“We have to move from defense to what I call strategic offense, not simply by just countering the attacks, but by doing a better job of telling the story of how higher education is the force on which our future depends, while also making clear that we are changing what we do and how we do it, making higher ed more affordable, more relevant and connected, more essential as the world evolves.”

Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis was invited by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences to speak at the group’s Higher Education Forum on June 13 in Aspen, Colo. The subject was the role of higher education in protecting, supporting, and reimagining American democracy.

Here is the text of his remarks:

Thank you. I’m delighted to be with all of you. I’ve been coming to these Forum meetings on and off for more than a decade and was grateful when the American Academy of Arts & Sciences eagerly took the baton pass after an amazing two-decade journey begun by Joel Meyerson and his colleagues at MIT. The incredible opportunity the Academy provides to leaders who come from many different vantage points is unparalleled in my view, and this meeting is especially timely, as we grapple with the role of higher education in these turbulent times.

A word about Lumina Foundation. Many of you know and work closely with Lumina. For the last 15 years we’ve been working to make learning opportunities available for all by supporting the ecosystem for increasing post-high school attainment, rooted in an equity-first frame. Our work centers on large-scale, system change strategies to improve participation, increase student success, and better align credentials with the labor market and the changing nature of human work. We work both “inside the bubble” of higher ed while also monitoring and trying to understand the broader economic, social, and political ecosystem within which higher education operates. Attainment has increased substantially in the last decade, as you know, one of the most successful social change strategies of our time. It also is probably one of the least recognized and understood, which may reflect our own shortcomings.

Missing in key debates

I’d like to begin with a question: Why has higher education—and, by extension, perhaps nearly every one of us in this room—too often been a footnote or largely absent from the big policy debates of our time, or worse, seemingly playing defense at this particular moment in history, especially when it comes to public policy at the federal level?

Think about the really big events that have taken place on the policy front in recent history. The most contentious policy debate of 2023 has been the fight over the debt ceiling. We heard a lot about work requirements, and IRS agents, and spending freezes. On higher education? Not much.

Before that, we saw the biggest change in industrial policy in 50 years—more than $2 trillion (IRA, CHIPS, IIRA) in resources for infrastructure, climate change, manufacturing, and more. Education and training efforts are eligible for less than 1 percent of that.

There are many other federal policy examples. We could note a similar void in the past two presidential elections, and as for the upcoming campaign, if higher ed is mentioned, it’s most likely to be framed as a problem that requires solving.

Indeed, in other contexts—think about the highly telegraphed attacks on racial equity efforts in states—we are largely back on our heels, defending quietly, perhaps, behind the scenes, but not with any sort of cohesive, forward-looking approach that I can discern.

What’s going on?

Telling the story

Despite the bounty that springs from higher education—advancing knowledge and innovation; building a strong workforce; fostering national prosperity; reducing inequality; uplifting communities; helping individuals live fulfilling lives—despite this mind-boggling bounty, no one is telling this proactive story in a thoughtful, consistent way.

We know that higher education is the surest route to the middle class and national success. But that message is up against some very strong headwinds. Some 2½ million fewer Americans are enrolled in college today than in 2011. The college-going rate of high school graduates dropped from 70 percent in 2016 to 62 percent in 2022. At the turn of this century, the U.S. rated 5th among OECD nations in educational attainment; today we rank 12th. And in a recent Pew survey, 76 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans said that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country.

This meeting reflects our collective concerns about this challenge. Our agenda today focused on topics like perceptions of higher education, equity in higher education, and the role of higher ed in strengthening and advancing democracy. The Academy’s various national commissions devoted to these issues are also providing important insights.

These are also the very things that keep me up at night. So, I’d like to take a few minutes this evening to touch on each of them—and speak to what I think we might do about them. At worst, you’ll all be helping me with my sleep therapy, and at best, we may all have some further ideas for discussion and shared reflection.

Value of higher ed is questioned

Let me begin with the concerted attacks on education, especially higher education.

We are in a different place than 15 years ago when I came to Lumina. Then, there was a broad, bipartisan consensus, a shared understanding about why education is important; today, for the first time, many Americans are questioning the value of higher education. In multiple polls and surveys, we see responses like “it’s unnecessary;” “it’s no longer relevant;” “it’s a poor value;” “it’s not worth it.”

It keeps me up at night that there’s a well-thought-out plan to come after higher education. It’s being waged on many fronts, and it’s right out of the authoritarian playbook, as Suzanne Nossel and her colleagues at PEN America have so convincingly documented.

PEN America’s research into what they call “educational gag orders” found that 125 million Americans live in the 20 states where such a law is in effect. They’ve also found that, in just two years, these efforts have gone from limiting CRT to enabling “the partisan takeover of many aspects of university governance.”  Whether it’s banning books, reducing LGBTQ rights, excising parts of American history, assailing sensible DEI strategies, or targeting governance systems and tenure, we seem to be playing defense on nearly every major front.

Indeed, the strategy for coming after higher ed is clear: Start with a rhetorical assault, often using coded language, and then if that doesn’t generate much blowback, just say what you really mean and put it into legislation. Think about the coordinated assault on race-based efforts to promote fairness and opportunity. Just a year ago, we were deeply mired in an abstract conversation using obscure, high-level language that almost no one understood, about critical race theory. It didn’t result in meaningful backlash in the broader national narrative, so now the gloves have come off. Now it’s easy to simply say, publicly, that diversity, equity, and inclusion are bad. When Amanda Gorman’s stirring inaugural poem, which spoke to a wide swath of Americans, is a target of these efforts, we understand that the real point is to silence both the speaker and the message.

The misleading, negative narratives

Lumina does big-data research on media narratives, trying to understand what the public is saying about higher education so we as a sector can amplify positive narratives, reduce damaging narratives, and in general improve what higher ed does. We do this by analyzing billions of data points about what is being said about higher ed both in traditional media and social media. At any given time, there are seven or eight main narratives about higher education taking place simultaneously; some come and go, some have a long trajectory, and some morph over time.

Our current media narrative research shows that almost nobody’s telling a positive story about higher education, and opponents, propelled by a sophisticated propaganda ecosystem, are filling the vacuum. Damaging narratives are quite common, have moved from fringe media to the mainstream, and now account for a major part of what is being said about higher education. The most prevalent of these narratives, according to our research, is that “Woke-ism has come for Higher Ed,” which is summarized this way: “The radical left has seized the university system and launched a dangerous campaign of anti-American indoctrination of college students.” We can expect the volume on this narrative to rise as the presidential race heats up.

Colleagues, our responsibility is not to defend what should not need to be defended. We don’t win by arguing that higher ed is too woke, or not woke enough. Indeed, that approach keeps the debate squarely on the wrong side of the equation. Instead, it’s up to us to make a much more forceful case for what higher education is for.

Demand for higher ed remains strong

We know, as leading analysts like Sue Dynarski, professor of education at Harvard University and others have shown, that the demand for college educated talent continues to exceed the supply, and that differences in economic growth across regions—nations, states, cities, and counties—are almost exclusively caused by differences in educational attainment.

We know, as University of Montana President Seth Bodnar wrote recently, that higher ed is a critical component of U.S. global preparedness and competitiveness. Bodnar—a Rhodes Scholar and Green Beret—says that when he led soldiers in the Army, “I did so knowing we possessed not just air superiority but also night-vision, sensing and communications capabilities that far outpaced our adversaries”—technology that came from foundational research at American universities and the knowledge workers they produced.

We also know the severe toll of not having higher education. Journalist Jon Marcus, who has participated in several of these Forum meetings over the years, succinctly described it this way. People without education past high school earn significantly less than those with bachelor’s degrees and are more likely to be unemployed and live in poverty. They’re more prone to depression, live shorter lives, need more government assistance, pay less in taxes, divorce more frequently and vote and volunteer less often.

Threats to funding

I want to acknowledge that for the past several years, many institutions were just trying to survive the pandemic. I get it. I also know that the fear of political repercussion—particularly threats to funding—is real. But we have to move from defense to what I call strategic offense, not simply by just countering the attacks, but by doing a better job of telling the story of how higher education is the force on which our future depends, while also making clear that we are changing what we do and how we do it, making higher ed more affordable, more relevant and connected, more essential as the world evolves.

The second thing that keeps me up at night is that our society is becoming more unequal racially and economically. And, of course, even as we struggle to close ongoing racial gaps in attainment, the Supreme Court is poised to make that work more difficult.

Racial attainment gaps worsen

I mentioned a moment ago the work of Jon Marcus, who writes for The Hechinger Report. The editor of Hechinger Report, Liz Willen, is here with us, so let me add another story that recently came out of her shop that reported that while the college enrollment and degree gaps between white and Black Americans were always bad, they are getting worse. Hechinger’s reporting shows that while Black enrollment was down by 22 percent between 2010 and 2020, it has fallen another 7 percent since then. Our own research at Lumina Foundation shows that half of white adults have an associate degree or higher compared to about one-third of Black adults.

Against this alarming background, the Supreme Court is set to put its weighty thumb on the scale of the national debate over the fairness of race-conscious admissions in higher education. Indeed, it’s possible that the case will have implications well beyond admissions. We will soon find out. Given this court’s recent decisions, it’s hard not to fear that the era of college diversity, one that many of us have championed as the right and just path for all learners, is in serious peril. These include not only the legal challenges, but what is even more insidious, the chilling effect that these decisions have on long-established behavior and strategies that are not part of the case.

If that happens, the consequences for Black students, Hispanic and Latino students, and Native Americans are clear. Study after study has shown that the inability to consider race, among other factors, in admissions in several states has been followed by reductions in racial diversity.

And let’s be blunt: this assault on higher education is not about fairness, or opportunity. When the attacks focus on critical race theory, and on Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, and on race and gender classes, and on affirmative action, we know what’s going on. And when a political leader says, “the whole experiment with DEI is coming to an end,” we should take them at their word.

Clearly, we’re experiencing a backlash against equity efforts that represent a threat to political, social and economic power and the demographic change that will see the U.S. become a majority-minority country in about 20 years—a backlash as fierce as any since the Civil Rights era.

Our strength in diversity

That our country is becoming ever more diverse is not a weakness; it’s one of our greatest strengths. Shouldn’t we be making this case more consistently? Savvy American businesses are doubling down on their efforts not just to diversify their workforces but to find employees who can work successfully with colleagues, clients, and customers from varied backgrounds. Many businesses see these efforts as essential to their success—even to their survival.

This is why so many of America’s largest employers, civil rights organizations, and 35 top military leaders filed amicus briefs in the Supreme Court case, as they have with every admissions case over the last 25 years. They contend that colleges and universities render a great common good by educating citizens and workers who are as diverse as America itself. In short, they want higher education to prepare people to meet coming challenges.

There’s a reason that businesses have lined up this way: Research has shown that racial/ethnic and gender diversity are clearly correlated with profitability. Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33 percent more likely to have industry-leading profitability. Why haven’t we made that case more forcefully from our own vantage point in higher education?

The Academy’s seminal report on The Future of Undergraduate Education succinctly noted that we need to “bring together students from different backgrounds to create intellectual and social connections in ways that sustain and enrich American democracy.”

To do that, we have to act more intentionally to reach, attract, mentor, retain and graduate students of color—from questioning what selectivity really means in admissions, to increasing Pell Grants and scholarships, to providing students with mentors, to monitoring students to ensure they’re on track, to providing career counseling.

The drift from democracy

The third thing that keeps me up at night is the undeniable drift toward authoritarianism, around the world and here at home.

The intersecting crises we’ve faced over the past several years represent a world of increasing asymmetry and volatility. COVID; January 6th; the war in Ukraine; an epidemic of gun violence in our sacred, cherished, and essential public places. These and other world-changing events have exacted a toll on our politics, our economics, and our very view of what society means in the modern context.

This ongoing turbulence provides a breeding ground for the cancer of authoritarianism to grow and metastasize. Much of the allure of authoritarian leaders is their appeal to vulnerable peoples’ basic fear—fear of change, fear of loss of advantage, fear of the other. Authoritarian leaders exploit fear by appealing to group identity and cohesion and by defining those who appear different as a threat. Hence “the Great Replacement Theory;” book banning; the demonization of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; the tripling of gun sales with stunningly devastating consequences since 2000.

It’s important to recognize that authoritarianism is not just imposed from above, but is an individual worldview that everyone to a greater or lesser extent is susceptible to. Research suggests people with a greater preference for group cohesion are more inclined to feel threatened by diversity, be intolerant of outsiders, and support authoritarian leaders. All are threats to liberal democracy and the diversity of expression, beliefs, and ways of living it’s designed to protect.

This of course is not news to those of us who work in higher education. But this part of our mission has been understated, undervalued, and underinvested. Our task ahead is to speak both to the continuing economic and social benefits of higher ed with new clarity, while also making the case that this is the same system that can best help protect our democracy. Data from surveys that track authoritarian attitudes show that higher levels of education reduce authoritarian beliefs and values. Today, for example, about a quarter of Americans with a high school diploma or less say “military rule would be a good way to govern our country,” compared to 7 percent of college grads.

The key to prosperity

At its best, higher ed promotes critical thinking, independent thought, inquisitiveness, and curiosity. It exposes people to diverse ideas and culture. It helps people better understand basic principles of democracy and equality, how to deal with complexity and difference in society, and it teaches them that the resolution of disagreement through compromise is not capitulation, it is a sign of a healthy, fact-driven, democratic, human existence.

A better-educated population, then, is not only a key to individual prosperity –what we have long called the “good jobs and good life” dividends of education—but also shared prosperity, the strongest bulwark against threats to our democratic way of life.

As at other pivotal times in our nation’s history, higher education has an essential role to play in navigating us through today’s crises. Think about the critical role that land-grant institutions played in the post-Reconstruction period. Think about higher ed’s role in responding to the Sputnik challenge. These crises of the past have been resolved through the growth in knowledge, research, and community-building that higher education has fostered. But in today’s world, higher education is seen by too few as the source of that inspirational change, that renewal in pursuit of common goals.

In the current context, then, one thing we can do among the many reform efforts needed in higher education is to reimagine higher ed’s role in preparing people for active, informed citizenship.

By active, informed citizenship, I don’t mean that we need to do a better job of instilling classic civic knowledge and reminding people of their civic obligations. That is still very important, of course, but it’s not enough. Here I’m talking about preparing people to be much more engaged in dealing with these existential threats of authoritarianism, of climate change, and of inequity and injustice—to be active citizens.

Education promotes engagement

Clearly, active citizenship is more than voting and having informed opinions on the key issues of the day—as important as those are. It also requires citizens to be truly engaged in their communities and society. Developing active citizens means that we—both personally and as higher education advocates—need to better connect learning with the real issues and problems confronting individuals and their communities.

We need to do a better job of articulating why these things are just as important as gaining job skills. A great way to develop the needed skills is through much larger- scale service-learning models—not in the nice, noblesse oblige mode of recent history, but in deeply meaningful engagement in communities, connecting people in new and better ways through academic programs.

Since World War II and the rise of the knowledge economy, one thing higher education could count on was that the vast majority of Americans saw it as a vital step toward economic and social mobility. As we’ve been talking about in our sessions today, this can no longer be taken for granted.

And when charlatans and opportunists attack higher ed for political gain, they risk not only cutting out rungs from the ladder to economic success, but also hardening our racial divides and weakening our bulwark against autocracy at a time when we need it most.

The engine of democracy

Our strategy, then, must not be to play on their terms. If all we say is why we are against what they are against, we are simply ensuring that the arguments about what higher education is for will always be under water.

Let me conclude by saying that our greatest mistake as a sector might be to be cautious, or even worse, to do nothing in hopes that these converging storms will subside. As jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has written, the fight before us is not one of good versus evil, but rather good versus neutral.

In the end, we can’t lose sight of the key fact that higher education is transformative and rewarding for individuals; and by creating conditions where more people learn more, higher education greatly benefits other large-scale, societal systems.

It’s the engine of democracy. That’s not to say that people who haven’t been to college aren’t an essential element of solving big problems. But higher ed has a vital role to play in preparing us to meet the challenges of the authoritarian movement. We must ask what colleges, universities, and other education and training providers must do to build people’s knowledge, skills, and abilities as active participants in a representative democracy and as anchors in the communities where they live and work.

At Lumina, we’re asking what it would mean to deliver on the promise of preparing people for active, informed citizenship. What kinds of civic participation should we encourage? How do we work with leaders to ensure civic learning is embedded not only in degree programs but also in certificate and certification programs? To what extent is equity-mindedness reflected in how higher ed is preparing students to work, live, and participate as citizens in the world’s most diverse democracy? What is higher education’s role in helping society adapt to—and, hopefully, reverse—climate change, helping us find better ways to work and live?

Our shared interests and ideals

These are just some of the ways we can stop playing defense and start making the case for what higher education is for. Higher education must change, it must transform itself to meet the moment that we are in. Revitalizing American higher education to directly address these existential threats—to our security and prosperity, and to our cherished freedom of expression and action—will be the most powerful way to renew American democracy and our communities. In the end, our work must be driven by the idea that higher education not only leads to better jobs, but also by the notion that a better-educated population—reflecting the racial, cultural, and social diversity that has been a hallmark of the American experiment for more than two centuries—serves our shared interests and ideals.

We want to protect and uplift these qualities that define our nation, and there’s not a moment to lose. Our shared determination and commitment in the face of these challenges is the best way forward—and I for one think we’ll all sleep better at night, knowing that we can do this.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of the book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

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