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Acceleration, Innovation, Collaboration, Transformation

Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation for Education
U.S. Department of Education Regional Community College Summit, Philadelphia, PA

Thank you, and good afternoon. I’m pleased to be with you, and I want to thank the leadership team at the U.S. Department of Education for inviting me to join you at this summit to expand the important discussion that we began at the White House last October. This discussion about adult students and community colleges is not only timely and fascinating, it’s also hugely important to tens of millions of Americans — and to the nation’s economic future. Frankly, it’s a discussion that needs to continue in virtually every American city — and I commend the Department for getting the dialogue started here at the Community College of Philadelphia.

The panel discussions held this morning and the remarks of Secretaries Duncan and Solis have already provided a wealth of good ideas and opportunities. As has already been mentioned, one key resource in these resource-constrained times is the Labor Department’s Community College and Career Training Grants. This $2 billion grant program, aimed to benefit workers eligible for training under the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, can have a significant impact if the money is used wisely. In fact, it represents a huge opportunity to reshape the way community colleges deliver high-quality worker education and training.

But the very title of the Summit today, Challenges, Solutions and Commitments, and the theme of exemplary practices in transitioning adult learners to community colleges and the workforce, helps to point the way for what we might be able to accomplish. From our vantage point at the nation’s largest private foundation dedicated to increasing college access and success—and which sees community colleges as underappreciated national assets—let me share with you some of our perspectives about the challenges, solutions and commitments that we see as critical to the success of this work.

First, the challenges.

Today, the percent of U.S. working-age individuals with college degrees is hovering just below 40 percent. That percentage has barely budged for the better part of 40 years. The problem is, this percent is nowhere high enough to meet the nation’s workforce needs.

So our work at Lumina is focused on increasing degree attainment substantially — we think that the needle needs to move from the current 40 percent to 60 percent by 2025. That’s the Big Goal that the entire nation must achieve to address our economic and social well-being.

To reach these numbers, the nation will need all types of students to succeed and in far greater numbers. To increase the college attainment level of the U.S. population in any significant way, strategies have to address both traditional-age students and adult learners.

And to impact adults — the large population of adults transitioning to community colleges and the workforce that we‘re focusing on today — a major strategy must be to strengthen community colleges. We know that community colleges are the on-ramps to access and attainment for so many students in our nation, especially students from low- income families and of course, working adult students.

Increasingly, we don’t think we can talk about the adult learner population or community colleges, however, without talking about workforce and labor markets. We’re concerned, as we know all of you in this room are, about the critical connection between higher education and workforce development. We believe that the connection is direct, real, and more important than ever before. And, perhaps more than in any other time in this nation’s history, that connection needs to be tightened — from both directions.

With this in mind, Lumina Foundation has been supporting the work of The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, led by economist Tony Carnevale. I’m sure most of you know of this work, and especially the major report published this past June called Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018.

Perhaps the most telling headline from the Help Wanted report is the projection that by 2018, 63 percent of all the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. That would be a huge increase since the mid-1970s, when less than 30 percent of jobs required any education beyond high school.

A second telling headline is that in virtually every major job category the Center studied, more postsecondary education will be critical to job success. The Center is not saying that everyone will need a baccalaureate degree. But the data are saying that associate degrees, baccalauretae degrees and certificates that have value in the workforce — all will be critical to meeting future workforce needs.

In our view, the message is clear: the key to the nation’s long term economic success is a 21st century labor force, one with adaptable workers who possess high-level skills and relevant knowledge. Those skills ... that type of knowledge ... can only be offered in well-designed and rigorous postsecondary programs, and especially programs linked to workforce needs.

The good news, despite the harsh economic challenges we face, is that we’ve been witnessing an adult learner boom, especially in our community colleges. This is a positive trend that holds tremendous promise for both individual Americans and the nation as a whole. It’s a trend we must embrace – because we must increase the number of degree-seeking adults, and do everything possible to ensure their success and transitions to the workforce.

So those are the key challenges, as we see them.

Next, what about the solutions?

There are many solutions that can and must be implemented. Let me zero in on four basic strategies that need to be pursued if we are to help adult students meet the challenges and seize the opportunities before them. These four strategies are: acceleration, innovation, collaboration and transformation.

Let me offer some examples of each, beginning with acceleration. As we all know, it’s important to the economic recovery effort that we move quickly to “up-skill” our labor force.

One wise investment would be to support efforts that speed up the pace of associate degree and certificate attainment. For too many of our students, it simply takes too long to finish. Time is the enemy, particularly for those who are already under financial pressure. It drives many adult students back into the low-wage, low-skill jobs and perpetuates a cycle of economic stagnation.

But solutions are at hand. Accelerated associate degree programs are being tested by several states and institutions ... programs that allow students to achieve job-relevant postsecondary degrees and credentials in a year or less.

Tennessee has a particularly interesting example at the certificate level, something that state has been doing for many years at its network of 27 Tennessee Technology Centers. These Tech Centers have an impressive record of success. In fact, they have a 75 percent completion rate — almost amazing given the recent data from Public Agenda showing that just 20 percent of U.S. community college students complete their studies within three years.

The Tech Centers work not only because of acceleration, but because of innovation. This is not your typical community college program. In fact, it is designed from the ground up for student success. Students sign up for an entire program, not for individual courses. They move through the program as a cohort, taking block-scheduled classes — typically Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. In other words, going to school becomes a full-time job, and students do it on a predictable schedule that allows for family and other obligations.

Students know up front how much it will cost to complete the program, when they’ll finish, and how likely they are to find a job afterwards. Math, English, remedial help — all subjects fit into the context of a particular program so students see how every lesson contributes to their progress. Of those who earn certificates in such programs, 83 percent go on to jobs in those fields. In fact, the approach has been so successful that Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill to reshape the state’s community colleges along the same pattern. And there’s no reason why this type of program can’t be a model for other states.

And there are other models as well, including one in New York that highlights the third broad category I mentioned: collaboration. In its Lumina-funded SUNY WORKS program, the State University of New York plans to build a system-wide cooperative education program across its 64 campuses in collaboration with business and industry groups and regional economic councils. The goal is to develop credit-bearing, paid co-op sites on 20 community college campuses by 2014 — sites that can offer students co-op education assignments from some 300 employers. By 2014, the goal is to graduate 2,000 additional adult students and 5,000 adults every year thereafter, with a goal of a 90 percent graduation rate among adult co-op students.

And finally, let’s consider the last category: transformation. There’s a reason I saved it for last — actually, two reasons. The first is that the other three categories more or less add up to the fourth. After all, if you accelerate students’ progress, if you innovate and collaborate in developing and implementing your programs, you’re very likely to do something transformative. The second reason — and the more important reason — for mentioning transformation last is this: Total transformation is really what we need.

Let’s face it: Half-measures won’t get us where we need to be as we work to boost attainment rates among adult students and seek to achieve the Big Goal. Isolated programs — even excellent and exemplary ones — just can’t produce the impact that can be generated through system-wide, state-level reform efforts.

That’s one of the reasons I’m pleased to see that Chancellor Glenn DuBois of the Virginia Community College System is here today and will be leading one of the afternoon breakout sessions. The Virginia system is truly a great example of system-wide transformation. Its “Re-engineering Task Force” has worked diligently to forge an ambitious strategic plan for the entire system — a thoughtful, comprehensive reform effort that focuses on increasing institutional productivity to better serve Virginia’s students and its employers.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few other illustrations of work that embodies these strategies of acceleration, innovation, collaboration, and transformation. These illustrations are drawn from the recently announced investments made by Lumina Foundation that are targeting a specific population of adult learners—that is, adults who have some prior college credits but who never received a degree. This group—Americans who have shown up on a college campus at some point but, regrettably, have nothing to show for it—represent a huge untapped reservoir of potential talent and economic clout for the nation.

Through this work, we’re supporting “solutions” that are large-scale in scope — national, metro level, and state-level. We’re supporting this work because of the startling fact that there are more than 37 million Americans who have earned some college credits but who never earned a degree – that’s 22 percent of all the 25-64 year olds in the U.S.

In addition to some of the examples I just mentioned, here are a few of the exciting efforts that we have invested in that focus on associate degree or certificate completion at community colleges, and have strong links to workforce development:

  • Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana is conducting a statewide recruitment campaign to attract back some 5,000 adult students who left the college with college credits but no degree.
  • The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities are doing the same for some 160,000 students they have found who have some college but no degree –and many are in the community colleges.
  • Goodwill Industries is focusing on expanding partnerships with community colleges – to link Goodwill’s workforce training to colleges’ certificates and degrees.
  • And here in Philadelphia, Graduate! Philadelphia is expanding efforts begun in 2005 to mobilize leadership and regional resources to increase the number and proportion of adults with quality college degrees, including associate degrees. The effort in Philadelphia is focusing on a group of adults who are sometimes called “comebackers,” adults with at least 15 college credits transferable into degree completion programs. While Philadelphia is implementing improvements in its own model, it is also helping other communities replicate the model — a state-level effort in Connecticut, and metropolitan efforts in Chicago and Des Moines.

Let me close with the final word, commitments.

You can see from just the abbreviated list of exemplary efforts I mentioned that there are clearly a range of solutions which can help adults transitioning to community colleges and workforce. Almost all of these efforts reflect a level of commitment that is absolutely essential to the success of the work. Those commitments:

  • Represent partnerships of higher education institutions, employers, and many other stakeholders;
  • They incorporate recruitment and marketing solutions to inform and motivate adults to return to college to develop needed skills.
  • And they include programmatic and student support solutions to make college programs accessible through flexible delivery modes, affordable through financial aid assistance, and employer-relevant through programs aligned to workforce needs.

None of us can address the tremendous challenges ahead alone. Foundations like Lumina are well positioned, we believe, to complement the critical institutional, employer, federal, and state-level efforts to help address our common challenges. Foundations can typically move relatively quickly to help support innovative efforts, and convene interested groups to work on promising solutions. An important part of our role, indeed our commitment, is to help test promising approaches and take risks knowing that every effort may not be successful.

Our commitment is to help adult students succeed because the success of these students is vital to the mission of every community college — indeed, to the nation itself. And we look forward to partnering with you to meet the many challenges ahead.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to be with you today.

Lucia Anderson Weathers
Stronger Nation 2017 demonstration
Stronger Nation 2017 demonstration
June 19, 2017

A Stronger Nation 2017 report uses Census data to track progress in degree attainment at several levels – nationally, in metropolitan areas, in all 50 states, and down to the county level. It also contains national data and state-specific estimates that show attainment of high-quality postsecondary certificates.