Jamie P. Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation
Remarks presented to the Certified Success Summit, Wheeling, WV
Thank you, and good morning, everyone. I’m very pleased to be here today. I want to begin by thanking our hosts at Vision Shared Inc. for having the foresight to organize this important convening. Special appreciation is also due to our colleagues at the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation for supporting this unique event.
We’ll hear from First Lady Joanne Tomblin shortly, but I’d like to thank her, first, for inviting me to be part of this discussion, and second, for being such a strong and visible advocate for postsecondary education here in West Virginia. As co-chair of the state’s College Completion Task Force, she’s helping to keep this issue right where it needs to be: at the top of the state agenda.
Of course, Chancellors Skidmore and Noland also deserve praise for the ongoing work of that task force — work that is right at the center of the dialogue at this Summit. Increasing West Virginians’ college attainment, and translating educational success into economic success for your citizens and your state … that’s why we’re all here today. And certainly from my perspective, it’s a great place to be. I’m proud to be part of an event where education and the economy are intertwined so tightly and so intentionally.
Tom Witt and Travis Reindl have already done a great job of highlighting the importance of the critical link between higher education and the economy. The economic and labor-market data shows just how urgent this issue has become. And there are other signs as well. Data released just this month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that, despite outspending every other country on education, the U.S. has dropped all the way to 15th in the college-attainment level of its young-adult population. That does not bode well for our ability to compete in the global marketplace.
And here in West Virginia — with the college attainment rate at only 25 percent among young adults — the need for greater educational attainment is painfully clear.
Put simply: To prosper — even to survive — in the global economy, we need many more college graduates … here in the cities and towns of West Virginia, and all across this country. That is a fact we can all agree on, so I won’t spend any more time today explaining the need or underscoring the urgency. Instead, I’ll try to suggest some specific things you can do to help meet that need. It’s clear to me — based on my experience in higher education policy and on Lumina’s work in increasing college access and success — that everyone in this room can play a part in helping boost college completion.
In fact, this is just the sort of gathering where the message of concerted and connected collaboration is most appropriate — because this group represents the perfect mix of players. As higher education officials, as policymakers, and as local and regional business leaders, you ALL have critical roles to play in the college-completion effort — individually and as partners. And if I may, I’ll spend a good bit of my time today exploring just how each of you might best play those roles.
But before I delve into those details, let me step back a bit. I know most of you are familiar with Lumina Foundation, but for those who aren’t, let me provide some brief background. Lumina is a national foundation, based in Indianapolis. We’re privileged to have a substantial endowment that puts us among the leading private foundations in the country in terms of asset size. What is unusual about Lumina is that we are committed to one national cause: enrolling and graduating more students from college — especially low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners. In fact, Lumina is the largest foundation in America that focuses exclusively on that mission. Again, unlike many foundations, we pursue our mission in a very targeted way. All of our energy and resources are focused on achieving one ambitious but specific goal for college attainment, what we call “Goal 2025.”
The goal, simply stated, is this: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees and credentials. Today, the national degree-attainment rate among working-age Americans (ages 25-64) is only about 38 percent, and it’s been basically stuck at that level for more than four decades. So you can see we have a long way to go.
Still, no matter the distance, this is a journey we must make as a nation — as those labor market statistics and other economic data have demonstrated so clearly. Increasing college completion is a national imperative, and that necessity is what drives us at Lumina. It provides the impetus for everything we do — and we’re doing everything we can. In fact, we’re working in dozens of cities, states and regions … on projects aimed at every stage in the education-to-workforce pipeline … with many different partners — including some of you here in West Virginia.
I want to talk specifically this morning about two major areas of Lumina’s work, because each of them is central to the education-workforce connection that we’re focused on here today. The first is the Foundation’s work aimed at increasing success among adult students. The second is our effort to help foster increased productivity in higher education.
Let’s start with adult students — the absolute, undisputed “sweet spot” population in our drive to increase college completion. Without question, Goal2025 won’t be reached without a concerted effort to make sure that millions more citizens in the working-age population become students … and that these students stay on track and become graduates.
In particular, we’re focused on the more than 37 million working-age Americans who have earned some college credits, but have failed to earn a degree or certificate. Here in West Virginia, nearly 200,000 people fit this definition — fully one out of five workers in the state’s working population. Obviously, that is a huge well of potential as you seek ways to revive the state’s economy … and I know you’re working to tap into that well. In fact, I’m proud to say that Lumina is an active partner with you in that effort, thanks to our investment in the DegreeNow program.
DegreeNow — a joint effort of the Higher Education Policy Commission, the Community and Technical College System and the state’s student affairs professionals — is meant to provide a clear path to learning for returning students here in West Virginia. They can earn degrees they previously started, and students who complete an associate degree can get the support they need as they work toward earning a bachelor’s.
DegreeNow is just one of 19 projects around the nation that Lumina is funding through our Adult Degree Completion program — a commitment of several million dollars over the next four years. And our efforts to foster success among adult students aren’t limited to this one program. Many of the areas in which we are working — in fact, it’s fair to say that nearly ALL of the areas in which we are working — have a direct link to the adult student population.
Let me give you some examples:
- First, there’s our database work. We’ve been paying special attention to data capacity, data use and data sharing as a means of improving college attainment. This work has led to the creation of state data profiles on adult learners, and has helped experts such as Tony Carnevale, a labor economist at the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, draw those clear links between degree attainment and workforce demands.
- Second, there’s our focus on prior learning assessment — finding ways for students to earn college credit for learning acquired on the job, or in life. Research by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning shows prior learning assessments do help students complete their degrees more quickly. That saves both time and money, which is why we believe that Prior Learning Assessment or “PLA” is a key strategy in an adult degree attainment agenda. A report released today by the Center for American Progress reinforces this argument
- This time-saving element is also central in my third example: the development and expansion of accelerated degrees. One such model Lumina has supported is Western Governors University-Indiana, a competency-based bachelor’s degree program that primarily serves returning adults with complicated schedules and many obligations beyond school.
- The fourth example that has major implications for adult students is the broad effort to improve developmental education. We all know that for many adult degree completers, returning to college means brushing up on math and English skills, gaining new skills, and often overcoming past failures and fears about learning. Effective developmental education is key in that effort. Lumina is supporting work in developmental education with an eye toward the needs of returning adults, particularly in remediation in mathematics, to get them up to speed faster and even through courses that integrate remedial math with their with other courses in the core curriculum.
- Finally, we’re working to aid adult students by virtue of our longtime involvement with the nation’s community colleges — most prominently through a national organization called Achieving the Dream to address the particular needs of students in community colleges who more often than not are first in their families to attend college and may need clearer road maps. We also work through smaller, discrete programs at individual community colleges. We recognize the tremendous value of the nation’s community colleges, and we’re well aware of the vital role they play in serving adult students.
So, as you can see, adult students constitute a major focus area for us as we seek to achieve Goal 2025. That second area of focus, if you recall, is our work to improve productivity in higher education — in other words, the effort to help the system produce many more graduates … with high-quality degrees and certificates … but without increasing costs. Our productivity work is now being pursued by policymakers and higher education officials in 18 states. That includes West Virginia, which joined the effort last year. In this work, officials strive to follow four steps to improving productivity in higher education.
- One step is to provide student incentives. The idea here is to use tuition and financial aid policies strategically, in a way that rewards students for completing courses and programs on time.
- Another step is “new models” — in other words, finding new, lower-cost approaches to deliver high-quality instruction to students. Blended instruction and learning modes like Western Governors University, PLA, and distance/online learning combined with more traditional classroom learning in remote sites, like workplaces, are perfect examples.
- A third step is to incorporate business efficiencies. In other words, promoting and implementing good business practices like regional purchasing, consolidation of common administrative functions and facilities-sharing to produce real savings … savings that are then used to educate and graduate more students.
- The fourth step is performance funding or outcomes-based funding — that is, rewarding institutions, not for the number of students they enroll, but for how many of those students succeed and graduate.
This final step is typically the one that’s listed first, but I saved it for last because it has particular relevance right now in West Virginia. I know that there has been a lot of effort applied to work with the state legislature on funding formulas for higher education that include performance-based incentives. In fact, I testified before the legislature last January in support of that effort.
I said it then and I believe it even more strongly now: It’s an effort well worth making — as other states have already proven, including your northern neighbor, Pennsylvania. Officials there have been implementing performance funding for a decade, and they’re seeing real results. College-graduation rates have increased by nearly 10 percentage points. Persistence to the second year has also risen, especially among Latino students, whose persistence rates have jumped nearly 15 points.
Really, the core idea behind performance funding — in fact, the common thread that connects ALL of Lumina’s work, including the push for greater productivity and the focus on adult students — is the simple notion that higher education needs to change. Not in small, incremental ways, but in major transforming ways. The system has admittedly served this nation well for decades, but signs of erosion are very clear — in those worrisome OECD statistics and rankings, in the labor market trends, in rising tuition bills and shrinking state subsidies, in the persistent achievement gaps between privileged students and those who confront significant barriers to college success.
For all of these reasons, we at Lumina believe that change is crucial, and we see three changes in particular that would have tremendous impact.
The first is that higher education must become responsive to the needs of all potential students — a much wider range of people with much more diverse needs than we have seen in the past. I’m not talking about non-traditional students — frankly, that concept has been outmoded for years, as I’m sure you’re well aware. Today’s student — the 21st century student — runs the gamut… racially, ethnically, socially, economically … From recent high school graduate to displaced adult worker to second-career retiree, to returning veteran … From part-time distance learner to full-time resident student … From GED completer to certificate seeker to evening MBA student to doctoral candidate … With roots in every country from Mexico to Mozambique.
Clearly, no one-size-fits-all system of higher education will work for these students, and it won’t serve us as a nation. To reach Goal 2025, America needs all types of students to succeed, and they must succeed in far greater numbers.
The second thing that needs to change is our societal conception of higher education quality. We still think quality is a measure of inputs and a function of the resources available to institutions. We perpetuate the dangerous fiction that quality colleges have students with high SAT scores, faculty with Nobel prizes, and libraries with lots of books. We think quality is a function of how much colleges spend and how much they cost, with more expensive being necessarily better. Of course, this is completely wrong.
In today’s society and economy, the only definition of quality that makes sense is one based on student outcomes, specifically genuine learning.
Finally, we need higher education to change in terms of scale. To fuel the recovery and ensure the nation’s long-term economic health, we need an ever-growing supply of college graduates. That means the system must find new and better ways to provide high-quality learning to millions of additional students between now and 2025. And, given the grim financial realities in nearly every state, higher education leaders must meet this challenge with little, if any, additional funding. In other words, the system must become far more productive; it must graduate many more students, without increasing costs and without compromising the quality of their education.
These changes can’t occur overnight, of course, but they need to begin now. And that can’t happen without a conscious and committed effort on the part of all stakeholders … which is to say, every sector of society that is represented here today.
Those of you in the higher education community obviously can play a central role in this change effort. The most important step? Make student success your main business. Use your student outcomes data to identify achievement gaps, and then work tirelessly to close those gaps. Serve your students — all of your students — by doing everything you can to help them reach the goal they need to reach … for their own sake and for the benefit of society at large.
Also, push for productivity gains in your institutions and your systems. Be flexible and innovative in serving your students. Work with partners — in the business community, in the policy arena, in philanthropy and within higher education itself — to make sure your programs are rigorous, relevant and cost-effective.
For those of you in the employer community, I have three basic suggestions. The first two relate directly to the two main areas of effort that I have highlighted today: improving productivity and serving adult students. Simply put, you can help lead the way in both of these efforts by making sure that higher education doesn’t lose sight of either.
When it comes to the productivity effort, you can actually serve a critical role by helping to educate the educators. I’ve talked a bit today about the need for increased productivity and greater efficiency in higher education. Well, who is better positioned to teach the lessons of productivity and efficiency than members of the business community? True, colleges and universities generate people, not products, so the lessons won’t translate precisely and will have to be adapted. Still, if the approach is mutually respectful and truly collaborative, there’s no doubt that much progress can be made if business takes a teaching role in the productivity effort.
Second, as you emphasize the need to better serve adult students, keep in mind that the idea is not simply to ensure that employers have a ready supply of trained workers for their own businesses. The view that’s required is much broader than that. Really, it’s about empowering the individual … because that’s ultimately the power that drives ALL businesses.
You can do this in a number of ways.
- Offer tuition-reimbursement plans that are generous and widely accessible.
- Help your workers plan their educational journeys by working with them to create customized, individual learning plans.
- Make space available in your facilities for local institutions to offer on-site classes.
- Finally, get serious and go public with your education-friendly stance by upgrading your hiring standards. Make some level of postsecondary education or training mandatory for new employees and keep the incentives for upgrading skills as basic benefits.
The third suggestion I’d like to make also requires you to take a broader view … a broader view of partnership. What I mean here is that business and civic leaders can no longer merely be partners with members of the higher-ed community. They must also reach out to governors, state legislators, and federal officials.
In short, employers must become active and committed advocates for policy change — the kind of systemic, civic-minded policy change whose aim is to improve the overall economy, not merely to benefit a single institution or industry. In other words, it’s vital that business leaders think and work expansively as part of the reform effort.
This, of course, brings me to my final list of suggestions … those directed at our audience members who work at the policy level.
The first one I have already touched on: Embrace the concept of performance funding, and work to make it happen. Make certain that college and universities in West Virginia have real incentive to use proven strategies that can move students — particularly adult students — to completion. Many states recently have taken significant steps to this end. They know that the job is never done, requiring recommitment of new leaders and elected officials.
A second step you can take, and a very important one, is to adopt — and publicly commit to — clear, concrete targets for degree and credential attainment in your state. Give yourself specific goals to reach, and use the common metrics developed by National Governors Association and Complete College America to measure your progress toward those goals. The metrics are simple and easily conveyed to build public support: measure course completion rates, on-time degree completion, completion of developmental education courses in the first year of college, and increase attainment of all these measures for students in priority populations with attainment gaps in your state.
Naturally, this emphasis on goal-setting and metrics will lead you to another important step — the third and final suggestion I have for you today. That is this: Focus on the data and the data systems that are required for meaningful measurement. As policymakers and advocates, it’s important that you support efforts to collect and connect student outcomes data. If you hope to increase college completion in West Virginia, it’s vital that you all be able to clearly see how students in this state move — or fail to move — from K-12, into and through postsecondary education and on into the workforce.
I hope you’ve noticed something about the suggestions I’ve just offered. All of those suggestions — whether made to higher-ed officials, to business advocates or to those in the policy arena — are tightly connected. None of them can be implemented without input and cooperation from all of the stakeholders involved.
And so, as I prepare to take your questions this morning, let me emphasize again that what is urgently needed is broad-based, cooperative, sustained action to boost college attainment.
As employers, educators and civic leaders, all of you understand the huge payoffs that come from a well-educated, innovative and productive workforce. I urge you, then, to join together in your states to make Goal 2025 a reality. It truly is a vital task—in West Virginia, and indeed in every state in our great nation.
Thank you very much.