News & Views

Back To News & Views

Reengineering higher education

Elizabeth Gutierrez, State Policy Director, Lumina Foundation
HACU Panel Re-engineering Higher Education, San Antonio

Thank you, Dr. Rodriguez. It is a pleasure to be part of HACU’s 25th anniversary celebration.

First, I’d like to take a moment to provide a bit of background on Lumina. Lumina is a national foundation committed to one cause: enrolling and graduating more students from college—especially low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners. In fact, we are the largest foundation in America that focuses exclusively on that mission. And we pursue our 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” or simply, the Big Goal.

Our Big Goal is that by the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees and credentials. Today, the national degree-attainment rate is hovering just below 40 percent.

Lumina’s State Policy Director Liz Gutierrez addresses a panel at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities 25th Annual Conference

So you can see we have a long way to go.

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. 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 dropped in public confidence to the level of 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. 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.

Change is needed in the higher education system, and we at Lumina see three changes in particular that would have tremendous impact.

  1. 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.

    To serve these 21st century students a good place to begin is with adults who already have some college credit but lack a degree. Many of them are highly motivated to return to higher education and prepare themselves for new roles in the knowledge economy. Help them finish degrees that they may have started decades ago so that they can get the quality education they need.

  2. 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.

  3. And third, 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.

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 our productivity work, leaders are striving to follow four steps to improving productivity in higher education, also called “Four Steps to Finishing First.”

  • 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 … earned credit for prior-learning to provide credit for military or work experience—all of these are timely 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.

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 faculty in the classroom or to those in the policy arena—are tightly connected. None of them can be implemented without input and cooperation from all higher education stakeholders.

As higher education leaders and advocates for change, all of you understand the huge payoffs that come from a well-educated, innovative and productive citizenry. I urge you to join together to make Goal 2025 a reality. It truly is a vital task — across every state and in every college and university — in our great nation.

Thank you very much.

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.