News & Views

Back To News & Views

Redefining Trustee Leadership to Close the Talent Gap

Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
Luncheon plenary, Association of Governing Boards, Chicago

Thank you, and good afternoon. I’m pleased to be with you today, and I’m very grateful that Rick invited me to join you for this workshop. In fact, I’m happy to be here for reasons that are personal as well as professional. As a trustee and the Governance Committee chair of my own alma mater, Bates College in Maine, I see tremendous value in the discussions you’re having here in Chicago. The chance to be with peers, to focus on improving the performance and effectiveness of your board and its committees, to share your experiences and enhance each other’s learning … this workshop represents a great opportunity for growth. You’re wise to take full advantage of that opportunity, and Rick and his colleagues at AGB are to be commended for making it available to you.

Of course, for me, as president of Lumina Foundation, this visit represents an additional opportunity ― an even richer one. It gives me the chance to speak directly with a group of people whose attitudes and actions can have a profound and lasting impact in the field that matters most—not just to me, but to the organization I serve … and even more important, to the nation as a whole: the field of higher education.

As a trustee, you’re here to discuss concerns that are vital to your college or university. I understand and respect that. You’re here to learn how to better steer your particular institution through the ever-changing landscape of higher education. The thing is, the route you choose to take ― the decisions you make in that boardroom—can have effects that extend far beyond your campus. Your actions and decisions have a direct and often powerful impact on your regional and state economies … on other institutions and systems … and most important, on the lives of tens of thousands of students.

My goal today ― in these remarks and in the question-and-answer session that follows—is to help illuminate that broader picture. I want to show how enlightened and innovative leadership ― your leadership—can bring about real change, not just on your campus, but across the country.

I think most of you are familiar with the organization I lead, but for those who aren’t, let me offer a bit of background. Lumina Foundation is a large, independent foundation dedicated to one nationwide mission: increasing college access and success, particularly among first-generation, low-income, minority and other underrepresented students. In fact, we are the nation’s largest foundation dedicated exclusively to that mission.

We serve that mission in a very focused way, using all of our resources and energy in pursuit of one specific goal—what we call Goal 2025. By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold a college degree, certificate or other high-quality postsecondary credential.

For us, the Goal 2025 effort is more than just a good cause. We’re convinced ― and research from labor economists and other experts gives us good reason to be convinced—that the 60 percent goal is an urgent need … a national imperative. We’ve also become convinced—again, through extensive research—that this urgent need simply cannot be met without profound and fundamental changes in American higher education. Today, I want to talk about those changes … about a new way to approach higher education and how you, as trustees, can help drive and direct those much-needed changes.

First, let’s consider why change is needed, and why it is already under way on many fronts. The need for change, I think, can really be summed up in one word: talent … the overwhelming need for talent in today’s global economy, in our democracy, and in society overall.

Simply put, our nation needs far more college-educated citizens than are now being produced. Experts agree that some measure of postsecondary education will be necessary for anyone who hopes to maintain a middle-class lifestyle in the coming decades. In fact, labor economists predict that, even before this decade ends, roughly two-thirds of all jobs will require some type of college-level learning. Right now, only about 40 percent of Americans hold even an associate degree. Perhaps another 5 percent have earned a postsecondary certificate of significant economic value. Even at 45 percent, the talent gap is glaringly obvious.

CEOs and other business leaders have long complained of this gap. In survey after survey over recent years, they say it’s increasingly difficult to find workers with the high-level skills the modern workplace demands. Policymakers are pushing harder than ever for accountability and for a demonstrable return on the investment of public funds. Wherever you look, then, the evidence is clear and undeniable: We are producing too few graduates overall—particularly among the growing populations of underserved students ― and too many of those who do graduate lack the skills, knowledge and capacities they need.

So let’s talk for a moment about those underserved students ― the first-generation, low-income, and minority students who collectively represent the country’s fastest-growing populations. We all know that our higher education system as a whole has historically done a poor job of ensuring the success of these students. Just look at the numbers. According to the most recent Census figures (2012), 44% of white Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have earned at least an associate degree. Among African Americans in that age group, the rate is 28 percent. Among Native Americans, it’s less than 24 percent. And in our growing Latino population, the degree attainment rate is just 19.8 percent—fewer than one in five working-age Latinos have even an associate degree.

These disparities on their own should be cause for alarm, but when you look at population growth trends, it’s clear that addressing these disparities is more than a matter of desire or preference. It’s a necessity. It’s not hyperbole to say that our future depends on the postsecondary success of students from all racial and ethnic groups, countries of origin, and socioeconomic groups. And I’m not just talking about the nation’s economic future. We all know there are other compelling reasons for dramatically increasing college attainment: reasons tied to democratic and civic engagement, to societal progress, to social justice and equity. Certainly, everyone in this room is aware that higher education affords enormous benefits—to individuals and to society at large.

The thing is, we can’t fully realize those benefits—in fact, we’ll come nowhere near doing so ― if higher ed continues to work the way it always has. The current system is simply not equipped to properly serve the vast numbers of additional students needed to meet the nation’s growing demand for talent. Business as usual won’t get it done. We can’t reach that ambitious 60 percent goal by taking a well-worn path. We need new routes, new ideas, new approaches … because we need to serve much larger numbers of students, and we need to serve them better than ever before.

In short, we need a revamped higher-ed system … an integrated, fully linked system for developing human capital. This redesigned system must be flexible, affordable, and relentlessly focused on quality. Put simply, it must be a student-centered system, one that’s designed, not to serve institutional traditions, but to meet the needs of students—all types of students. The ultimate aim is to build a learning-based system that offers broad, connected pathways to high-quality credentials for a vast and growing number of Americans, from all walks of life.

Because such a system is critical to the achievement of Goal 2025, more and more of Lumina’s collective energy is centered on this redesign work. We know it won’t come easily or quickly … that it will take years of coordinated effort by a variety of stakeholders. But we also know the effort must be made if we hope to create a system that can truly serve this nation in the 21st century.

Pieces of this revamped system are already starting to take shape; you can see them coming together on your own campuses ― in fact, almost everywhere you look across the higher education landscape. The proliferation of open, online and interactive courseware and other innovative modes of curriculum delivery … the ongoing push to control costs and increase institutional effectiveness and efficiency … income-based loan programs and other creative methods of student aid … increased emphasis on outcomes or performance-based funding models … a growing interest in prior learning assessment as a way of awarding credit for knowledge gained outside the classroom.

All of these trends are important pieces of the redesign puzzle. But make no mistake: Time is running short, and we all have a long way to go to put that puzzle together … to create a system that is truly structured to serve students’ needs and ensure their success. We need to pick up the pace.

Perhaps the best way to do that ― to jump-start this redesign process—is to focus on a particular student population: the large and growing population of working adults. These students represent a huge pool of untapped potential. Census figures show that one out of every five Americans between the ages of 25 and 64—22 percent of the working-age population ― have earned some college credit but still lack a degree. That’s more than 36 million people who—at least in part because of the limitations of the traditional higher ed system ― are prevented from contributing fully to the nation’s economic and social progress. This group of non-degreed adults represents a major portion of the talent deficit. Just think how a student-centered system of higher education—one designed around their needs and focused on their success ― could turn that deficit into a huge national asset.

The lives of these students are often complicated. They juggle family responsibilities and work commitments, often while facing financial problems that are truly daunting. They understand very well that postsecondary education is vital to their economic prospects and to their future, but too often they just can’t get ahead.

The traditional picture of higher ed—that is, linear, full-time progression toward a degree at one institution ― is simply not the reality for the majority of these students. In fact, it’s fast becoming a rarity. We know these 21st century students are mobile, that they are stopping out and re-entering, that they are swirling among institutions, blending credits from multiple institutions so they can fit college into their busy lives. Sadly, and despite their best efforts, many of these students—far too many ― fall short of their goals. As I said, more than 36 million Americans have attended college but not yet earned that credential.

My friends, we need to help them get there. We need to help all students get there. And we’ll only do that if we tackle this job, not from our perspective as educators or administrators or trustees, but from theirs. Colleges and universities—and the leaders of those institutions ― must genuinely embrace the student success agenda, to view it as opportunity for real structural, cultural and operational change. As trustees, you must be vigorous and visible stewards of that agenda. That means taking a fresh, hard look at the missions of your institution—thinking carefully and crafting solutions that reflect the needs of the students you seek to serve. It means reassessing the values, priorities and essential goals of your college. How does that reassessment affect your admissions policies, financial and academic support programs, faculty hiring, course offerings, IT priorities, resource allocation? Will you reaffirm or shift your mission in order to reinvigorate your institution to focus on student success?

These are critical questions, and I know they’re not easy. Again, as I offer these suggestions, I want to emphasize that I make them, not only as Lumina’s president, but as a fellow trustee and as a peer. In my service to Bates College, I share the sense of loyalty and commitment that clearly drives many of you. As a foundation executive and a community leader serving on nonprofit, business and other boards in Indianapolis, I share your desire to deepen my region’s talent pool, to boost the local economy and secure its future. And I certainly appreciate how hard it is to balance the demands of board membership and corporate citizenship.

In short, I understand the difficulties you face in trying to serve both your institution and the larger community. My advice? The best way to meet the demands of both camps is to focus on neither. Instead, remind yourself where your ultimate responsibility lies. It is not to your college or university, not to your company, not to any one industry, not to your region’s economy, not even to “society.” No, your ultimate responsibility is to the individuals your institution has pledged to serve … the students.

If you truly serve your students, you’ll find the right balance. What’s more, you’ll do more good—for everyone involved—than you can even imagine. Truly serving students means that you put their needs first, even before those of the institution you represent.

I realize that, perhaps for some of you, that represents something of a different approach to board service. But it’s certainly an approach that this organization ― the Association of Governing Boards—recognizes as important. AGB’s new report from the National Commission on College and University Board Governance, Consequential Boards, boldly embraces this view. And during this year’s National Conference on Trusteeship, AGB explored several high-impact practices that are critical to a student-centered redesign of higher education ― including competency-based learning, prior-learning assessment and the adoption of new business and financing models.

What’s more, I’m pleased to say that AGB and Lumina are partnering on a new initiative rooted firmly in this “students-first” approach—a project aimed specifically at helping trustees lead the student success agenda on their campuses. This project won’t launch officially until next month, but it’s going to happen, and we’re very excited about it. I’m happy to discuss it further during the Q&A session—and perhaps Rick can join me in that discussion.

Before we open this up to your questions and comments, however, I want to delve just a bit more deeply into what it really means to pursue a student success agenda on your campus. What steps should you take, as a trustee, to set that agenda and ensure that it’s followed? If I may, I’d like to be explicit in spelling out three of those steps in some detail.

  • No. 1: Reallocate and reinvest in student success: As a trustee, I believe it is your duty to help your institution analyze its spending, gather evidence about the practices and policies that actually increase student success, and use that evidence to eliminate unnecessary outlays so the savings can be applied where it matters most: in helping more students graduate with high-quality degrees and credentials. Your role here is absolutely central. Yes, these decisions are difficult … and they’re becoming more difficult each year. And if you’re meeting your responsibilities, you will almost certainly at times be at odds with your institution’s leaders. But again, remember that you’re there to serve the student.
  • No. 2: Educate in new ways and places: Today’s students are an infinitely diverse lot—all ages, all income levels, all races and ethnicities, with myriad life experiences that present them with an array of challenges. Colleges and universities must change to help these 21st century students meet and overcome those challenges. We must educate these students in innovative and affordable ways, not merely perpetuate the traditional, “we’ve always done it this way” setting. As a trustee, it’s your job to ensure that your institution employs new models that are nimble enough to respond to the needs of all students.
  • No. 3: Pay attention to results: As a trustee, you must ensure that attention—and resources ― continue to be focused on helping students stay in school and complete their programs. Graduation rates matter, and so do dropout rates—especially for the populations who are not well-served. Reducing time to degree matters, too. All faculty and staff must share the responsibility for student completion. Institutions should be able to demonstrate clear plans for how students can earn high-quality credentials in a timely and cost-effective way.

And when it comes to focusing on results, there’s one more thing that matters. In fact, in the long run, it’s the thing that matters most: educational quality.

Increasing the number of degree holders is unquestionably a vital task, but this can’t just be a numbers game. Even as we at Lumina strive to reach Goal 2025, we know that it’s not enough to simply count degrees. The degrees themselves must count; they must be, as the goal itself states, “high-quality” degrees and credentials. And for any college credential to be high-quality, for it to truly count, it must reflect genuine learning—learning that is both rigorous and relevant.

Fundamentally, defining quality in education means focusing on specific learning outcomes. It means honing in on what your graduates should know and what they can do with what they know. To ensure quality, then, colleges and universities must work to ensure that the learning represented in their credentials is both explicit and transparent. What that means is that faculty and students must have a shared understanding of the skills and knowledge that a graduate in a particular discipline will possess. Policymakers must be able to allocate resources based on those required outcomes, and employers must be able to hire graduates with confidence, knowing that students have attained those outcomes.

At Lumina, we and many of our partners have thought long and hard about this learning-based definition of quality in higher education. Much of that thinking—in fact, more than five years’ worth ― went into a document that we officially launched last month: the Degree Qualifications Profile, or DQP. The DQP is a framework of specific, well-articulated learning outcomes for each of the three main degree levels: the associate, the bachelor’s and the master’s degree. Along with a complementary process called Tuning, the DQP is a tool that faculty can use to bring clarity and coherence to teaching and learning at the college level. We’re convinced it can be a real game-changer in the effort to redefine quality in higher education.

In fact, I can’t think of a group who would benefit more from understanding the DQP and Tuning than this one. After all, the DQP and Tuning have one central purpose, one reason for being: to concretely define—and thus to help assure ― educational quality. That purpose is yours as well. It has to be.

As trustees, you are central to the quality-assurance effort. That means you must be the ultimate advocate for the students who attend your institution. And that’s a role you need to take personally. Those students need you—even though they may not even know it. They need you—even though few will ever be aware of the role you played. The point is: students truly need your help to succeed. And if they fail, no one involved can succeed—not your institutions, not area employers, not your state, not this nation.

Goal 2025 is a huge challenge … and so are the changes that are required to make that goal a reality. But you can play a vital role in making those changes happen. I thank you for your commitment to that role … for your willingness to consider the kinds of changes embraced by your colleagues at AGB … and for you courage in pushing for those changes.

Thank you.

Tracy Chen

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