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Can We Win the Global Access Challenge?

Jamie P. Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation
Keynote Address, Inaugural World Congress on Access to Postsecondary Education, Montreal, Canada

Good evening. It’s a pleasure to be with you as we are all gathered for this historic occasion of the first-ever World Congress on Access to Postsecondary Education. With so many nations represented from around the globe, and with the wonderful combination of education leaders and teaching staff, students, and NGO and government leaders, it’s heartening to see how far we’ve come in the short time since this idea first germinated at a European Access Network conference just a few years ago.

The challenge of access to higher or tertiary education is upon us across the world, for reasons that I think are well-known to many of us and which I hope to expound upon in just a few moments. But before I do that, I’d like to take just a brief opportunity to speak personally about how it has shaped my perspective and my work in higher education. You see, access is not an abstract issue for me. As a young man, I was one of the millions of students in my country who faced long odds. I was a first-generation student, from a family that immigrated to the US, and a recipient of an impressive amount of financial support—from my national government, the state where I lived, the higher education institution I attended, and the church and community that shaped and framed who I am today. In other words, I wasn’t on the inside track to success; my future truly hinged on higher education. I am here today because I take our global challenges personally. So, I want to thank you all for the good work you’re doing to broaden participation and expand opportunity for the millions of more students who now need that access to higher education more than ever before.

Of all the countries we represent here tonight, Canada is a great place to be as we build our global agenda for change in postsecondary education. In fact, there is a lot we can learn from our host Canada’s achievements. In the group of OECD countries, Canada’s is the highest attainment rate for working age adults—and not by a small margin. As of 2011, Canada’s 51 percent attainment rate exceeds the OECD average by 20 percentage points—and it’s increasing at a faster pace than most countries.

Moreover, the crucial link between postsecondary success and economic progress is well-established in this country. Since 2009, unemployment has been consistently lower in Canada than in the US and many other OECD countries, and this trend is expected to continue at least through the end of next year. Though Canada’s labor market recovery is not yet complete, it continues to outpace that seen in many other OECD countries.

Yet, as Canadians will no doubt tell you, there is still much more work to be done here. Like all of us, Canadians still struggle to broaden access and participation—especially for those vulnerable students who are underserved by the traditional system. When we talk about access for underserved students at Lumina Foundation and in the US, it is with a focus on what we call “21st-century students.” These are low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, adults, and first-generation students. It is worth noting, however, that access challenges differ across countries, states, provinces, regions and cities.

In Canada, for instance, immigrant and aboriginal populations face unique challenges that have shaped the definition of access in this country. In other countries, access is very much an issue of gender equity—increasing opportunities for women, in particular. In my experience a decade ago working as a consultant to universities and government in South Africa, it was the enormous wealth gap and the insidious effects of the legacy of apartheid that created the greatest barriers to access.

Though student characteristics and place-based contexts are unique to each country, the key imperatives for postsecondary access and success are universal. For one, we all want the economic health and stability that a talented and mobile workforce can produce. Economists and labor experts agree that, in any city or region, the key factor in economic growth and job creation is the education level of its residents. Without access to a well-educated workforce—and in today’s global economy, that means a college- or university-educated workforce—no business is likely to thrive…or even survive. For us in the States, we know this will be doubly true in coming years. Experts say that two-thirds of all US jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by the end of the decade. That’s a huge increase since the mid-1970s, when only about a quarter of those jobs required any education beyond high school.

Additionally, we face the social and equity imperatives, which are just as urgent as our economic situation. We all know—many of us firsthand—that postsecondary attainment generates significant societal benefits, including greater civic and social engagement, higher rates of political participation and volunteerism, healthier lifestyles, less dependence on public assistance, and the list goes on. Moreover, we understand that postsecondary education is the single best route to a stable and secure future—for individuals and for the communities in which they live.

I want to underscore the connection between higher/tertiary education and socioeconomic progress—in order to emphasize the magnitude and scope of our work when it comes to access. Yet I’m afraid our definitions of access are incomplete. You see, access to higher education is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. It is, in fact, a route to social and economic prosperity. We must do all we can—more than ever before—to ensure that access leads to attainment. But even attainment, simply put, is not our end. We must also focus on the question: “Attainment of what, really?” Ultimately, we must ensure that postsecondary degrees and credentials reflect rigorous and relevant learning … that they are the currency for the skills and talent that our global economy and civil society demands.

As an American, I can tell you that the opportunity that begins with access ends short of success for nearly a quarter of working-age adults. According to our latest government Census figures, more than 36 million Americans have some postsecondary experience—that is, they’ve accumulated some credits—but have no degree or other credential. And less than 40 percent of Americans hold at least an associate degree. Perhaps another 5 percent hold a certificate or other non-degree credential. While we’re seeing some progress, it’s slow-going. Indeed, it has taken five years to see a single percentage point increase in the national attainment rate.

The drive to increase postsecondary attainment isn’t just an abstract numbers game. It’s tied directly to a real and growing need—a global need—for talent. Labor experts from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predict that 55 million new American 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 US jobs will require a postsecondary credential. Clearly, then, there is a wide gap between what we have in terms of college attainment and what we need.

In the US, these gaps are widening even more with 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.

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, American 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 postsecondary institutions or don’t graduate from high school at all. 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 school, 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 postsecondary dropouts.

Of course, the advantages of higher education attainment are not only true for Americans. Across the OECD countries, data show that tertiary education graduates earn over one-and-a-half times that of upper secondary (high-school) or upper postsecondary non-tertiary graduates on average. The economic crisis has even enlarged this wage gap: the average difference in earnings between low-educated and highly educated individuals across OECD countries was 75 percent on average in 2008, yet it increased to 90 percent in 2011. In short, higher education attainment has become—increasingly—a safeguard against poverty around the globe.

The more we understand the transformative potential—the hope—that higher education brings, the more we see access and attainment as major global challenges. We are here today because we recognize the massive equity gaps in the current higher education system as barricades—not only to certain minority groups—but to every aspect of progress in our global world.

Given the diversity of students, and the complexity of the global economy, it is clear that the elite Western model is stressed; we simply cannot expand the system to serve the number of students who need to be served. But it isn’t just that we need to serve more students—the system must be redesigned to better serve students—whenever, however and wherever they seek pathways to completion.

Not surprisingly, the world’s most rapidly developing economies are leading the way in innovations to education. In other words, innovation thrives most where education and employment are tightly intertwined. In the year 2000, there were 91 million young adults worldwide with a postsecondary education, according to the OECD. Of this number, 17 percent each were from the U.S. and China, 12 percent were from Russia, and 10 percent each were from Japan and India. However, based on projections for 2020—less than 7 years from now—we will see a dramatic shift in the countries leading postsecondary attainment. Of the world’s 200 million young adults that are expected to hold postsecondary degrees by 2020, 42 percent will come from just two countries—China with 30 percent and India with 12 percent—while the US share of the world’s college graduates is expected to decline to 11 percent. Overall, trends in attainment worldwide reflect the shift away from the western model, toward models that are more flexible and adaptable to students.

At Lumina we’re learning a lot from international examples that can be applied to the US context. When I joined Lumina in 2008, we became intrigued with the Bologna Process. Now most everyone in this room knows that the Bologna Process is far from perfect, and that the Bologna organizers came somewhat late to the access party when they added in the social dimension after the initial protocols were established.

Still, we saw Bologna as a transformative effort, and we wanted to glean from it whatever could be applied in American higher education. Building on what we learned from European models, we piloted Tuning in 2009. Tuning intrigued us, as it was a faculty-led process that focused on what students should know, understand and be able to do in a particular course of study. The Tuning work led us to explore the value of a qualifications framework, or what we call a Degree Qualifications Profile, to clarify what degrees mean in terms of learning. We saw qualifications frameworks having a profound impact in other countries, and these have continued to inform our efforts to ensure high quality in the US system.

But we have looked beyond Europe. We also have been paying attention to Canada’s increasing attainment rates, as well as this nation’s progress in building a skilled workforce with good labor market outcomes. Additionally, we are increasingly looking to Australia to learn more about how postsecondary education is financed and how quality is assured.

The more we learn about what works in other countries, the more we are convinced that redesign is absolutely necessary in the US system of higher education. This is no doubt true in much of the world. Despite the many contributions it has made to nation-building, the traditional postsecondary education system simply can no longer get us where we need to be as nations. It lacks the capacity, the flexibility, and the affordability that are necessary to produce the tens of millions of additional graduates needed around the globe to thrive in the 21st century. We need a redesigned higher-ed system—one that is relentlessly focused on serving students and producing learning outcomes that translate into real-world skills.

What does this system look like? It’s hard to be too specific at this stage, and the dimensions obviously vary across national and regional contexts. But it is universally true, I would argue, that this system must be oriented to better serve the students who, for decades, have been on the wrong side of the growing attainment gap in postsecondary education: low-income and first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and other vulnerable and underserved populations.

In addition to closing gaps and widening participation, a truly student-centered system must also provide the preparation and ongoing support that students need to be successful. However, student success must be measured in terms of learning outcomes—skills that are real and relevant in the workplace and in everyday life. Ultimately, more students need high quality degrees and credentials that reflect what they know and can do.

I’d like to talk about one example of a brand-new tertiary education institution in the U.S. where student-centered redesign is showing early promise. In 2012, the City University of New York opened a new community college for the first time in 40 years—this time with a focus on delivering real and relevant learning to more underserved students. Guttman Community College is a unique model designed to help students succeed—from pre-college to the workforce or further education—and to do so in 3 years or less. This is far faster than it takes most students to achieve their first or associate degree in the US.

Instead of presenting college as a jigsaw puzzle of discrete courses, services and administrative obligations, Guttman students have a comprehensive, unified support system. The model skirts many different common barriers to student success, particularly the traditional remediation/credit divide. Alternatively, Guttman requires students to complete a first-year core curriculum that is credit-based. This model seems to be working for students thus far. Guttman has exceptionally high retention rates; 75 percent of the first year class re-enrolled for a second year—and rates were consistently high across all ethnicity groups. By comparison, the average retention rate for American public community colleges was 53 percent in 2010. Better yet, of the students retained, at least 62% are at least one-third completed with their degree credits, and 30% have a very good probability of completing their degrees in two years.

The Guttman experience is an important exemplar of change-oriented institutional leadership in the US. Such change is urgently needed—in institutions, and from the outside. For many decades, if not from the very beginning, the American postsecondary 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 postsecondary education.

Now this doesn’t mean that institutions are somehow unimportant. They are critical. Given the growing demand for higher education among an increasingly diverse student population, the system must be provider neutral—it must include all types of institutions: public and private; religiously affiliated and secular; online and brick-and-mortar; small, large and in-between.

But the idea that decisions and funding and policies largely should respond to the needs of traditional 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 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.

Our work on defining competencies and student learning outcomes has been largely informed by international models. In fact, we have collaborated directly with many experts in Europe and Australia in the development of the Degree Qualifications Profile, and our other work on defining learning outcomes and competencies. Additionally, the use of technology and innovation by other countries has encouraged us to champion new pathways to completion—especially those that don’t limit learning to classrooms and campuses.

Given the diversity of 21st century students, their pathways to learning must also be multiple and various. These pathways must be affordable, clear and interconnected, with no dead ends, no cul-de-sacs, and plenty of on- and off-ramps. In other words, all learning must count—no matter how, when, or where it was obtained. Every credit should represent learning, and should therefore be transferable and applicable to further education. Ultimately, credentials must also be linked to skills that are genuinely valued in the workplace.

I am pleased to say we’ve come so far in our understanding of the Global Access Challenge. Just a cursory glance at the program for this conference reflects our focus on removing global barriers—not only to access, but also success—particularly among underserved student groups such as working adults, indigenous people and other minority groups. I am encouraged just thinking about the connections that will be made over the course of the conference, the new ideas for innovation and the best practices that will be shared.

The truth about the Global Access Challenge is that we have no choice but to win. Our collective well-being depends on it. Yet, in order to win, the enterprise must evolve alongside our students and keep pace with our changing world. Even our definition of access must evolve and expand. This does not diminish the importance of existing efforts to broaden participation. Of course these efforts must continue…but it cannot stop there. We must meet the global demand for learning outcomes—the skills—that postsecondary education must avail to all students who are to contribute to and gain from the global society in which we all live.

For me, as an advocate for students who lack the familial or financial advantages I mentioned earlier, I believe our most important work over the next few years must be to design a truly student-centered, learning-based global system of postsecondary education—one that yields the talent we need to sustain our global economy and quality of life. Indeed, this redesigned system is our surest route to worldwide economic and social progress.

Again, I thank all of you for the work you’ve done in your own countries to put students on that path to progress. Your successes, and the lessons you’ve learned, have had great resonance and are certain to have lasting effect. My Lumina colleagues and I look forward to working with you in the coming years to make the pathway wider, smoother and straighter … for every student. Together, I am confident we will win the Global Access Challenge.

Thank you very much.

Tracy Chen
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
August 8, 2019

Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in the United States that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.