Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
Keynote Address, National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges, New Orleans, LA

Thank you, and good morning everyone. I’m very pleased to be here. It’s always a special moment to be in New Orleans, and I want to thank the Council—and our hosts, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System—for the opportunity to speak with you today. I also want to congratulate and thank Joe and his colleagues at LCTCS for the wonderful work they’ve done here, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The area’s community colleges have been instrumental in the rebuilding process, helping countless residents hone the skills they need to move on and move up.

Of course, the resilience and responsiveness of these institutions comes as no surprise to anyone in this room today—and certainly not to me or my colleagues at Lumina Foundation. As everyone in this room knows, Lumina has long appreciated and honored community colleges’ immense value. We’ve been partners with this uniquely American—and absolutely vital—sector of higher education for many years. We value the relationship we have built through efforts such as Achieving the Dream, the Developmental Education Initiative, the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, Project Win-Win and many others. And I assure you, that relationship is stronger than ever.

In fact, I believe the connection between Lumina and your institutions is sure to become even tighter in coming years. One glance at the agenda for this conference tells me that quite clearly. During these past few days, you’ve covered topics such as performance funding … developmental education … issues related to jobs and workforce development. If I didn’t know better, I might think this agenda had been created for a meeting among my own Lumina colleagues back in Indianapolis. In other words, our concerns and our goals aren’t just similar; they are one and the same. And it’s gratifying to see that, in many cases, community colleges and Lumina are working together to address those concerns and reach those goals.

Of course, the overriding goal—the Big Goal that my colleagues and I work toward every day—is one that I know you’re familiar with. We call it Goal 2025. It’s been at the center of Lumina’s radar screen for years, and it’s been on many of yours as well. By 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees, certificates or other credentials.

We pursue this goal for a clear and compelling reason: because it must be achieved if our nation and its citizens are to prosper. In this economy—which is becoming more global, more complex and more demanding every day—college-level learning is a precious commodity in the labor market. Economists and labor experts tell us with increasing clarity that postsecondary credentials are vital to any individual who hopes to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. In fact, the evidence these experts cite is voluminous and undeniable. For example:

  • Roughly two-thirds of jobs now being created require some sort of postsecondary credential.
  • Even in so-called declining industries, more and more jobs are demanding higher skill levels.
  • Workers with college credentials are employed at dramatically higher rates than those without postsecondary training.
  • College-trained workers also earn significantly more in their lifetimes than those who lack such credentials … and this wage differential is actually widening.

Clearly, the individual benefits of college are huge. And if we want these individual benefits to add up to long-term, sustainable, societal gains, we need to reach the 60 percent threshold. That’s the level that will keep us on par with labor market demands and with the attainment rates in other highly developed countries. Practically, what this means is that we need millions more students to earn degrees and certificates—students of every age … every color … every ethnic group and income level … from every geographic area.

Naturally, pursuing this 60 percent goal serves Lumina’s overall mission, which is to enroll and graduate more students from college—especially low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners. And again, the connections to your own institutions are strikingly obvious. After all, the student populations we single out as most important are the ones you’ve always served.

I want to point out another connection as well … one that is relatively recent, very visible and, quite literally, tangible. It’s the recent report from AACC’s 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, titled Reclaiming the American Dream. This is yet another indication that Lumina and the nation’s community colleges are very much on the same page. That’s especially remarkable since Lumina didn’t even pay for the report!

I know you’ve had a chance to hear from my friend AACC President Walter Bumphus and discuss the Reclaiming the American Dream agenda over the past two days, but I’d like to reinforce just a couple of the key themes from the report. One is the simple yet powerful framing that the report offers for reimagining the community college. The “Three Rs”—Redesigning the student experience, Reinventing institutional roles, and Resetting the system to create incentives for success—are a wonderful summation of the forward-looking agenda for community colleges.

Among the many excellent recommendations, we are compelled by ideas such as increasing completion rates by 50 percent by 2020, while preserving access, enhancing quality and eradicating attainment gaps. This can be done by building clear pathways to completion, by implementing policies that ensure smooth transfer, and by vigorously supporting student success. We also are enamored of the idea of the community college becoming “a broker of educational access,” in essence, a hub that connects students to relevant learning from multiple providers through multiple modes of delivery. And of course, no one in this room will be surprised to learn that Lumina strongly agrees with the recommendation that increasing public and private investment in community colleges must be aimed at improving student success and institutional performance. This means revamping student financial aid programs and public funding models so that both actually reward student success and college completion.

Community colleges are ahead of the redesign game in many ways

In the report’s foreword, Walter Bumphus urges community colleges to “imagine a new future for themselves,” and the report’s introduction calls for “a dramatic redesign” of your institutions. It’s an exciting prospect and a commendable approach. But, frankly, we at Lumina Foundation take a somewhat broader view. We’re convinced that this “dramatic redesign” is necessary for all of higher education. What’s more, we feel that community colleges are actually ahead of the game in many ways.

Think about it. Community colleges are the very definition of redesign. Among all of the sectors of higher education, you have most often been the innovators. You’ve always made it your business to be cost-effective. You have a long, strong history of collaboration—with other institutions, with employers, with all types of stakeholders. You were student-centered and flexible long before those terms could accurately be applied in other postsecondary settings. If comprehensive system redesign is needed—and we’re fully convinced that it is—then who better than you to show the way?

Your leadership as state system leaders is especially important at this point in our national dialogue about the future of higher education. Increasingly, we are hearing questions about the value of a college credential, and whether college really is for everyone.

The definition of ‘college’ includes far more than the four-year degree

My response, of course, is a resounding “yes,” and I hope yours is as well. But we must be clear that the definition of “college” includes far more than the four-year degree. It includes all types of post-high school credentials. I also think your leadership is essential in making the case for why college really matters. Clearly college matters for many of the economic reasons that I alluded to earlier in my remarks. The nation’s long-term economic success depends on a 21st century labor force, one with adaptable workers who possess high-level skills and relevant knowledge the types of skills and knowledge that can only be offered in well-designed and rigorous college-level programs.

In addition, I think we need to sharpen our arguments, some of which have been lost in the public debate, about the important social and cultural benefits of increased college attainment. We need to strengthen the understanding among policymakers, employers and the general public that college-educated citizens have proven to be more engaged and more ethical citizens. They’re more likely to vote and volunteer, more likely to appreciate diverse views and perspectives, more apt to demonstrate high levels of moral and ethical decision making.

Really, though, wondering whether college is for everyone is a false premise—as is often the case when dealing in absolutes. The question of whether every person needs college serves only to distract us from the obvious and urgent need to dramatically increase postsecondary attainment overall. It’s not just that credentials matter; it’s that what college gives us individually and collectively matters.

This leads to two other important issues I would urge you to think about, and act upon, in your roles. One is that equity of opportunity matters. Clearly equity is important for moral and ethical reasons. Increasing attainment is important, especially for low-income students, first-generation students, students of color and adult learners. But equity also matters for economic reasons—chiefly because these populations represent the nation’s fastest-growing groups and are most in need of the enhanced skills and knowledge that come from postsecondary education. Therefore, if we fail to ensure equity, we as a society will pay an increasingly higher price for that failure.

The other important issue is to stress that quality matters. Not all credentials yield the same benefits. Clearly, having a college credential is much better than not having one, but postsecondary credentials are most effective when they deliver competencies that are generalizable. In other words, they need to provide recipients with critical thinking, problem solving, analytical and other skills and knowledge. These are the competencies most desired by employers, and they also are the ones that best serve our democratic needs and ideals. Specific content knowledge is important too, of course; but in many real-world, workplace scenarios, it is the generalizable skills that predominate. In any case, given the rapidly evolving nature of work, what is most important is that credentials represent genuine learning that is both generalizable and specific. Real learning: that’s the true definition of quality … and this type of high-quality educational experience needs to be delivered much more broadly and equitably.

In the very near future, talent is going to be seen as society’s most important resource

The quality discussion also is leading up to what we think could be one of the most game-changing moments in higher education in our lifetimes. Now, more than ever, it’s clear that we need to develop more transparent, recognized pathways to credentials and to better define the credentials that count.  Redesign of what credentials look like, who gets to award them, and what is represented by them is at the core of the nation’s need to better define its talent. Because in the very near future, talent is going to be seen as society’s most important resource, and higher education will be seen as the lever for developing it.

Most community colleges are already ahead in this discussion. Many are deeply involved in noncredit learning delivery that is actually bona fide training leading to tangible workforce outcomes.   There are also industry-recognized credentials, and the exploding world of open education resources that will enable students to develop knowledge/skills through lower-cost instructional resources. More and more learners expect to be able to use this “new currency” in meeting their education and employment goals.  And, of course, the new concept of badges—in essence, “micro-credentials” for discrete knowledge and skills that are awarded through 3rd party assessments—this concept also is garnering significant attention in the community college world.

All of these trends are at work in your institutions today, which shows that community colleges understand the equity-quality imperative. Of course, the best community colleges have always been driven by this dual commitment. What’s more, there seems to be a real hunger out there to “double down” on this commitment … an eagerness to seize the opportunity for redesign and self-improvement. We at Lumina have seen this spirit at work for many years and in many community college settings. In fact, we’ve had a front-row seat for several impressive efforts, such as in the ways that many Achieving the Dream colleges have reoriented their campus cultures wholly toward student success.

And we’ve seen it in some work that is just about to begin. We were immensely gratified by the response to an RFP issued for a project called Credit When It’s Due—an effort to increase the number of associate degrees granted in what is commonly called the “reverse-transfer” process. We received proposals from a total of 32 different entities, an impressive response. Nearly all of these represent statewide partnerships that include hundreds of community colleges, plus public university and independent college partners.

What all of these examples demonstrate is that community colleges are committed to improvement. You’re eager to retool, to build the type of higher-ed system that serves all students and our nation … the kind that is very much needed if we hope to reach Goal 2025.

We all know what kind of system that needs to be: a student-centered system … one that meets students where they are and gives them the support they need to succeed … One that ensures quality by fostering genuine learning. … One that truly prepares students for work—and for life—in an increasingly global society. … One that is flexible, accessible, accountable and committed to quality. 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.

Of course, community colleges are just one part of that system, but they are a formative and fundamental part … in many respects the point of the spear. The fact is, there is simply no way for the nation to return to a position of global leadership in degree attainment, no way for us to reach that 60 percent target, unless community colleges lead the way.

Notice the word I used there: lead. The drive to boost college attainment offers you and your institutions a singular and historic opportunity for leadership. Because of your expertise in creating workforce-relevant programs, because of your long experience in serving adult and minority students, because of the decades you have spent perfecting innovative and cost-effective ways to deliver high-quality education—because of all these things and more, you can show the way to reshaping American higher education in a way that benefits us all.

Let me be clear, though: We at Lumina recognize the challenges you face in seizing this leadership role. We understand the pressures that community colleges and systems are under: You all must serve multiple constituencies: your students, your individual states, and the various employers in the areas you serve. You all face increasingly loud calls for accountability and relevance. Your enrollments are increasing rapidly, and these growing waves of students are often those who face the most daunting barriers to success. And in most cases, you’re being asked to handle all of these demands even while your funding is being cut.

I’ve noted with admiration Joe May’s recent testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. He pointed out that, over the past 5½ years, enrollment in LCTCS has grown by 55 percent while state support for the system has declined by 37 percent. Clearly, those starkly opposing trends reflect a serious challenge that no one can ignore.

And yet, as I hope I’ve made clear this morning, opportunity exists as well for the nation’s community colleges. The institutions that are focused and forward-looking … those that can act decisively on the innovative spirit that has always been a hallmark of community colleges … those that can truly put student success at the top of the agenda … these are the institutions that will not merely survive; they will thrive. More important, they will help this nation meet its most urgent and compelling need.

And so, let me urge you to embrace your leadership role in helping reach Goal 2025. It is a challenge for which you are well suited … and one in which you can always count on Lumina for support and partnership.

Thank you.

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