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Linking College Success and Economic Prosperity in Maine

Jamie P. Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation
Maine Symposium on Higher Education, Portland, Maine

Thank you, and good afternoon, everyone. I’m happy to be here today, and I want to begin by thanking the Maine Compact for organizing this event and our colleagues at Unum for serving as our hosts today. You’re all here to tackle important issues and I’m honored that you included me in this discussion.

It’s always special for me to return to Maine. I grew up in New England, and spent four fantastic years at Bates College. I also return to Maine frequently for Bates Board of Trustees meetings, and, frankly, just because it’s such a wonderful place. So homecomings like this are always a joy for me personally. It’s also my professional pleasure to be with you this afternoon. That’s because the organizing principle of this symposium—the idea that college success is the key to economic and workforce success—well, that principle is part of our DNA at Lumina Foundation.

This morning, John Dorrer of Jobs for the Future did a great job of highlighting the critical link between higher education and the economy. The economic and labor-market data he shared shows just how urgent this issue has become. And there are other signs as well. Data released just last month by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that, despite outspending every other country on education, the U.S. has dropped all the way to 15th in the college-attainment level of its young-adult population. That does not bode well for our ability to compete in the global marketplace.

Put simply: To prosper—even to survive—in the global economy, we need many more college graduates … here in the cities and towns of Maine, and all across this country. That is a fact we can all agree on, so I won’t spend more time today explaining the need or underscoring the urgency. Instead, I’ll try to suggest some specific things you can do to help meet that need. It’s clear to me—based on my experience in higher education and on Lumina’s work in increasing college access and success—that everyone in this room can play a part in helping boost college completion.

In fact, this is just the sort of gathering where the message of concerted collaboration is most appropriate—because this group represents the perfect mix of players. As higher education officials, as policymakers, and as local and regional business leaders, you all have critical roles to play in the college-completion effort—individually and as partners. More than that, I believe you have a vital role to fill even before we can tackle the college-completion effort … a role that centers on earning and keeping the public’s trust. I hope today to offer some suggestions about how each of us can play all of those roles.

But before I delve into the details, I should step back a bit and provide a bit of background for those who aren’t familiar with the organization I represent. Lumina Foundation is a national foundation, based in Indianapolis, with an endowment that puts us among the largest private foundations in the country.

Jamie Merisotis at the Leadership Symposium on Cost, Value and Financial Aid, Bates College, Oct. 29, 2011

At Lumina, we have one mission: enrolling and graduating more Americans from college—especially low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners. And we pursue that mission in a very targeted way. All of our energy and resources are focused on achieving one ambitious but specific goal for college attainment, what we call “Goal 2025.”

The goal, simply stated, is this: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees and credentials. As you may know, the proportion of Maine adults who hold at least an associate’s degree is only about 37 percent. And that proportion varies widely across the state, from less than 30% in Aroostook, Androscoggin, and Washington counties to more than 50% in Cumberland county. So you can see we have a long way to go.

But as I alluded to earlier, there’s a first step we need to take in the effort to boost college completion … a step involving public trust. We’re all aware of the nation’s looming budget and trade deficits; well, I want to point out a related, but different kind of deficit … a deficit of trust. In my opinion, if we hope to succeed in the shared effort to reach Goal 2025, we must first cut what I call the trust deficit … a gap that seems to be widening with every news cycle.

When it comes to civic and societal institutions, public confidence is low and getting lower. In Washington and in many state capitals, political posturing seems to foil serious attempts to govern or to craft meaningful policy. Wall Street abuses and shortcuts have shattered fundamental beliefs about corporate integrity … and even raised doubts about basic competence. Many media outlets have ceded their role as objective watchdogs and now cling to specific positions that pit different organizations at opposite ends of the opinion spectrum. In short, even in this age of incessant action and instant communication, no one seems to be doing or saying things that we can truly trust.

Those of us who work in higher education may like to think that we have avoided the trust deficit … that we are somehow immune from this contagion of no-confidence. With enrollments up, and with many economists and labor experts extolling the benefits of postsecondary education, it’s easy to assume that colleges and universities hold—and will always hold—a special place in the public mind.

I’m afraid that could be a very dangerous assumption.

True, higher education is still widely and highly valued. I’m not implying that college and university officials have descended to the circle of hell now occupied by talk show pundits and credit-default swappers. Still, higher education hasn’t fully escaped our national crisis of confidence.

If you want proof, just look at the increasing numbers of naysayers who question whether higher education is always a good investment … whether its benefits continue to outweigh its costs. Frankly, with college tuition and fees increasing at twice the rate of inflation for more than two decades, it is not such an unthinkable question.

Look next at what researchers are telling us about what students are learning. For instance, the recently published book, “Academically Adrift,” issues a stern and well-timed warning about inadequate levels of learning on today’s campuses. Authors Arum and Roksa say that one in three college students—36 percent—demonstrates no significant improvement in learning even after four years. Far too many students are, to quote the authors, “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose.”

Finally, read the spate of recent news stories that point enviously to countries with college-attainment rates that far surpass our own—countries like Canada and Japan … and especially South Korea, which, in just one year, increased the college attainment rate among young adults by an astounding 5 percentage points, to 63 percent.

Looking at all of this evidence, it’s very clear that, even though the reservoir of public trust for higher education is deep, it certainly isn’t bottomless. And you know what? It shouldn’t be.

After all, as higher education professionals and advocates, we are very much a part of civic society, and that makes us stewards of the public trust. If we claim that higher education is a major contributor to the public good—an assertion I believe more firmly every day, as I’m sure you do—still, if we make that claim, then we must act accordingly. That means we must do all we can to keep and sustain the public’s confidence in higher education. It is our duty to build new and better bridges, to shore up areas of erosion, to recommit ourselves to excellence—and to the students and society we profess to serve.

In short, we have to cut the looming trust deficit.

Certainly, higher education itself must take steps to close this gap … but this task isn’t limited solely to those who work directly in that arena. All of us who recognize the vital link between higher education and economic progress—which is to say, everyone in this room—has an important part to play in cutting the trust deficit, and in tightening the link between college success and economic prosperity.

For the rest of my time today, I’d like to offer a few action steps for those of you in each of the three vital stakeholder groups: higher education, business, and the policy community.

Let’s start with higher education itself, where my main message is a simple plea: Pursue and promote thoughtful change. What I’m saying here relates directly to my earlier comments about the perils of complacency in higher ed. Simply put: We can’t afford to rest on our laurels or point to past successes. Rather, we must be proactive and forceful in improving the higher education system—and in advocating for college attainment as a critical element of our nation’s future success. We can’t simply assume that higher education’s historic value will continue to be recognized; we must continually and aggressively demonstrate its increasing value. And we can do that with the growing body of evidence being marshaled by economists and labor experts. As many of these experts have stated, the evidence shows conclusively that postsecondary education is vital to anyone who hopes to have and hold a good job in the 21st century global economy.

Again, strong advocacy of higher education is important, but advocacy can’t simply mean adherence to the status quo. Change is needed in the higher education system, and we at Lumina see three changes in particular that would have tremendous impact.

The first is that higher education must become responsive to the needs of all potential students—a much wider range of people with much more diverse needs than we have seen in the past. I’m not talking about so-called “nontraditional students”—frankly, that concept has been outmoded for years. Today’s student—the 21st century student—runs the gamut… racially, ethnically, socially, economically, … From recent high school graduate to displaced adult worker to second-career retiree, to returning veteran … 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 Columbia to China.

Clearly, no one-size-fits-all system of higher education will work for these students, 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.

I submit that a good first step in serving these 21st century students is to begin with adults who already have some college credit but lack a degree. Here in Maine, for instance, there are nearly 160,000 such residents—well over 20 percent of the working-age population—and many of them are highly motivated to return to higher education and prepare themselves for new roles in the knowledge economy. Help them get the quality education they need.

And that word “quality” is important, because it points to the second change that needs to come about. That is: our shared conception of what quality really means in higher education. Sadly, too many in our nation still think quality is a measure of inputs and a function of the resources available to institutions. We perpetuate the dangerous fiction that quality colleges have students with high SAT scores, faculty with Nobel prizes, and libraries with lots of books. We think quality is a function of how much colleges spend and how much they cost, with more expensive being necessarily better. Of course, this is completely wrong.

In today’s society and economy, the only definition of quality that makes sense is one based on student outcomes … on what students actually learn in their programs and what they can do with the skills and knowledge they gain. Clearly, neither students nor our society will be well served if we increase the number of college graduates without ensuring that their degrees and credentials have real value. That’s why the focus on quality is so important. We can’t simply duck the questions of the naysayers; we must answer them.

In our view, higher education also must change in terms of scale. To fuel the recovery and ensure the nation’s long-term economic health, we need an ever-growing supply of college graduates. That means the system must find new and better ways to provide high-quality learning to millions of additional students between now and 2025. And, given the grim financial realities in nearly every state, higher education leaders must meet this challenge with little, if any, additional funding. In other words, higher education must become far more productive.

The productivity push means that institutions and systems must graduate many more students, without increasing costs and without compromising the quality of their education. Colleges and universities must be flexible and innovative in serving their students. They must work with partners—in the business community, in the policy arena, in philanthropy and within higher education itself—to ensure that their programs are rigorous, relevant and cost-effective.

For those of you in the employer community, I have three basic suggestions. The first two relate directly to two areas that I’ve already highlighted: improving productivity and serving adult students. Simply put, you can help lead the way in both of these efforts by making sure that higher education doesn’t lose sight of either.

When it comes to improving productivity, you can actually serve a critical role by helping to educate the educators. I’ve talked quite a bit today about the need for increased productivity and greater efficiency in higher education. Well, who is better positioned to teach the lessons of productivity and efficiency than members of the business community? True, colleges and universities generate people, not products, so the lessons won’t translate precisely and will have to be adapted. Still, if the approach is mutually respectful and truly collaborative, there’s no doubt that much progress can be made if business takes a teaching role in the productivity effort.

Second, as you emphasize the need to better serve adult students, keep in mind that the idea is not simply to ensure that you, as an employer, have a ready supply of trained workers. The view that’s required is much broader than that. Really, it’s about empowering the individual … because that’s ultimately the power that drives ALL businesses.

As business leaders, you can do this in a number of ways. This applies to the large number of small and medium sized companies that power Maine’s economy equally as much as it does to Unum or BIW. Let me quickly list just four of these strategies:

  • First: Offer tuition-reimbursement plans that are generous and widely accessible.
  • Second: Help your workers plan their educational journeys by working with them to create customized, individual learning plans.
  • Third: Make space available in your facilities for local institutions to offer on-site classes.
  • Finally, get serious and go public with your education-friendly stance by upgrading your hiring standards. Make some level of postsecondary education or training mandatory for new employees, and keep the incentives for upgrading skills as basic benefits.

Again, these are just top-of-mind suggestions. The real key here is to become a genuine and active partner in the ongoing educational success of your employees.

Finally, speaking of partnership, I’ll make one more suggestion to my friends in the employer community. And that is to take a broader view of partnership as you participate in higher-education reform efforts. What I mean here is that as business and civic leaders you can no longer merely be partners with members of the higher-ed community. You also need to reach out to the governor, state legislators, and Federal officials.

In short, employers must become active and committed advocates for policy change—the kind of systemic, civic-minded policy change whose aim is to improve the overall economy, not merely to benefit a single institution or industry. In other words, it’s vital that business leaders think and work expansively as part of the reform effort.

This, of course, brings me to my final list of suggestions … those directed at our audience members who work at the policy level.

The first suggestion is one I have already touched on: Embrace the effort to improve college productivity in your state. At Lumina, we have a specific and developing notion of how to do this—thanks to work that is now being pursued by policymakers and higher education officials in 18 states. In this work, leaders are striving to follow four steps to improving productivity in higher education.

  • One step is to adopt some form of performance funding or outcomes-based funding—that is, rewarding institutions, not for the number of students they enroll, but for how many of those students succeed. Again, measures of learning will need to be key to these outcomes-based efforts over the long term.
  • Step number two is to provide student incentives. The idea here is to use tuition and financial aid policies strategically, in a way that rewards students for completing courses and programs on time.
  • A third step is “new models”—in other words, finding new, lower-cost approaches to deliver high-quality instruction to students. Blended instruction … practical, well-designed programs such as Tennessee’s system of Technology Centers … Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative … prior-learning assessment to credit military or work experience—all of these are relevant examples of the kind of innovation that’s needed.
  • Finally, the fourth step is to incorporate business efficiencies. In other words, promoting and implementing good business practices such as regional purchasing, consolidation of common administrative functions and facilities-sharing to produce real savings … savings that are then used to educate and graduate more students.

Another effort that policymakers can make, and a very important one, is to adopt—and publicly commit to—clear, concrete targets for degree and credential attainment in Maine. Embrace the goals that were laid out by the Mitchell Scholarship Research Institute last year in their report for the Maine Compact and the Maine Community Foundation. Use the common metrics developed by National Governors Association and Complete College America to measure your progress toward those goals. The metrics are simple and easily conveyed to build public support: measure course completion rates, on-time degree completion, completion of developmental education courses in the first year of college, and increase attainment of all these measures for students in priority populations with attainment gaps in the state.

Naturally, this emphasis on goal-setting and metrics will lead you to another important step—the third and final suggestion I have for you today. That is this: Focus on the data and the data systems that are required for meaningful measurement. After all, if you hope to increase college completion in Maine, it’s vital that you support efforts to collect and connect student outcomes data. Everyone needs to be able to clearly see how students in this state move—or fail to move—from K-12, into and through postsecondary education and on into the workforce.

As I wind up my remarks this afternoon, I hope you’ve noticed something about the suggestions I’ve just offered. All of those suggestions—whether they apply to higher-ed leaders, to business advocates or to those in the policy arena—are tightly connected. None of them can be implemented without input and cooperation from all of the stakeholders involved.

The panel discussion that follows my remarks will include representatives from each of these three vital groups: higher education, business, and policy. That is no accident—and I look forward to a full and fruitful discussion from that group.

And as we prepare to hear from those panelists, let me re-emphasize the importance of their joint appearance here today—and of your own participation as well. Their presence … and yours … personifies the type of action that is urgently needed: broad-based, cooperative, sustained work to boost college attainment.

As employers, educators and civic leaders, all of you understand the huge payoffs that come from a well-educated, innovative and productive workforce. I urge you, then, to join together to make Goal 2025 a reality. It truly is a vital task—from Kittery to Fort Kent, Maine to California, and indeed across our great nation.

Thank you very much.

Related news:
College costs aren’t the real issue, higher-ed experts tell Bates symposium | Bates News | Nov. 1, 2011

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.