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Reflections on Lumina’s History, and Its Future

Every once in a while, Lumina Foundation is asked—and occasionally even confronted, as was the case in a recent article in an online media outlet—about its history as a foundation whose assets came from a student loan transaction. Rather than leave it to others to try to characterize, I’d like to explain in my own words what Lumina Foundation is, and what we care about as a national foundation.

Lumina Foundation was formed in 2000 when USA Group sold its operating assets to Sallie Mae. Lumina’s current 12-member board of directors includes three former Sallie Mae board members. None of those board members has had any connection to the student loan industry for more than a decade. Lumina’s board is a distinguished and diverse group that includes former college presidents, business leaders and nationally-recognized leaders with significant public policy experience. No member of the Lumina staff, including myself, has ties to the student loan industry.

As CEO, I’m best known for my history as founder and CEO of an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, and for my work leading a bipartisan national commission that produced a report in 1993 that proposed, among other things, the replacement of the bank-based federal student loan program in favor of a direct student loan system. I consider myself ferociously independent from a political perspective. What I care about most is helping the country dramatically increase high-quality postsecondary educational attainment to benefit our collective well-being—economically, socially and culturally.

The Foundation has been an independent, non-partisan organization since its formation. Most of our grantees and partners do not work in the public policy realm and have no particular ideological or political perspective. They care about increasing postsecondary attainment, like we do. Many of them disagree with each other—something we think is important in helping to shape the best possible strategies. Examples of recent partners with a more federal policy-focused orientation run the gamut of perspectives and include the Center for American Progress, Young Invincibles, Brookings Institution, New America Foundation, and American Enterprise Institute, to name just a few.

The present and future for Lumina is singularly focused on Goal 2025, which is our commitment to increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025. We undertake our work in a transparent fashion and our stated views on creating a student-centered, learning-focused system of higher education are all available on our web site at

We believe that all Americans deserve access to a high-quality, affordable postsecondary education that can help them meet their goals, including a good job and a good life. Student loans occupy a fairly small part of what we have thought about as an organization, though, like many others, we have sought to find ways to address the growing levels of student debt that have become a major challenge for society. We are concerned that excessive debt adversely influences what careers people choose and whether to start a family, own a house, or run a business.

From the vantage point of federal policy, that means federal student aid programs should ensure access to higher education for the large numbers of low-income, first generation and minority students who have not been well-served, while also providing incentives to complete programs in a more transparent, predictable manner. It’s also clear that colleges and universities must fundamentally rethink the way they deliver education. This means supporting both institutional practice and public policy that aims to serve more students better—speeding up time to degree, limiting student borrowing, engaging faculty in the rapid changes taking place in higher education, and supporting competency-based learning models, among other approaches.

We support innovation in higher education, and we solicit and help to advance the best ideas from a wide range of sources across the spectrum. This represents a change in philanthropy that’s garnering some attention. You see, we believe that philanthropic organizations—like Lumina—exist for one reason: to use the assets we hold in trust to act as society’s risk-takers. Our only bottom line is to ensure social progress—a daunting charge, but one that should inspire fortitude and foster real leadership.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that America is demanding this approach. According to a recent Gallup/Lumina poll, 89 percent of Americans say that higher education institutions need to change to better serve today’s students. Policymakers in a growing number of states are enacting outcomes-based funding formulas, tying higher education funding not to mere enrollment of students, but to the success of those students. Other states and systems are experimenting with innovative ways to provide financial aid to low-income students; they’re also exploring ways to reduce remediation, accelerate student progress and increase attainment for all types of students.

People who see a connection between Lumina and the student loan industry are looking back on a history that is long past. Our current work and future focus are aimed at ensuring that many more students can get into and through postsecondary learning environments, armed with skills and knowledge that will make them productive at work, and happier and more successful as citizens, family members and community leaders. That’s what Lumina Foundation is about, now and for as long as I am privileged to serve as its CEO.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation.

Kate Snedeker

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