Remarks by Jamie P. Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation
Opening Keynote, 9th Annual Presidents’ Forum, Excelsior College, Washington, DC
Thank you, and good morning everyone. I’m pleased to be with you, and I’m excited to help set the stage for what looks like a fascinating series of discussions here today. The topics you’ll be exploring—the use of technology to reach next-generation students, the importance of cost containment and its implications for policy, the benefits and challenges of prior learning assessment—these are hugely important issues. And they’re not just important to us at Lumina Foundation … or even to you as higher education leaders and advocates. These are key issues for all students—really, for all Americans—as we seek to extend the economic recovery and build a secure future for our nation and its citizens.
The fact is, the issues you’re focused on here point very directly to fundamental changes that are under way in American higher education. Frankly, we at Lumina feel that these changes are very much needed because they address huge and persistent problems that are hampering the vital effort to increase college attainment: problems of affordability and access … of limited institutional capacity … of quality assurance … problems with the portability and transferability of credits and credentials. The current system is simply not equipped to overcome these problems. That means significant system redesign is necessary; in fact, it’s not merely necessary, it’s inevitable. System change will come, because it must. The only real questions are how well we change and how quickly.
Of course, change is rarely easy—even when it’s positive. And big change in a complex, multi-layered system … the kind of fundamental change that higher education now faces … that’s really hard. It takes courage and persistence and patience to make that kind of change happen. And that’s why I want to take a few moments at the beginning of my remarks just to thank all of you for being willing to join this change effort. The organizations and institutions represented here—recognized experts in online learning, cost containment, prior learning assessment and other innovations—you really are on the front lines of change. And as far as I know, none of you was drafted and sent to the front lines, so thanks for enlisting!
Those of you who represent organizations directly or indirectly involved with the SARA project—the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement and the closely aligned W-SARA that form the bases for this morning’s two panel discussions—you and your organizations deserve a special note of thanks. The Presidents’ Forum, the Council of State Governments, WICHE and the other regional compacts—MHEC, NEBHE, and SREB—as well as SHEEO and APLU and the various state regulators, institutional representatives and accrediting organizations, all of you are performing a valuable service by tackling this task.
You’re doing it the right way: collaboratively and cooperatively, thoughtfully and transparently, with an eye toward crafting a practical solution everyone can coalesce behind. We realize that the potential for turf battles in this effort is very real, and we truly appreciate your willingness to compromise, to show your work and to seek each other’s input as you work together to forge a single voluntary approach for states and higher-ed institutions that can work for every state. At Lumina, we are optimistic there will be choices ahead but not competing proposals. Our hope is that this work will make it possible to achieve more-uniform regulation of online degree programs across states that provides strong consumer protection, ensures widespread availability of online programs for all students and simplifies the regulatory burden, thereby creating savings that can be reinvested in serving even more students.
It’s important to emphasize that while federal attention may have spurred action in this space, this is really about state law. When the U.S. Department of Education drew attention to this work, which was already in progress, it was only to say that state laws must be followed to ensure continued access to federal student aid. When it’s over, what we hope to see emerge is a clear choice: States can continue to regulate as they have and institutions can continue to seek approval to operate state by state; or states can choose to participate in a collective regulatory agreement and institutions can choose to save time and money by using this process.
In the end, the roles of the states in consumer protection, the Education Department in ensuring financial stability of institutions and the national and regional accreditors in quality assurance will be preserved. It’s not as clean and simple as a national compact, but it’s far better than what we have now. Discussions are still going on, but I want to acknowledge a lot of good work has been done, and I’m looking forward to the policy outreach that will follow.
I won’t go into further detail this morning about the SARA project or about specific technological trends in higher education or their policy implications. First of all, those topics will all be covered later today, by panelists and speakers who are far better equipped to explain them. Second, all of those topics focus on the means and methods of effecting change in higher education, not so much on the rationale behind the changes. In other words, before you focus intently on the how of change, I want to spend just a few minutes this morning reminding you of the why.
I’ll try to be brief—first, because I want to leave time for your questions, and second, because I know that, deep down, you already know why change is so important in higher education. Still, it never hurts to be reminded of why we’re all in this business.
Any of you who is at all familiar with Lumina Foundation knows what our business is. You know that we are wholly committed to increasing college attainment. You’ve heard about—and in many cases adopted—Goal 2025, the national attainment goal that drives all of Lumina’s work. You’re aware that, by 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees, certificates or other credentials.
By now, the case for increased college attainment is well-documented—and by “college” we mean all forms of post-high school or postsecondary education, not just four-year degrees. The simple fact is, two-thirds of all of the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by the end of the decade. That means the drive to increase college attainment is more than merely worthwhile; it is vital to the nation’s economic and social future. And it is urgent; in fact, we can’t postpone it another day.
The most recent report from Tony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce underscores that urgency. The report, “The College Advantage,” shows that undereducated workers are increasingly being left behind and that we need to do a lot more to produce the skilled talent our nation needs to compete more effectively in the global economy. Nearly four out of every five jobs destroyed by the recent recession were held by workers with a high school diploma or less—and those workers have continued to lose jobs during the slow recovery.
By comparison, those with a bachelor’s degree or better actually continued to gain jobs even during the recession. And since the weak recovery began in January 2010, workers with some college or an associate degree gained 1.6 million jobs; those with a bachelor’s degree or higher gained another 2.2 million jobs. During that same period, people with a high school degree or less continued their downward slide, losing another 230,000 jobs.
The trends are clear, and the solution is obvious: more Americans—many more Americans—need college-level learning. In fact, so many more students need to be served that there is simply no way the current system can serve them properly.
As everyone in this room is well aware, online learning and other technological innovations have a huge role to play in addressing the system’s capacity issues. In fact, it would be difficult to cite any single trend in higher education that has done more to increase educational opportunity than online learning. It opens doors to all types of students for many reasons, but most obviously because it can reduce costs—for states, for institutions and, ultimately, for students.
Clearly, college affordability is a huge concern—no doubt a greater concern for today’s student than for any population of college students in this nation’s history. And that leads me to another important change that’s needed … a crucial change in perception. As a nation—and even more narrowly, within many areas of higher education itself—we need to update our perception of what it means to be a college student.
The fact is, fewer than 1 in 5 of today’s college freshmen graduated from high school in the prior year and immediately enrolled in a residential four-year institution. Today’s students run the gamut in terms of age, race, ethnicity, culture and income level. We can’t properly serve them—or our states or the nation—if higher ed conducts business the way it always has. On the contrary, we need to build a higher education system that is specifically geared to serve these 21st century students—the ever-growing number of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students who constitute the “real world” these days on college campuses—and in those online classes.
Without question, postsecondary success is key to their future as individuals … and their success is key to our future as a nation. At its core, that’s what the drive to reach Goal 2025 is all about: forging a brighter future. And for that brighter future to be realized, we need to redesign the higher education system so that it truly meets the needs of those 21st century students I just mentioned—the growing populations of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students who define America’s very near future.
If we are to reach that big goal—60 percent attainment of high-quality credentials by 2025—we need a higher education system that is genuinely student-centered. It must ensure access to all types of students; it must give those students the support they need to succeed, and it must enable them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning.
More and more of the work of Lumina and its partners is aimed at building this student-centered system. Again, it represents big change … change that can’t be accomplished quickly and certainly can’t be accomplished by any one organization. The work we’re all here today to discuss is certainly part of the larger redesign project. Clearly, improving the alignment and increasing the reach of online programs will enhance system productivity … and improved productivity is key to increasing the system’s capacity. In fact, in the current economic climate, as states and systems continue to be squeezed and education budgets are flat-lined, productivity gains sometimes represent the only viable means for increasing system capacity in a state.
And yet, enhancing the system’s ability to serve more students—as vital as that task is—it’s just one part of the challenge. We also need to serve those students better. In other words, system redesign must focus on ensuring quality at the same time it boosts quantity.
Without a doubt, quality assurance is a key element of the SARA project and of much of the other work you’re here to discuss. In fact, quality has to be key, because any effort to increase degree attainment without ensuring quality would be a fool’s errand.
Remember: Goal 2025 specifically mentions “high-quality” degrees and certificates, and the student-centered system I referenced calls for “credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning.”
Clearly defining and assessing what a student has genuinely learned—whether online, in a traditional classroom, on the job, in military service, through volunteering or life experience—that is at once the challenge we confront and the huge opportunity we must seize. For quality to be truly realized and widely assured, learning outcomes must be the cornerstone of the credentialing system … and that is simply not the case today.
Right now, we’re operating under a system of credentials that is still far too closed and rigid to meet the needs of students or of society as a whole. For the most part, the system awards credit not for actual learning, but merely for time spent in class. 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 students—first-generation students in particular—often can’t understand the pathways to degrees and other credentials. It’s a system that too seldom connects in any clear or meaningful way with the needs of the workforce.
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. In truth, 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. In fact, the task of defining and improving learning outcomes has risen to the top of policy agendas in many institutions, systems and states … and many of you can actually take some measure of credit for that.
Admittedly, we all have a long way to go in building this new credentialing framework, not to mention the redesigned higher-ed system that it must support. Still, the work you’re here today to discuss is central to that effort.
I urge you to embrace it with the same enthusiasm and goodwill that has marked your efforts so far. As you do, be assured that my Lumina colleagues and I are grateful for your partnership, and eager for the change we’re all working to bring about.