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National Goals and Policy for Higher Education

Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation
Keynote Address, SHEEO Annual Meeting, Washington, DC

Thank you, and good morning. First of all, I want to say how pleased I am to be sharing the dais this morning with Teresa Lubbers, a friend and fellow Hoosier. Even though I grew up in New England and my professional roots run fairly deep right here in D.C., I’ve lived in Indianapolis for almost six years now, so I’m proud to claim that title.

I also want to thank SHEEO—and, in particular Paul Lingenfelter ― for inviting me to join you at this historic gathering. As if 60 years of service wasn’t enough of a milestone for SHEEO, this year also marks the last annual meeting at which Paul will preside as your president. I simply can’t let Paul begin his well-earned retirement without taking time to thank him publicly—and personally ― for all that he has done over the years. Paul has been a thoughtful and steady leader, a consistent champion for excellence in higher education, and a generous source of wise counsel for us at Lumina Foundation. In fact, Paul assumed his role as SHEEO’s president in 2000, the same year that Lumina was established. So he’s been a great friend—really a partner ― of the Foundation from the very beginning. Paul has also been a great source of counsel to me personally, including his very helpful advice to me about the untapped capacity of foundations to take risk. Paul, we’re “all in” at Lumina, and I took your advice to heart as we set the path we are on in my first couple of years. Thank you for everything you’ve done.

In a way, it’s difficult to imagine SHEEO without Paul Lingenfelter; but of course, the organization and its important work will go on. You will adapt to this change and, in some ways, even embrace it … because, after all, change is the only constant in life. In fact, if you think about it, Paul’s entire tenure at SHEEO here has been marked by sweeping change. Today’s higher education landscape is very different from the one he stepped into in 2000 … and those changes are sure to multiply and intensify in the coming years.

Really, if there were ever a time of change in American higher education, that time is now. So many forces are at work to compel these changes, and as SHEEOs, you deal with all of them, but let me mention four in particular. First is the funding challenge. Without question, finding the money to adequately fund the higher-education enterprise is a constant concern. Even though most states are starting to emerge from the dark depths of a few years ago, I doubt that anyone here believes that we’ll ever get back to the good old days. Fair or foul—and like it or not ― the pressure to do more with what we have is here to stay. And, frankly, despite the challenges it creates, that results-oriented mentality isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it creates the perfect opportunity to challenge the status quo of higher education funding in ways that we could not have imagined even four years ago. To increase college attainment to the level that we really need, we are challenged to restructure our thinking about ways to fund the higher-ed enterprise.

Another obvious change in the higher education landscape is the rapid rise of technology. Big data, online programs, the explosion of social media … these and many other 21st century trends are transforming pedagogy and forcing huge changes in every corner of the higher-ed system—from assessment and accreditation to student recruitment and support to faculty hiring and development.

Perhaps even more obvious: College students have changed. Today’s student population is huge and growing ― and those numbers need to grow even larger in coming years if we hope to keep our economic edge and ensure social cohesion. In addition to its sheer size, today’s student population is also remarkably diverse; in fact, it looks nothing like your father’s freshman class or even our own freshman classes. The 21st century student represents all ages and income groups, all races and ethnicities, students pursuing not just four-year degrees but also adding skills and credentials of all kinds to their personal portfolios. The students that you must serve may live on campus or way off campus. They could attend part-time or full-time, and they’re likely to enroll in several institutions. Today’s students also face a variety of challenges that few members of our college classes had to confront. Most struggle to pay for college, often incurring significant debt. A growing number are pursuing college and career, fitting classwork around the demands of their employers. Many are juggling family responsibilities. In short, the student population has grown much larger and infinitely more diverse, and that growth is transforming higher education.

Employers expect graduates who are truly prepared for the demands and complexities of the modern workplace

The fourth change, however, may be the most profound. In a word, expectations have changed ― at every level and from every quarter. Employers expect better graduates. They want degree and certificate holders who are truly prepared for the demands and complexities of the modern workplace. State leaders and policymakers expect better results. They want institutions to produce more and better graduates at reasonable cost; in short, they expect a better return on the investment of public education funds. Students and families expect a more responsive higher-ed system. They want high-quality programs, delivered in a variety of modes and platforms at prices that don’t force them to mortgage their future.

These new expectations present the higher-education system with a series of challenges, to be sure. But the expectations aren’t unreasonable. In fact, we at Lumina recently commissioned a Gallup poll that demonstrates just how reasonable the public really is on the issues of college affordability and value. The results of that poll are now public, and you can examine them in detail on Gallup’s website. This morning, though, I want to share two highlights from that survey, two findings that speak to the public’s general views on higher education.

First, people are willing to pay for it. One in four respondents—26% ― said that they’d expect to pay between $10,000 and $20,000 for each year of undergraduate study, and another 18% said $5,000 to $10,000 would be a fair price. Lower-income populations, not surprisingly, suggested that somewhat lower tuitions were affordable, reinforcing the notion that we need to make sure to concentrate resources on those with need. Second, people want a good return on their investment. Forty-one percent cited “the ability to get a good job” as the most important factor when choosing a college or university—more important than an institution’s cost or its graduation rate.

Expanded information from the Gallup poll

America's Call For Higher Education Redesign

10 pgs. | 381k | PDF

Taken together, these bits of data make an important point about the heightened expectations I’ve been talking about … and about the tide of change sweeping through the higher-ed system. Put simply, the big message is this: The expectations are valid, and the changes are sorely needed.

The facts are inescapable: If this nation is to thrive in the global economy and continue to progress as a society, far more of our citizens need to be properly educated. And as SHEEOs, you know very well that a proper education doesn’t end anymore with a high school diploma. It just can’t. To attain and maintain a place in the middle class—and produce all of the economic and societal benefits such a position affords ― Americans need the skills and knowledge that can only be gained in high-quality postsecondary programs. In a word, college is key … for all Americans.

I won’t spend time today repeating the wealth of evidence that underscores the importance of increasing college attainment. I know most of you have set attainment goals in your own states and understand the economic and social imperative for increasing attainment. The facts are reinforced in the latest issue of Lumina’s signature report, A Stronger Nation through Higher Education. Each of you received a copy of Stronger Nation just a few weeks ago, and I hope it proves useful to you as you address the college-completion challenges in your own states.

Again, I know that you are fully aware of those challenges, and that you are deeply committed to the goal of broader college participation and increased college attainment in the state you serve. In other words, I’m not here to recruit you, because we’re already on the same team. What I’d like to do, if I may, is to refocus and remind you to constantly challenge your thinking and assumptions about higher education. I want to encourage you to craft creative new models of running this grand enterprise which still promises so much to so many.

The higher education system needs to be redesigned so that it truly serves our needs as a society

I’ve talked a great deal today about change. And I know we all understand that change is necessary … that higher ed simply cannot meet expectations by doing business the way it always has. If you’ve heard anything from Lumina recently, that has been the message … that the higher education system needs to be redesigned so that it truly serves our needs as a society. This redesign effort is a major undertaking, of course—one that goes far beyond Lumina and will take many years to accomplish. Still, even though this work is just beginning, system redesign has already become a central focus for us. That’s because we know that it is critical to the achievement of the goal ― Goal 2025—that we seek.

Clearly, a goal this ambitious won’t be reached by any well-worn path. We need new routes, new ideas, new approaches to serve much larger numbers of students. In particular, we need to concentrate on the students who, for decades, have been on the wrong side of the growing attainment gap in higher education: low-income and first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and adults. To close those gaps, and to meet the full range of societal needs, we need an integrated, fully linked system for developing human capital. Again, we need a redesigned system ― one that is flexible, affordable, and relentlessly focused on quality.

At Lumina, we are working actively to design a truly student-centered system, one that ensures access to all types of students, gives those students the preparation and ongoing support they need to succeed, and enables them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning.

So, how will this redesigned system actually work? Obviously, there are a lot of parts to this puzzle, and it’s too early to see it in much detail. Still, we can begin to describe it, and we can listen to students and others who can help define it for us. We know the basic aspects of the system the nation needs: At its core, it’s a system that offers multiple, clearly marked pathways to various levels of student success ― pathways that are affordable, clear and interconnected, with no dead ends, no cul-de-sacs and plenty of on- and off-ramps.

We need to understand that the way to build these pathways is to be sure that they are based on learning. Degrees and other postsecondary credentials should represent well-defined and transparent learning outcomes. We need to guarantee that all learning counts ― no matter how, when, or where it was obtained. We need to guarantee that no one ever has to take a course to get credit for learning something they already know. Every credit should represent learning, and should therefore be transferable and applicable to further education. Accomplishing this is not—pardon the pun ― an academic exercise. Only by developing a deeper understanding of the learning outcomes of higher education can we assure that all learning counts.

With this understanding we can also create so-called “directed choice” programs for undergraduates, sometimes referred to as “guided pathways.” To help students reach goals for degrees and employment, these programs often package courses in transfer modules so students can navigate efficiently among various types of institutions. “Guided pathway” programs are just one aspect of this redesigned system, but they’re a step in the right direction … and they say a lot about how the system is evolving.

In the best scenario, this new system will be one in which everyone knows where he or she is going, how much it will cost to get there, how much time it will take, and what to expect at journey’s end—both in terms of learning outcomes and career prospects.

We don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to make this system a reality, and change is never easy. But the payoff for implementing this change will be huge. Let’s begin by exploring this change in two steps. First, I’ll talk about two mega-shifts in thinking that undergird this new system: a pair of new perspectives that must drive all of the smaller changes. Second, I’ll cite a few instances where these smaller changes are actually happening … a handful of real-world examples where pieces of this redesigned puzzle are beginning to emerge.

Big-picture first: The two new major perspectives in American higher education. For many decades, if not from the very beginning, our higher 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. Those long-held perspectives won’t be enough to educate many more Americans. They need to shift.

The institutional focus ― the idea that decisions and funding and policies should respond to the needs of colleges and universities—must be replaced by a focus on meeting the needs of students and, by extension, the needs of society. 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 point when it comes to the redesigned higher-ed system: We must focus on learning outcomes as 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.

Again, this shift to a student-centered, learning-based approach represents the big picture. It is the foundation on which we build that overarching, fully linked system of education that runs from pre-K, through higher education, into the workforce and even beyond. Once that shift is made, it becomes possible to take other vital steps. For instance:

  • We can align assessments and certifications at the various levels of education to prevent duplication and improve timely completion of programs.
  • We can create and refine financial aid programs and funding models that incentivize actual outcomes ― paying students and institutions for what is actually learned, not for “time on task.”
  • We can clearly define career ladders and pathways for students to follow.
  • We can assure employers that graduates will have the knowledge and skills they truly need to succeed in the modern workplace, and better understand from employers what they are looking for.

Of course, from your perspective as state higher education officers, this fully linked system extends beyond what you might typically consider your area of responsibility. In fact, it extends in two directions ― back into the K-12 system and forward into the workforce—and that’s another vital change in perspective. In an education system that is truly student-centered, your area of responsibility can’t begin in Year 13 and end after grad school. Rather, you and other higher ed leaders must share responsibility all along the pipeline—with educators at every level ― for the success of each student.

This sounds like a monumental task, I know. And I won’t deny the challenges involved. I mean, all we’re asking for is a redesigned system that can accommodate the lives and learning styles of every student, ensure consistent quality, and operate at a scale large enough to serve millions more students every year ― all at a reasonable, or even reduced cost.

I get it. This is tough work.

But it’s not impossible. In fact, there are efforts under way all across the country that prove it’s not impossible. These are those more targeted projects I referred to earlier—real work that is showing promise as pieces in the big puzzle of system redesign. If I may, I’ll spend a few minutes here at the end of my remarks to share some examples. Hopefully, some of them will suggest steps that you can take in your own states to help fill in the puzzle.

First of all, for any learning-based system to work, we need clear definitions of the learning outcomes we seek. Work is certainly under way on this front—most notably, with the Degree Qualifications Profile. The DQP is an architecture for crafting a shared definition of quality, a framework that can be used to define learning outcomes. Specifically, it is a baseline set of reference points for what students in any field should be able to do to earn credentials at three specific degree levels: associate, bachelor’s and master’s.

For nearly two years, the DQP has been tested by faculty-led teams at somewhere around 300 institutions in more than 30 states, representing virtually every sector of nonprofit higher education, and some of you are involved in that work and have been critical to its success. We’ve learned a great deal in these pilots, and we plan to expand on and extend that knowledge. In fact, Lumina has just launched work to add a framework for high-quality certificate programs at the sub-associate level that we look forward to sharing with you sometime next year.

All of this shows that the work of defining and measuring learning outcomes at the three degree levels isn’t just a theory. It’s well on its way in several states—including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania—and most notably in Utah, where the Board of Regents’ long-term focus on defining quality in terms of student learning has—among other benefits ― helped the state make great progress in developing competency-based programs.

Competency-based education is also at the core of several exemplary efforts that are helping to transform public higher education in several states. Western Governors University’s online programs are now serving more than 40,000 working adults, and WGU has been made an official part of state higher education systems in five states, including most recently Tennessee and Missouri, which launched their programs just this year. Good work in competency-based programs is also being done in institutions such as Alverno College in Milwaukee, Southern New Hampshire University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Wisconsin. Clearly, this is a “smaller picture” that’s getting bigger every day, and it’s one that could open the door to a lot of innovation in other states.

Another piece of the larger puzzle—one closely linked with competency-based programs ― is assessment of prior learning: finding ways to measure and reward learning and skills obtained outside the classroom. Prior learning assessment (or PLA) is a well-defined process that translates learning into measures of competency. But PLA is still treated as an unusual option useful in a limited number of special cases. Most students can’t find PLA or incorporate it into their programs of study. In too many cases, even obvious candidates for PLA—such as returning military veterans ― can’t use it. Effective PLA must be a cornerstone of the redesigned higher-ed system. Right now, Pennsylvania is working to build a statewide system that will allow students to earn college credit for their learning no matter where it was obtained. That Pennsylvania PLA project, along with the work of the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning and other groups, could well have important lessons for you and your state.

Pennsylvania’s work to expand PLA is evidence of another very important trend—that the state role in redesigning the higher education system is becoming more critical; not less. All of the examples I’ve cited today require action at the state level. Put another way, the shift to a student-centered higher education system is difficult to accomplish on a campus-by-campus basis. The issue of how state higher education systems operate as a whole to serve students and meet public needs is key. The capacity to act at a state level is critically important. It’s why our commitment to partner with each of you and with SHEEO is growing even more important in our work.

Anything that smooths or straightens the educational pathways for students in your state deserves your attention as a SHEEO. That could mean any number of steps, including:

  • Expanding online education through use of the recently implemented State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, now simply referred to as “SARA.”
  • Bringing new focus and energy to K-12 collaborations by working to actually re-engineer the high school to college transition and blend the last two years of high school with the first two years of college, by using state high school assessments as college placement exams, having high school students take college-level work as soon as they are ready, and doing college remediation before students leave high school.
  • Re-engineering degree programs to hold annual tuition in the $10,000 to $20,000 “sweet spot” that the public has identified.
  • Pushing for a financial aid model in your state that features strong incentives for students to complete programs ― including continuous enrollment with sufficient course loads leading to timely degree completion. This is especially important in states with performance- or outcomes-based funding programs that encourage on-time graduation.

All of these are significant steps signaling real change in public and private higher education. Whatever steps you choose to take first, you can be sure they’re the right ones if they take us closer to that redesigned system that I’ve talked about today … a student-centered system that is focused on completion and committed to quality. If you step toward that new system ― if you embrace the expectations and move with the tide of change—you’ll be doing your state, and your students, the greatest possible service.

Thank you.

Kate Snedeker

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