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A Stronger Nation through Higher Education

Jamie P. Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation
Plenary Keynote, Council for Opportunity in Education, Annual Conference, Chicago

Thank you, Mitch, and good morning everyone. I’m very pleased to be with you today, and I’m honored to share a stage at least one more time with my good friend and colleague, Dr. Mitchem. Last night we all had a wonderful time at a special event held in Mitch’s honor, and I don’t want to cause him further embarrassment here this morning. But I simply can’t waste this opportunity, in this venue, to say once again how much I’ve learned from Mitch over the years and how proud I’ve been to share this work with him.

We go back a long way … longer than perhaps even he realizes. When I co-founded the Institute for Higher Education Policy back in 1993, Mitch had already been at the helm of COE for a dozen years … and his work on behalf of students—particularly low-income and first generation students, students with disabilities, adult learners and veterans—had already had a direct impact on me. You see, I was a first-generation student myself … a Pell grant recipient … the product of Greek immigrants. Mitch didn’t know who I was back then, but I’m one of many thousands of students who benefited from what he has represented: those students who don’t have family history, or financial wherewithal, or some other inside track, to help them get ahead.

Since those early days, our paths have crossed many times. My wife, Colleen, worked for Maureen and Mitch as the Director of the Pell Institute. My work at IHEP, and now as president of Lumina Foundation, has brought Mitch and me together often, including as board members at the European Access Network, and for that I’m very grateful. I was honored last year to accept COE’s Pell Grant Legacy Award … and thrilled that he was there to help mark that day.

Let’s just say that, for decades, Mitch and I have been on the same side, fighting the same fight. And of course, as we all know, that fight is far from over. And now, as we wish him well in his “retirement” (though I doubt retirement is really what Mitch or Freda have in mind), perhaps the greatest tribute we can pay to Dr. Mitchem is to continue the work that has become his legacy … to redouble our efforts to increase college access and success among the low-income, first generation students that he’s worked so long and hard to champion.

Of course that work is just and honorable … simply the right thing to do. But increasing college opportunity and attainment isn’t just about leveling the playing field to ensure fairness for all of the participants. This is about making sure that the game itself can continue … that this nation and its citizens ― all of its citizens—can look forward to a secure future in a strong, stable and thriving democracy.

We cannot have a stronger nation unless we build that strength through higher education

The fact is, my friends, we cannot have a stronger nation unless we build that strength through higher education. And access ― opportunity—that’s just the first step. It’s a vital and necessary step, of course, and it’s certainly not one we can afford to ignore or overlook. COE and other organizations must continue the work they have done over the decades to open the college doors … and our institutions and policymakers must continue to support and build on that work.

But access is not sufficient, and we simply cannot be satisfied to stop there. We must do all we can ― more than ever before—to ensure that opportunity leads to attainment. The data are inescapable, and the trends are clear and sobering. If we hope to thrive in the 21st century global economy ― an economy in which college-level learning has become the ticket to entry into the middle class—millions more Americans must earn postsecondary degrees, certificates and other credentials.

Labor experts from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce predict that 55 million new jobs will be created by the end of this decade. Of them, 40 million ― more than 70 percent—will require a college-level certificate or degree. And by 2020, the Center says, 65 percent of all U.S. jobs will require a postsecondary credential. According to the latest Census figures, less than 40 percent of Americans hold at least an associate degree. Perhaps another 5 percent hold a certificate or other non-degree credential. Clearly, then, there is a wide gap between what we have in terms of college attainment and what we need. We must close this gap—and quickly, for the benefit of individual citizens and society as a whole.

At Lumina, we have crystallized this urgent national need into a single goal that drives all of our work … an ambitious aim that we call Goal 2025. By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold a college degree, certificate or other high-quality postsecondary credential.

And in our pursuit of this goal in recent years, we’ve learned two important lessons. I’m sure these lessons will resonate with all of you here today, because both are relevant to the important work you do. So, if I may, I’d like to spend the rest of time today to expand a bit on each of them.

The first lesson is this: We simply cannot reach Goal 2025 unless we close the attainment gaps that, quite frankly, have been a national scourge for far too long. Yes, social justice matters, and the struggle must continue. But today I’m here to make the case that it’s not only justice we should seek. Really, what we are after is the issue of social survival.

American society can no longer afford to choose between equity and excellence. We must insist on both.

If we want to truly succeed as a nation—morally, socially and economically ― American society can no longer afford to choose between equity and excellence. We must insist on both, and we must strive to reach a new standard of educational achievement that matches the nation’s current and future needs.

The 60 percent goal can’t be reached unless we graduate far more underrepresented students—students of color, low-income students, first-generation students, immigrants, adults. And for these students to truly succeed, American higher education must offer opportunity and provide ongoing support so that all students gain credentials of genuine value. That’s where TRIO programs, and the important efforts that are undertaken in nearly every component program of TRIO, come into play. These programs demonstrate that higher education can be—must be—both equitable and excellent.

On the equity side, the data show that we still have far to go. Over recent years, despite substantial increases in enrollment among African American, Hispanic and first-generation students, the degree attainment gap with whites remains wide.

Census data show that 49 percent of working-age whites—that is, whites between 25 and 64 years old ― hold at least a two-year degree. Among African-Americans in that age group, the rate is just 32 percent. And it’s even lower among Native Americans and Latinos—just 29 and 22 percent, respectively.

And these persistent and pernicious gaps are worsened by a troubling trend in higher education: the increasing stratification of higher-ed institutions based on students’ race and income. The Georgetown Center recently reported that, between 1994 and 2008, 68 percent of African-American enrollment and 72 percent of new Hispanic enrollment was at open-admission four-year colleges and two-year colleges. Over the same period, 82 percent of new white enrollment was at the 464 most selective four-year colleges.

Today's students are traveling on separate postsecondary pathways that lead to unequal opportunities and outcomes.

Of course, admissions selectivity doesn’t guarantee high quality, and open-admissions policies don’t necessarily eliminate rigor. Still, it’s hard to ignore the reality here: By and large, today’s students are traveling on separate postsecondary pathways … divergent pathways that lead to unequal educational opportunities and outcomes.

And the numbers bear this out. Each year there are more than 100,000 high-scoring African-American and Latino students from the top half of the nation’s high schools who either do not attend college or don’t graduate. Approximately 60,000 of these students come from families in the bottom half of the income distribution. African-American and Latino students are more likely to drop out of college, while whites are more likely to complete bachelor’s degrees and attend graduate school. In fact, more than three-fourths of the nation’s professional degree holders are white ― and statistics show that workers with advanced degrees earn more, contribute more in taxes, are more involved civically and socially, and consume fewer public resources compared to college dropouts.

In citing these facts about the attainment gap, I realize I’m not telling you anything new. All of us in this room learned long ago that equity is elusive, and none of us need look far for reminders of that sad truth. In fact, as we marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech just a few days ago, we were reminded about how far we have to go. In the era when Dr. King delivered his generation-changing words, roughly three times as many African-Americans as whites were living in poverty. Sadly, frustratingly, maddeningly, that remains the case today.

You all know that this wealth gap relates directly to the educational attainment gap … just as you know that the gaps won’t close unless equity and excellence go hand in hand. After all, you strive every day to make that connection for the students you serve. And in far too many instances, you’re faced with daunting obstacles as you try to make those connections. Funding challenges … structural barriers … aspects of the system that stymie your best efforts to clear the pathway for your students.

And that leads me to the second lesson that we’ve learned as we strive to achieve Goal 2025: Lesson No. 2, simply put, is this: We can’t get there with the system that’s now in place.

We need a redesigned higher-ed system ― one that is flexible, affordable, and relentlessly focused on quality

Despite the many contributions it has made to our nation, our current higher education system simply cannot produce the tens of millions of additional graduates this country must have if we are to thrive in the 21st century. That’s not an assessment of blame; it’s a simple fact … a reality that we must confront, together. The current system lacks the capacity, the affordability, and the flexibility to adequately serve today’s students and meet society’s needs. We need a redesigned higher-ed system ― one that is flexible, affordable, and relentlessly focused on quality.

If you’ve paid any attention to what Lumina has been doing and saying recently, you’ve heard this refrain … our persistent push for fundamental change in American higher education … for system redesign. Our pursuit of Goal 2025 has shown us again and again that the system must be oriented to better serve the students who, for decades, have been on the wrong side of those attainment gaps we’ve talked so much about today. To close those gaps, and to meet the full range of societal needs, we need an integrated, fully linked system for developing the talent that will drive our social, economic and cultural well-being in the coming decades.

For me, as an advocate for students who have not had those benefits of family history or income that I mentioned earlier, I believe our most important national education reform work over the next few years must be to design a truly student-centered, learning-based system—one that ensures access to all types of students, gives those students the preparation and ongoing support they need to succeed, and enables them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning. Indeed, this redesigned system is absolutely key. It’s the future.

Of course, this redesign project is just getting under way … and it’s certainly not just a project for people like foundation leaders to try to lead. We know that it will require many years of coordinated effort by a full range of stakeholders inside and outside the higher-ed arena—including all of you, of course.

Equity must be a non-negotiable cornerstone of a redesigned higher education system

Now there are a lot of parts to this puzzle, and it’s too early to see it in much detail. Still, even at this early stage, we can begin to describe the system that the nation needs. For starters, equity must be a non-negotiable cornerstone of that system ― an integral part of the values and priorities of each institution and governing body. In fact, in a truly student-centered system ― a system committed to both access and success for all students—equity would be “baked-in,” a pervasive and permanent feature. Think about that: A higher-ed system rooted in the principle of equity and permeated by it. Now wouldn’t that be something?

And given the growing demand for higher education among an increasingly diverse student population, this redesigned system must include all types of institutions: public and private; religiously affiliated and secular; online and brick-and-mortar; small, large and in-between. It must offer multiple, clearly marked pathways to various levels of student success ― pathways that are affordable, clear and interconnected, with no dead ends, no cul-de-sacs, and plenty of on- and off-ramps. We also know that these pathways must be based on learning ― that the degrees and other credentials awarded must represent well-defined and transparent learning outcomes.

The redesigned system should guarantee that all learning counts—no matter how, when, or where it was obtained. Every credit should represent learning, and should therefore be transferable and applicable to further education.

There are two huge shifts in thinking that undergird this new system: a pair of new perspectives that are really driving all of these aspects of the redesign. For many decades, if not from the very beginning, our higher education system has been organized around institutions and measured by time. Put another way, institutions have been the focal point of the system, and time ― defined by the credit hour—has been the lens we use to view it. By and large, this is still very much the case. While this focus served the country reasonably well for many years, the fact is that this model is simply not able to serve the dramatically larger number of Americans who need high-quality higher education.

Now this doesn’t mean that institutions are somehow unimportant. They are critical. But the idea that decisions and funding and policies largely should respond to the needs of colleges and universities must be replaced by a focus on first meeting the needs of students ― again, all types of students, not just the ones who are most likely to succeed. Just as important: the time-based method of “keeping score” in higher education must be replaced by one that measures and rewards what truly matters: student learning.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this latter point when it comes to the redesigned higher-ed system: Learning outcomes simply must be the true measure of educational quality. Not time, not institutional reputation, but genuine learning ― that is, competencies informed by the real world in which students must thrive.

I’m confident that TRIO Directors and their advocates on- and off-campus recognize that this student-focused nature of the new system is essential. By truly serving students’ needs, and by making student learning the true measure of quality, we will serve the equity agenda and meet the needs of society.

It’s a tall order, I know. As I said, the changes required in higher education will require the combined effort of many stakeholders over the course of many years. But I’ve been around long enough to witness huge changes in this nation and its people. I’ve seen—and I have had the privilege of knowing ― many people who have worked tirelessly and with tremendous courage to make those changes happen.

And I know several in this very room … people who have dedicated their lives to making changes—momentous changes in students’ minds and lives and futures. People like Dr. Arnold Mitchem. Like Dr. Maureen Hoyler. And like each and every one of you, who have committed your professional lives to this great change agenda. My friends, we are all in the business of change—and I’m sure you’ll agree, proud to be so.

I look forward to working with you on higher education’s next round of changes ― and to the promising future that those changes can bring to the students that we serve, the communities where we live, and the nation that we treasure.

Tracy Chen

A series of reports show investing in employee tuition reimbursement yields significant financial payback.
See Talent Investment series