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All Americans are 'college material'–and they must be

Good afternoon! Thank you. And thank you all for being here.

It is my great pleasure to be here today, talking to the members of UPCEA. Many of you are among the most innovative, visionary leaders at your institutions. You are on the cutting edge, providing professional, continuing education and online programs—especially to adult students returning to complete certificates and degrees—and standing up for standards of good practice in higher education. Your expertise and partnerships can be of immense value as we strive to reach a vital national goal—what we at Lumina Foundation call Goal 2025.

That goal—which guides everything we do at Lumina—is this: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of all working-age Americans to hold earned a degree, certificate or other high-quality postsecondary credential.

It’s an ambitious goal, to be sure. Hard as it is to believe, 2025 is just eight years away. But with the help of organizations such as yours, we believe we can—and will—succeed.

And let me suggest: we must.

In fact, if we fail to meet that 60 percent goal, we put our nation at risk. Our economy cannot thrive if the workforce is not sufficiently skilled to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow. And labor market experts are all but unanimous in saying that a high school diploma alone simply can’t convey those skills. Credentials—degrees, certificates, industry certifications, and other valuable credentials are the currency of the realm in conveying to employers that our workforce has the right skills, abilities and knowledge.

How do we think we can reach this goal, to help millions of citizens who deserve a shot at the American dream? By providing more and better education beyond high school. Our new strategic plan lays out five key action steps—five priorities for action—that we believe will get us to the 60 percent goal. Today I want to focus on just a few of these priorities, because they align closely with the priorities of UPCEA—and almost certainly with those of your institution or program.

One key priority is making high-quality learning more transparent and more connected. That means connecting credentials from all over the postsecondary landscape so that students, credential providers, employers, policymakers and the public know what a particular credential represents and can easily see how it can lead to additional learning.

We know many of you are leaders in this space. A look at the webinars that UPCEA sponsors tells us that you are well aware of the array of credentials and the confusion this can cause—the micro-credentials, nano-credentials, badges, certificates, industry certifications. This is the work you focus on, preparing learners for the ever-shifting professional landscape. You know very well that we can’t ignore this rapidly changing credentialing marketplace—not now, as the digital economy puts such a focus on the skill sets that employers need. You know that, if an institution hopes to remain relevant, it must read the tea leaves and offer timely, flexible, cutting-edge programming.

We know that more adults are turning to boot camps, skills-based workshops and other alternative credential programs. In fact, learners are finding the educational and training “highways” increasingly crowded these days, what with the growing array of credential providers. More than ever, what’s really needed is a GPS system for credentialing.

That’s why we’re excited at Lumina about the recent formation of a national nonprofit called Credential Engine, a new organization working to improve transparency in the credentialing marketplace. Many of you are aware of this work and have helped to shape it. Credential Engine is working in three areas of credentialing:

  • The first is developing a common language that can be used to describe all credentials using key descriptors.
  • The second—which will launch publicly this summer—is an online Credentials Registry. The registry is in prototype now, with more than 90 pilot sites experimenting with credentials that have been defined by those common descriptors and then published on the registry.
  • The third area in which Credential Engine is working focuses on the digital apps that will bring the data in the registry to life for users.

And who are those users? Well, pretty much anyone or any institution that needs to better understand credentials—what they mean, the learning they demonstrate, their value, and how they connect to other credentials. This interconnected, online world is where are today: taking linked data and, through enabling apps, shaping that data in ways that are tailor-made for different user groups. Think of this as an Expedia or Travelocity for credentials.

The Credential Registry will include all types of credentials—degrees, certificates, industry certifications, badges, diplomas, apprenticeship credentials, licenses and microcredentials. But unlike the current GPS, where satellites circle the Earth to collect geographic data and send it to receivers, credentials data isn’t discoverable. The information about your credentials is no doubt sitting on websites, or locked in Word documents or PDFs. It’s not saved in web-friendly formats that are readable by computers spidering out to pick up the data. This is the dream of Credential Engine, to build the GPS system we need to bring transparency to the credentialing marketplace. Credential Engine is now urging all credential providers to put their credentials on the Credential Registry. As this open platform grows, the apps will come.

It wasn’t so long ago that this type of credential-matchmaking service wasn’t even possible. In today’s interconnected digital world, those who seek a credential can essentially define that dream—and follow it—from their own home, through online learning.

At Lumina we’re so grateful to all of you whose institutions have stepped up to this challenge and offer this critically important service. We hope you’ll take the next step and join Credential Engine’s work—especially by getting your credentials into the Registry.

Another important priority for Lumina is also something I suspect is near and dear to many of you: the expansion of competency-based learning.

Many Americans hold credits from several postsecondary institutions and have picked up valuable knowledge and skills on the job or from alternative providers. Competency-based learning can be a new pathway for them to earn a credential.

Everyone here knows that competency-based education is not new in American higher ed. Still, educators, policymakers and foundations are increasingly interested in this approach because it values relevant learning no matter where or how it is achieved. You also likely know that such programs, while promising, remain too few in number. Funding, of course, is an issue, as is securing faculty buy-in and having the expertise to assess learning. And federal regulations surrounding financial aid for credit versus competency-based programs present additional challenges.

Still, we’re optimistic that these barriers can be overcome and that approaches rooted in competencies—the learning outcomes inherent in courses, programs, and credentials—will proliferate. Such programs help students better understand what skills they must master to obtain high-quality credentials in flexible ways and at their own pace.

Let me mention just one more priority for us at Lumina, which is to develop clear pathways to initial credentials, especially for adults with no postsecondary experience. These pathways enable students to enroll in shorter-term programs that lead to certificates or industry certifications, thus setting them up for career success and for longer-term educational opportunities.

The best of these programs feature key attributes I’m sure you recognize: First, they include intensive advising, helping learners focus on completion, but also showing them how they can ladder their initial learning—their first credential—to a higher-level credential. They limit excessive and sometimes confusing choices. This helps learners focus and complete programs in a timely way and at the lowest possible cost. Finally, the best programs have a work-and-learn component, where learners gain real-world work experience within their educational programs.

Now, I mentioned adults with no postsecondary experience. I know this is a population on which UPCEA is focused—and the same is true of us at Lumina. In fact, our strategic plan identifies three target populations on which we will focus our efforts:

  • First, traditional-age students—those who are now between 16 and 24 years old . . .
  • Second, returning adult students—those who have attended college but have not obtained a credential . . .
  • And—new to Lumina—adults who have no experience in postsecondary education.

For a long time, Lumina focused solely on those first two target populations—traditional students and adult learners who had pursued some form of post-high school education but, for various reasons, either dropped or stopped out.

The second group, returning adults, represents people who have already made an affirmative decision about higher education—that it can bring value to their lives. If society could just eliminate whatever obstacles caused them to leave before earning a credential—perhaps by offering financial aid or online classes or scheduling flexibility or competency-based credentials—that might be enough to bring them back.

You might call these folks the low-hanging fruit. We don’t have to persuade them of the value of higher ed, just that they should return to it.

I’m not suggesting that the task is easy. It’s one thing to identify the obstacles; it’s another thing altogether to remove them. Still, we must encourage adults to return to complete credentials . . . because employers tell us they need people with more advanced skills and the credentials to prove them.

Recent history reinforces what we hear from employers. A study called America’s Divided Recovery was issued last June by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. It found that, of the 11.6 million jobs created since the 2008 Great Recession, 11.5 million—99 percent—went to workers who had at least some post-high school education.

Let me repeat that: 11.5 million of the 11.6 million jobs created in the post-recession economy required postsecondary education.

As for the future? We know that, at this moment, 45.3 percent of the nation’s working-age population has attained some sort of post-high school credential.

Our projection model tells us that, given current rates of attainment and, absent any intervention, 24.2 million more Americans will earn postsecondary credentials by 2025. But to reach 60 percent by that year—the rate that experts say the nation needs—an additional 16.4 million Americans who are right now between the ages of 15 and 54 must earn credentials. We simply cannot reach that number if we focus only on traditional students and adults with some postsecondary experience.

Again, our projections suggest that 4.8 million of this 16.4 million new credential holders should come from the population typically considered traditional college students—those 24 and younger. These young people don’t see themselves as college bound and won’t earn a credential unless we implement strategies that reach out to them and increase their chances of success.

So that’s what we’re doing.

Another 6.1 million credentials must be earned by those between the ages of 25 and 54 who have already attended some college or training program. Again, they’re unlikely to return without intervention. Employer-supported programs will be instrumental with this group.

That still leaves us short by 5.5 million people and, to fulfill the promise of that 60 percent goal, we must fill out that number with adults who previously declined to pursue higher education.

Maybe they thought they weren’t college material. Maybe they observed their parents’ work experience in the mill or on the assembly line and decided college wasn’t necessary to make a decent living. Maybe they couldn’t afford tuition. Or maybe life just got in the way.

Persuading them to return to earn a credential now, years or even decades after high school, will be even more difficult than luring back those who have some college experience.

As I mentioned, we’re just beginning to work on this challenge . . . and we recognize that the institutions represented here today have a wealth of experience that can inform this effort.

Now, I’ve talked a lot today about numbers and programs and organizations . . . but not about individuals.

Let’s think about this from the individual’s point of view: if the American dream can be boiled down to a single economic circumstance—no matter where we start, we all want to reach the middle class—it simply is no longer possible to achieve that dream without a postsecondary credential.

I’m familiar with that goal of seeking to be “middle class.”

My dad, a first-generation Greek American, had to drop out of high school because his immigrant father couldn’t find work during the Depression. As a kid, Dad used his skill as a guitar and mandolin player to support his family.

Like so many others of his generation, his life was interrupted by World War II, when he was drafted, shot down and ended up as a POW. He eventually returned home and married my mom and they settled in a blue-collar Connecticut community.

My dad worked as a salesman, my mother as a clerical staff member in a local police department. And, in truth, they never fully made it into the middle class. Maybe that’s why they were stubbornly determined that their four boys would go to college. They wanted my brothers and me to have that chance at the American dream, and they understood that the surest way was education.

So how do we reach out to those who weren’t as fortunate as I was to have such determined parents? To those whose dreams were deferred? Or who inalterably saw their high school diploma as proof that they were sufficiently educated?

This is our challenge. Our nation needs this unrealized potential, this talent. Talent is, and always has been, the key to economic and social success—for cities, states, regions and the nation. Without sufficient talent—talent that is fully and thoughtfully developed, steadily upgraded and in constant supply—the success we seek, the bright future for which we all yearn—won’t happen.

And of course, the cultivation of talent is the key to the American dream for so many individuals. When we cultivate talent, we empower individuals . . . enable them to reach the middle class . . . open their world to jobs that are satisfying and meaningful and rewarding enough to support a family. . . and situate them to participate in their community’s civic, social and charitable life.

All of you are an important part of this talent-building effort. As a member of this organization, each of you is thinking beyond the walls of your office and the borders of your campus. You join your colleagues regularly to share ideas, compare experiences and contemplate next steps. This collaboration is critical as we seek to create a collaborative, connected system that will serve learners, move us closer to Goal 2025 and ultimately benefit the nation.

Thank you for your leadership in this important area. Thank you for your partnership with one another and with Lumina as we pursue our shared goals. And thank you for inviting me to be with you today

Kate Snedeker

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