Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
SHEEO Higher Education Policy Conference, “Collaborating Across Boundaries in Challenging Times” Opening Keynote Address, Chicago, IL

Thank you, good morning everyone, and welcome to the official opening of this year’s SHEEO policy conference. It’s great to be here with you, and I want to thank Paul Lingenfelter for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. It’s always enjoyable for me to participate in a SHEEO meeting. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years, going back to the 1980s, at various events sponsored and expertly delivered by this organization.

Events like this also return me directly to the higher-ed policy arena, which was essentially my “home turf” going back to the earliest days in my professional career. These discussions give me a front-row seat on policy developments at the state level, and that perspective is very important for the work we’re doing at Lumina Foundation. In fact, as anyone who works in higher education knows, states are really where the action is … especially during these “challenging times” that is so accurately conveyed in the title of this year’s conference.

Over 35 states now have specific, challenging goals for higher education attainment.

All of you know that Lumina Foundation is focused on assuring that by the year 2025, 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality college degrees, certificates or other credentials. In this, all of us here hold common cause—over 35 states now have specific, challenging goals for higher education attainment, and many of your state goals are at the same 60% level as Lumina’s, and in one or two cases, they’re even higher.

By now, the case for increased attainment is well-documented. Higher education leaders, policy officials, editorial writers, and even foundation CEOs all have taken to heart the simple but powerful fact two-thirds of all of the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by the end of the decade.

But we don’t need to wait until then to see what is happening. Unemployment is arguably the nation’s single biggest problem—in fact, it’s the issue that may decide the presidential race—and many Americans now understand that it is directly tied to success in postsecondary education. Unemployment rates for those with college degrees are far lower, and this is especially true for recent college graduates.

We also know that wage differentials for people with college degrees compared to those with high school credentials are wide. That’s a fact that we’ve understood for many years—if you go to college, you make more money. But we now understand that this differential in wages is actually growing. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree make an average of 84% more over their lifetimes than those with just a high school diploma. This is an increase even since the late 1990s, when the differential was about 75%.

These data, and others, show clearly that the labor market is hungry for college graduates. Even in this tight job market, employers are willing to pay an increasing premium for college graduates … because more and more of these employers are having difficulty finding the types of skilled workers they need.

The fanciful arguments of some pundits and even national newspapers and magazines against this reality are simply wrong, and send the wrong message to the very populations who we collectively need to increase their attainment levels. We will challenge these arguments often, using facts and data to counter wishful thinking and denial.

So I think it’s safe to say that most, if not all, of us in this room are convinced that we need to raise attainment. But let me pause for a moment to ask the question—Can we? The answer to this question must be an emphatic yes. We all know that far more people can succeed in postsecondary education if they are given the opportunity and the support they need. This means that higher education must be accessible and affordable, the pathways into and through the system must be clear, and academic and social supports must be provided whenever needed.

We know how to do all these things, but we don’t know how to do them at scale. We are beyond making tweaks to our current way of doing things. Increasing attainment to 60% will require some fundamental shifts to higher education systems. I’m convinced we will get there, but let’s be honest—we all know it is going to be very hard work.

Last year, I had a chance to meet and speak with Ken Rogoff, the Harvard economist who wrote the brilliant best seller on the financial crisis called This Time Is Different. Of course, if you’ve read the book you know that the title is ironic—this time is not at all different, as the book’s subtitle “Eight Centuries of Financial Folly” makes clear. I bring this up because I found myself thinking about Rogoff when I was preparing to speak to you.

As I just said, we understand that higher education is now integral to the economic vitality and security of our nation. We know that individual opportunity hinges primarily on success in postsecondary education. We don’t need to be convinced that millions more Americans need to complete some form of postsecondary education.

The funny thing is, most people we talk to are convinced about these things, too. I don’t think convincing people—whether we’re talking about elected officials or parents—about the need to dramatically increase attainment is our problem. But a lot of the people I talk to seem to need to be mobilized to take action. Sometimes they are looking for the quick fix—the one silver bullet that will change everything. But until they find it, they won’t act, and nothing really changes. Sometimes they just don’t know what to do, and until someone tells them, they won’t act, and nothing really changes. Sometimes they are trying lots of things, but they aren’t following through to change systems based on what they learn about what works. They end up with little pockets of innovation, but nothing really changes.

Those who really understand the problem we face also understand the scale of change needed to solve it. They know systems of education and training will need to change on a massive scale. They know that educational performance as measured by real learning will have to increase dramatically. They know we will need to learn how to serve millions of students we have never served especially well—first-generation students, low-income students, adults, and students of color. Some of the people we’re trying to convince to act are veterans of decades of efforts to improve K-12 education, and they’re not convinced our efforts there have really made much of a difference.

So, I think a lot of people are convinced of the need to change higher education, but they’re not convinced that change is possible. They’ve never seen education and training systems, much less colleges and universities, change much. Going back to Rogoff, I’m beginning to think that even if the financial crisis itself was not that different, our problem is convincing people that this time our response to it must be different.

I don’t suppose it will shock you to hear me say that I believe that higher education’s response especially must be different. Higher education will change more in the next few years than it has over the last several decades. Unfortunately, there is a danger that these changes will not all move us in the direction of a more inclusive and effective higher education system. But we know a great deal more now than we did just a few years ago about the nature of the demands we face and the changes we can make that will increase attainment to the levels our nation needs. In particular, we are beginning to understand the large-scale changes that are needed to the higher education system.

We need to build a higher education system focused on the needs of students and less on the needs of higher education institutions. And it’s critically important that we focus on today’s students—the ever-growing number of those low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students who constitute the “real world” on campuses these days.

I’d like to spend some time discussing two aspects of building this new, student-centered system. The first is a new approach to financing higher education; the second is the creation of a new national credentialing system. Yes, they’re both big steps, so let’s take each one in turn.

The current student financing model is, in a word, broken. Today’s tuition and student aid systems were designed decades ago to meet student needs and social and economic conditions that are dramatically different from those we face today. The 18- to 22-year-old student who lives on campus and attends full time is no longer the norm; far from it. And yet, a student financing system designed largely to serve that student remains largely in place.

Clearly, it’s well past time to fundamentally rethink our national approach to student finance. We need a system in which resources are used to support the success of a much larger—and infinitely more diverse—population of students. Building this newly designed student financing system can’t happen overnight, of course, but there are several criteria that we already know it should meet. For example:

  • Grants, loans, and tax credits, particularly at the federal level, should be incorporated into a common system to meet a clear objective: supporting the success of low-income students.
  • The system should feature strong incentives for students to complete programs—and to do so as rapidly as possible.
  • Policies governing tuition, financial aid, and institutional subsidies should be aligned at the state and campus levels.
  • The new system should incorporate new approaches to benefits management. The idea here is to assure that funds from sources other than financial aid—including income support like unemployment insurance and workforce development funds—are leveraged to support college attainment.
  • Incentives should encourage employers to dramatically increase their support for workers’ postsecondary attainment.
  • The new system should employ more efficient and more user-friendly eligibility and application processes at all levels.
  • Finally, officials should take a strong, student-oriented approach to monitoring the system’s performance.

Admittedly, this list of criteria for a new student financing model is just a series of broad brushstrokes right now. It will take a lot of work to fill in the details and forge a financing system that can effectively meet the needs of students and society. Still, that work must begin soon if we are to reach our goal.

Likewise, we need to begin soon to take that second step in building a more student-centered higher education system: a new system of credentials.

Right now, we’re operating under a system of credentials that is still far too closed and rigid to meet our needs. Despite the good work of faculty and others who have toiled to make assessment of learning an embedded element of the system, for the most part it is still a system that primarily awards credit not for actual learning, but for time spent in classrooms or labs. It’s a system in which the recognized levels of achievement—associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate—are too few, too widely spaced and too loosely connected. It’s a system in which valuable learning achieved outside of higher education is seldom recognized—though we are encouraged by the recent traction in prior learning assessment. It’s a system in which students—first-generation students in particular—often can’t understand the pathways to degrees and other credentials. In short, it’s a system based mainly on time, rather than learning.

We need a new system of credentials to assure that high-quality learning is recognized and rewarded—no matter where or how that learning is obtained. There are a lot of benefits that will accrue from this more open credentialing system:

  • It will help both employers and prospective workers to match skills and knowledge to available jobs.
  • It will help veterans, displaced workers, and other Americans earn credit and credentials for the skills and knowledge they’ve gained on the job, through workforce development programs, or in the military.
  • It will create new opportunities for lifelong learning through “stackable” credentials that will open up multiple, flexible pathways that individuals can take as their needs and interests change.
  • Finally, this new credentialing system will help millions of Americans obtain appropriate credit for high-quality learning that is gained through newly developing delivery systems such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and competency-based programs and institutions.

The shift to a learning-based, flexible, stackable credentialing system has been little more than an intriguing idea for a long time. But it is now an idea whose time has come. Many of you have been involved with us in the development of the Degree Qualifications Profile. The DQP is rapidly developing into a framework that can be used throughout higher education to transparently define the learning outcomes of degrees and other credentials. Our Tuning project, which several of your agencies have worked with us on, is showing how to constructively engage faculty in these efforts. Through the leadership of SHEEOs like John Cavanaugh, the issue of defining and improving learning outcomes has risen to the top of policy agendas in several states.

Of course, this new credentialing system doesn’t take anything away from the civic purposes of higher education. The same skills that serve us well in the workplace also serve us well in life. We all know—and social science research actually shows —that college-educated citizens are more globally aware, more engaged, more apt to make reasoned and ethical decisions than those who lack higher education. So these benefits will accrue to many more people in this new system.

I know that the changes I’m suggesting today are huge. But so are the challenges we face. It won’t do us much good to simply nibble around the edges of the current higher education system. Real change is urgently needed … and as is always the case in such situations, real leadership is needed to bring about that change.

That’s where you come in.

The simple fact is, none of the hard work necessary to build a student-centered system can succeed without knowledgeable and committed leadership at the state level. And that brings me back to my main theme for this morning: the new, expanded role that SHEEOs and their staffs must play.

In real and practical ways, you in this room must be leaders in the movement to increase attainment. That’s because it is you who are best equipped and best positioned to revamp the postsecondary system so that it can reach the 60 percent attainment goal. After all, when it comes to system change, who better to lead that change than those who know the system best? Your positions are unique and vital for at least three reasons.

  • First, you understand and are comfortable working with all of the stakeholders who must cooperate to bring about these changes. You know how to navigate all types of terrain in your states: the higher-education community … the policy arena … the workforce-development space … the philanthropic community. That special position means you can be both a leader and a consensus-builder … a connector and a catalyst for change.
  • Second, your well-earned status as champions for higher education gives you great credibility with those in your state who may be resistant to change. After all, because you’re a trusted friend of higher education, your embrace of a change agenda is more likely to sway others who might otherwise be wedded to the status quo.
  • Finally, the relatively stable position of SHEEO agencies in many state higher education and policy infrastructure gives you time to effect meaningful change … at least more time than many other stakeholders. Elected officials can come and go very quickly … and the same is often true of institutional leaders. But SHEEOs, and especially their staff, tend to be there for a longer haul.

Actually, the agenda for this meeting tells me clearly that SHEEO, as an organization, is very much committed to this role. You’re not shying away from these “challenging times.” On the contrary, the work you’re tackling here this week shows me that you’re moving forward to create a better system. You can see that in the workshops held yesterday on topics such as: regional sharing of student outcomes data; sustaining performance-funding programs; and quality assurance and learning outcomes assessment. You can see it in the issues that will be tackled later today, such as innovative student aid programs; the use of common completion metrics; and new efforts to respond to workforce needs.

You, perhaps more than any group, appreciate the strengths and traditions of higher education—and yet can temper that appreciation with the realization that tradition alone won’t prepare us for tomorrow. We need you to help lead us to tomorrow—one where all deserving students gain access to higher education, where all are supported until they reach their goals, and where all get an education that is rigorous, relevant in the modern economy, and ultimately rewarding to us all.

Thank you very much.

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