News & Views

Back To News & Views

Big Goals and Smart Policy for Nebraska’s Colleges and Universities

Remarks by Jamie P. Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation for Education
Building a Culture of College Access and Success in Nebraska
Sponsored by EducationQuest Foundation/Nebraska P-16 Initiative, Lincoln, NE
May 12, 2011

Thank you, and good morning everyone. I’m very pleased to be here today.

I want to thank our friends at the EducationQuest Foundation and the members of the P-16 Initiative for making this event possible and for inviting me to be part of it. Clearly, we’re here to focus on an important topic; in fact, it’s a topic that is critical to the success of every state. I particularly want to commend Liz Koop for bringing together such an impressive group. And I want to thank Liz and her colleagues for their leadership in providing effective information, advice, and support to thousands of students through many different initiatives, including something that we are proudly supporting in collaboration with EducationQuest, KnowHow2GONebraska.

It’s especially fitting that Governor Heineman helped get us started this morning. Nebraska is fortunate to have a leader who is such a champion of education. His tireless advocacy for education issues at the National Governors Association—where he is playing a visible leadership role—and his longstanding service as a board member at Achieve, are just some examples of the governor’s commitment to educational excellence. The governor’s emphasis on education here in Nebraska—and the important role it plays in economic development—is one of the main reasons we are all here today.

In many ways, Nebraska seems to be in fairly good shape when it comes to college access and success. Two-thirds of the state’s high school graduates go directly to higher education, which ranks Nebraska 18th among the 50 states on that measure. In terms of attainment, 40.5 percent of adults in the state have at least an associate degree. That rate is a bit higher than the national average of 38 percent, and it ranks Nebraska 16th nationally—tied with your neighbor, Kansas—in the proportion of residents who hold a postsecondary degree.

I leave it to you to determine whether a tie with Kansas is a good thing or a bad thing … the point is, even though Nebraska does a bit better than average in terms of college access and success, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. In fact, despite this relative positioning, the simple fact is that improvement—significant improvement—is an absolute necessity if the state hopes to thrive.

Facts show clearly that increasing postsecondary attainment is essential to Nebraska’s economic future, and to the nation as a whole. Why? Because, at the most fundamental level, it’s the only way we can ensure that our workers and citizens have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today’s globally-competitive environment.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that by 2018, two-thirds of all of the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. That's a huge increase since the mid-’70s, when less than a third of jobs required any education beyond high school. Here in Nebraska, you mirror the national trends, with 66 percent of jobs projected to require postsecondary education by 2018. Between now and 2018, Nebraska will need to fill about 320,000 vacancies resulting from job creation, worker retirements and other factors. More than 200,000 of those jobs will require a college education.

Like most U.S. states, Nebraska’s economic and social well-being will increasingly be defined by the skills and knowledge of its citizens—and that means you must focus on expanding college access and success. Clearly, many in the state understand the urgency of this problem. In its 2011 Progress Report, issued just a few weeks ago, the state’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education makes some salient and sobering points. Let me quote just a few of them:

  • First: “Even though progress toward the state’s higher-education goals is generally in the right direction, it is not aggressive enough to meet the state’s long-term needs and goals.”
  • Second: “The college-going rate of Nebraska high school students continues to improve, but is not high enough to place the state among the top 10 nationally.”
  • Third: “Freshmen retention rates have risen only slightly since 2004, and college graduation rates also are only slightly higher. Furthermore, graduation rates are significantly lower for Hispanics, Blacks, and Native Americans compared to white and Asian undergraduate students.”
  • And the final point from the report: “Our needy students—particularly males—are enrolling and succeeding in higher education at much lower rates than their higher-income classmates.”

Again, these points surely come as no surprise to anyone here. And the problems highlighted in this report are by no means specific to Nebraska; in fact, every state is grappling with at least some of the challenges on this list.

The question is: How can they—and how can you here in Nebraska—best confront these challenges, particularly in this time of intense fiscal restraint? How, during such a daunting present, can you build the road to a brighter future?

Well, like any good construction project, the work must begin with a blueprint, a detailed set of strategies and plans that is embraced by all concerned—including the P-16 Initiative, the state’s colleges and universities, its employers, organizations like Education Quest, and policy leaders at all levels. Clearly, your presence here today—your commitment to “Building a Culture of College Access and Success in Nebraska”—shows that you are working on that blueprint. And Lumina Foundation is pleased to be part of the conversation, here in Lincoln and nationally. In fact, Lumina has been focused on the effort for some time, working to assist several states in advancing their higher education agendas.

I know you heard a bit about Lumina Foundation during the introduction, but for those of you who aren’t as deeply familiar with our work, let me pause here to offer some background. Lumina is a national foundation committed to just one mission: enrolling and graduating more students from college—especially students from low-income families, minorities and students of color, first-generation college-going students and working-age adults. In fact, we are the largest private foundation in America that focuses exclusively on this mission.

We pursue our mission in a targeted way. All of our energy and resources are focused on achieving one ambitious but specific goal for raising college attainment, what we call “Goal 2025” or simply, the Big Goal.

This Big Goal is that by the year 2025, 60 percent of working-age Americans will hold high-quality college degrees or credentials. Today, as I just mentioned, the national degree-attainment rate is hovering just below 40 percent. So there is still a long way to go to reach 60 percent.

We know it won’t be easy to increase the proportion of Americans with college degrees by 20 percentage points in the next 15 years. Still, we recognize Goal 2025 for what it is—a national imperative. What’s more, we’re convinced that it is attainable … so long as we work with a variety of effective partners, and work according to a plan.

At Lumina, our plan is clear. It identifies three critical outcomes—three significant results that must be produced for the Big Goal to be reached. Those three outcomes are: preparation, success and productivity —PSP for short—and all three must be tackled ASAP.

By preparation, we mean that students must be prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school. When we talk about success, we’re saying that college attainment and completion rates must increase significantly, which means students must be properly supported so they finish their programs. Finally, by productivity, we mean that higher education must become more efficient, more innovative and more cost-effective. These gains in productivity are vital because they will increase capacity and allow the system to provide high-quality education to many more students.

So, that’s Lumina’s approach: working simultaneously on all three outcomes—and with a variety of partners—as a means of reaching the Big Goal of 60 percent attainment of high-quality degrees and credentials.

As we work to get there, Lumina Foundation believes there are three essential steps that Nebraska needs to take, three things this state must do to put itself on track for economic vitality, continuing job growth, and social stability:

  • First, set specific college-completion goals.
  • Second, report your progress publicly, using common completion metrics.
  • And finally, align funding to meet the goals.

Let’s begin with the first of these points. It is imperative that Nebraska set statewide completion goals that all key stakeholders agree on. We very much support the work of the P-16 Initiative to boost student success by emphasizing education goals. They are a terrific start, and we urge you to consider going further, by setting specific quantitative goals that take the state beyond the directional goals already identified. What proportion of Nebraska’s citizens should have postsecondary degrees and credentials? What types of degrees should these graduates have to meet the state’s economic and social needs?

These goals also should be defined at the institutional level. This will ensure that every campus in the state knows how many students they are responsible for graduating to meet the needs of the state and the country. This will also allow you to know which groups of students are struggling and therefore require additional supports and incentives to graduate in a timely fashion.

Actually, you’ve already pinpointed some groups of students who can benefit from extra support and innovative approaches. As the Coordinating Board report notes, attainment rates in Nebraska are significantly lower among Latino students, African Americans, Native Americans and low-income students, particularly males. You’ve taken some positive steps to assist these students—allocating more state funds for need-based aid, for instance, and launching various programs for low-income high school students—but the needs are still great. And they are sure to grow.

The simple fact is, Nebraska’s workforce requires—and the national economy demands—more college graduates. And a steadily increasing number of those work-ready citizens simply must emerge from the populations that have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education. The math—and our future—simply won’t work any other way.

That means our nation’s success is tied directly to the educational success of what is increasingly being called the 21st century student. Now, you might ask, what is the key defining characteristic of a 21st century student? Listen carefully, because this point is crucial:

There isn’t one.

That’s right. Whatever specific picture pops into your head these days when you hear the words “college student,” you can be sure of only one thing: It’s wrong. It’s inaccurate … because it is limited.

The 21st century student runs the gamut—racially, ethnically, socially, economically … From recent high school graduate to displaced adult worker to second-career retiree … 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 Cuba to Croatia.

Clearly, no one-size-fits-all system of higher education will work for these students. It won’t serve Nebraska, 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.

That means we need a student-centered system—one that is flexible, accessible, accountable and committed to quality. This system must meet each student where she is and offer the support she needs to succeed. It must ensure quality by fostering genuine learning, not mere program completion. It must truly prepare students for work—and for life—in an increasingly global society. These factors are what will define a postsecondary system that serves the 21st century student—a responsive system that acts as an effective engine for the development of our most precious national asset: human capital.

So, as you set about the task of setting those college-completion goals here in Nebraska, make sure that they are conceived, not only specifically, but also broadly. In other words, set goals that reflect the entire spectrum of 21st century students—all ages and income levels, different ethnic groups, various life situations. By approaching the task from these varied student perspectives, you’ll not only be better able to establish goals that are relevant and accurate, you’ll also generate insights that can give all stakeholders a better feel for what’s really needed to achieve those commonly held goals.

The success of these 21st century students begins well before college, of course. So it’s important to take a broad view of their lives, to understand that what makes a successful 21st century graduate has as much to do with what kinds of preparation they have for college as it does what happens to them when they are in college.

And as I noted earlier, students must be prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school. All three of these areas must be addressed as co-equals. If they’re not, research shows that the path to and through college becomes exceedingly difficult to navigate.

Secondly, once completion goals have been established and commonly accepted, you’ll need a common set of metrics to help you measure your progress. I encourage you—and I’m sure Governor Heineman will encourage you—to take advantage of the common completion metrics adopted by the National Governors Association.

These metrics measure student movement to and through certificate and degree programs. They can shine a light on gaps in a state’s accountability system, particularly in areas such as credits to degree and developmental education. To effectively pinpoint the gaps, Nebraska should report these metrics annually to the public in a user-friendly manner. The results should also be disaggregated by age, race and income so that you can tell which types of students are being well served by higher education and where improvements are needed.

As the U.S. Department of Education’s recent College Completion Toolkit for states points out, effective statewide data systems and the use of metrics derived from them can help to “empower leaders who want to target resources, reward successful actors, and intelligently alter interventions.”

Finally, the third step: aligning funding to meet the goals. There are two common-sense policies in particular that can help you achieve these goals. One is performance funding—that is, tying funding levels to student completion rates, and not just to enrollment or other input factors—and the other is revising financial aid policies to support timely completion.

About 15 states today have legislation or are actively pursuing the idea of performance funding. These policies and proposals generally follow four basic principles:

  • First: Use simple and understandable formulas with a primary focus on student success, such as course and degree completion, especially for those student populations that are lagging.
  • Second: Recognize institutional differences. Take the demographics of students served into account. Two-year schools are different from four-year institutions, and a research university is different from other types of colleges and universities. These differences in mission and orientation should be reflected in the details of performance measures.
  • Third: Include progression measures, such as year-over-year increases, to protect against large fluctuations of funding among institutions.
  • And finally: Commit a meaningful amount of total appropriations to performance.

These efforts can help Nebraska determine how it can best signal to its citizens that meeting completion goals is a top public priority.

We have seen good indications that performance-based funding works, in states such as Indiana and Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, after a decade of gradually increasing the percentage of state funding allocated on the basis of performance—today 7% of state funding flows based on improvements—graduation rates have increased by nearly 10 percentage points. This growth occurred even as enrollment increased and without any change in admissions standards. Persistence to the second year has also increased, especially for Latino students, whose rates have jumped nearly 15 percentage points.

The funding incentives I have suggested for colleges should be mirrored in clear financial aid incentives for students. There are many ways to reward students for behaviors that increase the chances for completing a degree. You can limit the number of semesters or credits during which students are eligible for aid, reducing the number of so-called wasted credits that add little to students’ learning outcomes. You can require a college-preparatory course of study. You can encourage and reward students for taking a full-time course load.

You may also want to look at experiments that have been tried now in several states that seek to alter the way grant monies are disbursed. For many low-income students, little things like their car breaking down or unexpected child care costs can force students off-track and out of college at critical moments. Paying out grant aid at several points during the academic semester—providing they are meeting academic progress requirements—can help students meet their real-life costs much better than aid that is awarded only at the beginning of the year or semester.

A state like Oklahoma can also show the way for Nebraska to refine the conditions by which students receive need-based financial aid—all while strengthening the incentives for completion. Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship serves students from families making less than $50,000. To be eligible, students must follow a college-prep high school curriculum and maintain a minimum high school GPA—since research shows that a rigorous high school education is the best predictor of completion. The program covers the student’s full tuition at an Oklahoma public college but limits eligibility to five years of tuition and requires students to maintain a minimum GPA in college. Over almost 20 years, the scholarship has a clear record of boosting student success. For example:

  • 81 percent of participants enroll in college the year following graduation, versus 58 percent of all Oklahoma high school graduates.
  • After starting college, students in Oklahoma’s Promise have lower remediation rates and are more likely to maintain a higher first-year GPA than the overall college student population in the state.
  • About 83 percent of Oklahoma’s Promise students persist from freshman to the sophomore year, versus 70 percent of all Oklahoma college students.
  • Fifty-one percent earn a college degree within six years, compared to 40 percent of all students.

This impact is significant—and it could be duplicated in Nebraska.

In closing this morning, let me acknowledge that Lumina is aiming high with the suggestions I am making today. But aiming high is a necessity, not a luxury. We also know it will not be an easy path to success. We all have a long way to go to reach that 60 percent goal, in Nebraska and throughout the nation. But in our view, the achievement of these goals is vital—not only to maintain a good quality of life for individual Americans, but to ensure the long-term stability and security of our society as a whole.

What’s more, we at Lumina are convinced that this ambitious goal is achievable. Here in Nebraska, the leadership offered by the P-16 Initiative, the support delivered by many different private and philanthropic entities, and indeed your presence here today—your commitment to building that culture of college access and success—are all proof that there are many people and organizations that share Lumina’s conviction. You know, as we do, that increasing college attainment among Nebraska’s citizens is the best possible investment in this state’s economic and social well-being. I commend you for your commitment to achieving that outcome, and I look forward to deepening our partnership in that work.

Tracy Chen

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