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A Tradition of Innovation, a Time for Profound Change

Jamie P. Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation
Luncheon Keynote, Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) Leadership Congress, Seattle

Thank you, and good morning everyone. I’m very pleased to be here today, and I want to thank Noah Brown, Narcisa Polonio and their colleagues at ACCT for inviting me to be part of this year’s Community College Leadership Congress. It’s always a treat to visit Seattle, and it’s even better to be here when I’m so obviously among friends. As someone who’s spent his entire professional life working to increase college access and success, I can’t think of a place I’d rather be than in a setting like this—a room brimming with positive energy from hundreds of like-minded people.

As community college leaders, I know you share my passion—and Lumina Foundation’s vital mission; that is, increasing college attainment, especially among students who’ve traditionally been under-represented in higher education. You know, even better than my Lumina colleagues and I know, that the students we once called nontraditional—low-income students, students of color, first-generation students, working adults—you know that they are no longer the exception in postsecondary education … that they are the rule. What’s more, you know that these 21st-century students represent our future—not merely the future of the higher education enterprise, but the future of the nation itself.

Of course, as community college leaders, you have always known this. After all, community colleges were created to serve the underserved. It is in your DNA to open the college doors … to provide opportunity and help students reach their potential and realize their promise. Your commitments to underrepresented students—and your long experience in serving them—are vitally important, and that fact has always been clear to us at Lumina Foundation. Indeed, we speak about serving these populations as being key to the equity imperative that is driving higher education transformation.

Many organizations, foundations and agencies—including, I’m proud to say, Lumina Foundation—have recognized and supported community colleges and the vital role they play in this equity imperative. From CCSSE … to the League for Innovation … to AACC … to the Aspen Prize … to Achieving the Dream …to ACCT’s own Symposium on Student Completion, Lumina has been proud to champion the community college sector’s efforts and be your partner. In fact, thanks to my colleagues who crunched a few numbers in preparation for this visit, I can actually quantify the extent of our partnership. Over the past 13 years, Lumina has made more than 170 grants specifically focused on community colleges. Those grants—including 28 that are now active—total more than 120 million dollars, and they have supported work in at least 27 states. Even more important: As I look at the plans for Lumina’s work going forward, it’s nearly impossible to find a strand or aspect of that work that does not somehow involve the community college sector and the critical populations you serve.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me when I make this point. I’m not boasting here about Lumina’s benevolence. We choose to partner with community colleges because for us, it’s about results … about serving the mission. It’s about reaching the big goal that drives all of Lumina’s work.

Surely, by this time, you’re all familiar with what we call Goal 2025. By 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees, certificates or other credentials. Well, without community colleges and the work they do—particularly among the nation’s growing populations of 21st-century students—that goal is simply unreachable.

The institutions and systems represented here today have a depth and breadth of experience that is remarkable. I’ve already mentioned your commitment to providing access to the underserved—and that is crucial. But community colleges have many other lessons to share with the other sectors of higher education. You’ve served a variety of vital roles—fostering progress in developmental education; partnering with K-12 to offer early-college programs; providing a wealth of workforce-relevant training programs; smoothing the path to further education by facilitating transfers to four-year institutions. In short, you’ve done it all—often with far fewer resources than anyone would consider reasonable.

You also have a strong history of local service—of truly knowing and working in concert with other stakeholders in your service areas. Understanding and serving the local community—including employers—is increasingly important, especially in today’s rapidly changing economic landscape. Community colleges get that, and their penchant for flexibility and innovation is a hugely valuable commodity these days as communities increasingly focus on mobilizing themselves around increasing postsecondary attainment.

In fact, that innovative spirit is crucial right now, because change is afoot in higher education … change that is very much needed. Today, I want to talk about those changes—about a new way to approach higher education and how community colleges fit into that new approach. I also hope to share a few ideas about how you—as trustees and institutional leaders—can help drive and direct the changes we all want to see.

First, let’s consider why change is needed, and why it is already under way on many fronts. The need for change, I think, can really be summed up in one word: talent … the overwhelming need for talent in today’s global economy, in our democracy, and in society overall.

Simply put, our nation needs far more college-educated citizens than are now being produced. Experts agree that some measure of postsecondary education will be necessary for anyone who hopes to maintain a middle-class lifestyle in the coming decades. There are powerful economic, social, and equity rationales for dramatically increasing attainment, but I won’t take time here today to restate them. After all, no one in this room needs to be convinced of the enormous benefits that higher education affords—both to individuals and to society at large. Suffice it to say that increasing attainment is now a national priority, and higher education institutions and systems throughout the nation are responding to the urgent need articulated in Goal 2025.

The thing is, we can’t reach that ambitious 60 percent goal by any well-worn path. We need new routes, new ideas, new approaches to serve much larger numbers of students.

To close those gaps and to meet the full range of societal and workforce needs, we need a revamped higher-ed system … an integrated, fully linked system for developing human capital. This redesigned system must be flexible, affordable, and relentlessly focused on quality. Put simply, it must be a student-centered system, one designed to meet the needs of students—all types of students—not just the needs or traditions of institutions.

The ultimate goal is to build a learning-based system that offers broad, connected pathways to high-quality credentials for a vast and growing number of Americans—from all walks of life. Clearly, this is a redesign project of major proportions. It will require years of coordinated effort by of a variety of stakeholders. But it is an effort that must be made if we hope to create a system that can truly serve this nation in the 21st century.

Pieces of the new system are already starting to take shape; in fact, you can see them coming together almost everywhere you look across the higher education landscape. The rapid rise of open, online and interactive courseware and other innovative modes of curriculum delivery … the ongoing push to control costs and increase institutional productivity … income-based loan programs and other creative methods of student aid … increased emphasis on performance-based or outcomes-based funding models in many states … a growing interest in prior learning assessment as a way of awarding credit for knowledge gained outside the classroom.

A specific and really important example is the emerging effort to better stabilize students financially and help them more quickly achieve their educational goals. When colleges combine employment and career services, financial aid, tax and legal assistance and financial literacy services into one-stop service “hubs”, they are structurally, operationally and culturally changing to serve students better. It is no surprise that we think this movement can grow and flourish in community colleges over the next few years.

Another promising development is the emergence of high-quality, low-cost accelerated degree programs. One illustration of this approach is Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, which rolled out its Associate Accelerated Program (ASAP) in the fall of 2010. The program identifies potential students while they are still in high school, most from families living below the poverty line, and offers the opportunity to earn an outcomes-oriented associate degree—one that’s both marketable and transferable—in just twelve months. In this program students are block scheduled from 9-2 or 9-4 each day, and are provided various support services, thereby allowing them to treat the program like a full time job, attending class with their cohort 40 hours per week. The results have far exceeded expectations—after 12 months in the program, 86 percent of ASAP students have earned a degree or are still enrolled—a rate five times better than the average Ivy Tech student.

These developments indicate that higher education is shifting pretty quickly to serve more students more efficiently. And community colleges, not surprisingly, are often in the vanguard. Still, we all know there’s long way to go. We estimate that at best only about a tenth of all community colleges have started up robust student service hubs, for example. But there’s no doubt that this is the direction we must travel … toward fundamental system redesign, because changes on the margin simply can’t produce the gains we need.

As I said, many community colleges and systems have helped show the way in this much-needed redesign project. Pockets of excellence exist, and there are many innovative examples to follow—just run down the list of presenters who spoke Tuesday at the Symposium on Student Completion or those who will share their experiences with us over the course of this Leadership Congress.

Still, despite these notable examples, there’s much room for improvement. A number of organizations have provided guidelines and inspiration on how to move ahead.  A good example is the exciting new collaboration of six national organizations around leadership development that was announced just a few minutes ago.

I particularly want to call out ACCT’s “Trustees for Student Success” website, which is a much-needed location for conversation starters, tools and resources for community college leaders. One of the most significant contributions that the community college sector has produced is the emphasis on the use of data to analyze student outcomes and determine gaps in student support. However, after several years of progress and recognition of the importance of data, we’ve reached an inflection point. Many more institutions need to truly embrace the student success agenda and consider it as an opportunity for real structural, cultural and operational change. And commitment to that agenda must permeate each institution—from boardrooms and senior leadership through both the academic and administrative sides of the house.

A key element of developing this student success agenda is effective engagement of faculty. Too many prior reform-oriented efforts in both K-12 and higher education have put those who have the greatest interactions with students—their teachers and professors—on the sidelines. This is simply not conducive to achieving higher levels of success among our students. Faculty need to be involved in many ways, particularly in crafting a shared definition of quality in higher education—a framework used in a faculty-led process to clearly define the learning outcomes that are the backbone of the higher education enterprise.

Trustees and presidents also must take a fresh, hard look at the missions of our institutions—thinking carefully and crafting solutions that reflect the needs of the students served. Reassess the values, priorities and essential goals that represent your college. How does that reassessment affect your admissions policies, financial and academic support programs, faculty hiring, course offerings, IT priorities, resource allocation? Will you reaffirm or shift your mission in order to reinvigorate your institution?

These are critical questions, and I know they’re not easy. In fact, as I offer these suggestions, I want to emphasize that I make them, not only as Lumina’s president, but as a peer who understands and appreciates the work that you are doing. As a trustee of my own alma mater, Bates College in Maine, I share the sense of loyalty and commitment that no doubt drives many of you. As a foundation executive and a community leader in Indianapolis, I share your desire to boost the local economy and secure its future. And I certainly appreciate how hard it is to balance the demands of board membership and corporate citizenship.

Still, I would submit to you that the best way to navigate these dual roles is to remind yourself where your ultimate responsibility lies. Your ultimate responsibility is to the individuals your college has pledged to serve … the students who choose to attend there.

If you truly serve the students, you’ll find the proper balance. What’s more, you’ll do more good—for everyone involved—than you can even imagine. Truly serving these students means that you put their needs first, even before those of the college you represent. Practically speaking, that should lead you to at least three specific steps.

  • No. 1: Pay attention to results: As a trustee, you must ensure that attention—and resources—are focused on helping students stay in school, truly learn while they are there, and complete their programs. Graduation and transfer rates matter, and so do dropout rates, especially for our least well-served populations. Accelerating the time that it takes for students to get a degree is also important to ensure that students—and society—achieve the benefits from that credential in a reasonable amount of time. And learning outcomes matter, so that your students—and the employers who hire them—can be assured of quality. It’s not just about initial enrollment any more. It can’t be.
  • No. 2: Educate in new ways and places: Today’s colleges and universities must change to meet the new demands of the 21st century student. They must educate these students in innovative and affordable ways, not merely perpetuate the traditional classroom setting. All students need access to high-quality instruction and to the services that can give them every opportunity to succeed. As a trustee, it’s your job to ensure that your college tries out and adopts new models that are nimble enough to respond to students’ needs. Responsive engineering, if you will, means being open to new options and alternatives in terms of instructions and support.
  • No. 3: Reallocate and reinvest in student success: Colleges must analyze their spending, eliminate unnecessary outlays and apply the savings where it matters most: in helping more students graduate with high-quality degrees and credentials. As trustees, your role here is absolutely central. Yes, these decisions are sometimes difficult. And if you’re meeting your responsibilities, they will sometimes put you at odds with your college’s leaders. But again, remember who you’re there to serve: the student.

That student needs you—even though she may not even know it. She needs you—even though she’ll probably never realize that you’ve helped. The point is: students truly need your help to succeed. And if they fail, no one involved can succeed—not your institutions, not area employers, not your state, not this nation.

Goal 2025 is a huge challenge; we know that. But you and the institutions you represent can play an immensely important role in meeting that challenge. As community college leaders, you’ve always been agents of change. Now, more than ever, we need you to embrace that role. Now is the time to take on what is essential to support students and engage in the challenge of transformation.

My Lumina colleagues and 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.

Thank you.

Kate Snedeker

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