical that more state funding be tied directly to that goal: in other words, to completion, not just to enrollment. The initial amount of performance-based funding is admittedly small here in Illinois—only about $6.5 million—but it’s a start. The challenge now is for state policymakers to build on that small start and make a strong and sustained move in this direction.
  • Second, the state recently adopted a more rigorous math curriculum that can help middle- and high-school students be better-prepared for college-level math … and for the job market.
  • Third, a new law streamlines the administrative structure of the State Board of Education, reducing the number of regional offices and thus making more money available for use in the classroom.
  • Fourth, there is a concerted effort to provide credible information that can assist students and families in the college-choice process. As you know, the Illinois College Planning Act authorized ISAC to administer an early college planning program. This program gives low-income students and first-generation students ongoing, structured college-planning assistance beginning in the 8th grade. And finally, Illinois lawmakers wisely asked ISAC to lead a task force that will look closely and comprehensively at the state’s Monetary Award Program. It’s critical that this need-based aid program is analyzed well—to ensure that those MAP funds are spent on the students who are most in need and best prepared to succeed. And ISAC is clearly positioned to provide good leadership in this effort.

All of these examples show that Illinois is poised for great progress in boosting college success among its residents. And now, it’s up to you to take advantage of this positive policy environment … to plant the seeds of success in this fertile ground.

How can you do that? Well, in one sense, the best thing you can do is what you have always done. That is, keep pushing to make sure that the students and families you serve are encouraged, empowered and enabled. Make sure they understand and appreciate the enormous benefits of higher education, and help them find and negotiate the path that will take them from preparation to access and on to college completion.

Second, formally commit yourself and your institution to reaching Goal 2025. Take a cue from your state leaders here in Illinois, and embrace the challenge in a public and proactive way. You’ll be surprised how it focuses your work and energizes you and your colleagues.

Finally, recommit yourself to what should always be the basic unit of analysis when it comes to student success … that is, to the individual student.

Without question, this nation needs a more student-centered system of higher education—one that meets students where they are and provides the support each student needs to succeed. We need a system that ensures quality by fostering genuine learning … a system that truly prepares students for work—and for life—in an increasingly global society.

And it’s critically important that the system be designed to serve today’s students—the ever-growing number of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students who constitute the “real world” on campuses and in classrooms these days. To reach Goal 2025, America needs all types of students to succeed, and they must succeed in far greater numbers. That means we need a student-oriented system—one that is flexible, accessible, accountable and committed to quality.

In other words, “business as usual” simply won’t work. To reach the goal, we need to take a new path, one that leads to dramatic improvements in college attainment. At Lumina, we view it in a who, what, how framework.

  • Who we want to see educated are the rapidly increasing numbers of 21st century students who form the backbone of our economy: the growing numbers of adult students, first-generation and minority students who must redefine the middle class in this nation. They are the key to our civic well-being, and our collective prosperity.
  • What we want them to have is a quality postsecondary 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 an affordable, productive system of higher education—a redesigned system that efficiently delivers the learning they need to succeed.

As educators and college-access professionals, you are key players in the effort to build this redesigned, student-centered system. In fact, your expertise and your steadfast commitment to increasing college access and attainment are absolutely indispensable to this change effort. Again, my Lumina colleagues and I sincerely thank you for that commitment … and we look forward to our continued partnership in this important work.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you this morning.

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One Response to College Changes Everything … So Be an Agent of Change

  1. Melissa K. says:

    Some key points to Goal 2025 is bridging programs with secondary institutes, college planning assistance, mentors and student-centered classrooms. Creating a campus climate with supportive faculty and service learning programs within postsecondary institutes will certainly assist with these populations and their success as well.