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Remarks from the Symposium on the Implementation of a State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement

Jamie P. Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation
Symposium on the Implementation of a State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), Indianapolis, IN

Thank you, and good morning everyone. I’m pleased to be with you, and and happy that you are here in Indianapolis.

I want to begin with just a few words about the specific work you are doing at this symposium, and then spend the bulk of my time talking about where this important work fits into the bigger picture.

I’m excited by the discussions that took place yesterday and will conclude today. The fact is, the issues you’re focused on here point very directly to fundamental changes that are under way in American higher education. Frankly, we at Lumina feel that these changes are very much needed because they address huge and persistent problems that are hampering the vital effort to increase college attainment: problems of affordability and access … of limited institutional capacity … and of quality assurance. The current system is simply not equipped to overcome these problems. That means significant system redesign is necessary; in fact, it’s not merely necessary, it’s inevitable.

System change will come, because it must. The only real questions are how well we change and how quickly.

Of course, change is rarely easy ― even when it’s positive. And big change in a complex, multi-layered system … the kind of fundamental change that higher education now faces … that’s really hard. It takes courage and persistence and patience to make that kind of change happen. And that’s why I want to take a few moments right now just to thank all of you for being willing to join this change effort.

Those of you who represent states and organizations directly or indirectly involved with the SARA project deserve a special note of thanks. The Presidents’ Forum, the Council of State Governments, WICHE and the other regional compacts ― MHEC, NEBHE, and SREB—as well as SHEEO and APLU, the Commission on the Regulation of Postsecondary Distance Education, state regulators, institutional representatives and accrediting organizations, all of you are performing a valuable service by tackling this task.

You’re doing it the right way: collaboratively and cooperatively, thoughtfully and transparently, with an eye toward crafting a practical solution everyone can coalesce behind. We realize that the potential for turf battles in this effort is very real, and we truly appreciate your willingness to compromise, to seek each other’s input as you work together to forge a single voluntary approach for states and higher-ed institutions that can work for all. Our hope is that this work will make it possible to achieve more consistent regulation of online degree programs across states that provides strong consumer protection, ensures widespread availability of online programs for all students and simplifies the regulatory burden, thereby creating savings that can be reinvested in serving even more students.

It’s important to emphasize that while federal attention may have spurred action in this space, this is really about state law. When the U.S. Department of Education drew attention to this work, which was already in progress, it was to say that state laws must be followed to ensure continued access to federal student aid. When it’s over, what we hope to see emerge is a clear choice: States can continue to regulate as they have and institutions can continue to seek approval to operate state by state; or states can choose to participate in a collective regulatory agreement and institutions can choose to save time and money by using this process.

In the end, the role of the states in consumer protection, the Education Department in ensuring financial stability of institutions and the national and regional accreditors in quality assurance will be preserved. It’s not as clean and simple as a national compact, but it’s far better than what we have now.

What you heard yesterday and will hear more today is that three, separate efforts, emerging from three different perspectives, have come together to support a common approach. I’d like to acknowledge the clear progress resulting from the hard work of those involved with each. Without your efforts, collectively we would not be positioned for the collaboration taking place today. I’m confident that, together, this group will continue to take the appropriate steps towards establishing voluntary interstate reciprocity for online degree programs through the four regional higher education compacts.

As you may know by now, the key points are:

  • This effort will be voluntary for states and institutions, although we expect that the substantial benefit both could derive from such an agreement will drive participation.
  • While not a radical departure in terms of state and institutional roles and responsibilities, making all of this work will require some changes in how business is done. For example, some states will have to alter their policies to either permit reciprocal approval or to meet other requirements for participation.
  • Initial support for this effort is likely to come from philanthropy. Eventually it will be self-sustaining with funds collected through a fee of several thousand dollars levied on participating institutions, varying some depending on size.
  • The four regional compacts are on board with this plan and are prepared to move quickly to implement it.

This is an effort to make the quality assurance/consumer protection function in higher education more efficient and more effective. States should not do the work of accreditors. Colleges and universities should not have to navigate a byzantine, uneven web of regulation to offer online degrees in multiple states. This agreement will require all states to take their role in consumer protection seriously, and it provides the means to hold them responsible.

By the time you leave, it’s Lumina’s hope that everyone understands what will need to happen and the different partner roles, whether states, institutions, regional compacts or the national coordinating council.

I won’t go into further detail this morning about the SARA project or about specific technological trends in higher education or their policy implications. First of all, those topics will all be covered later today, by panelists and speakers who are far better equipped to explain them. Second, all of those topics focus on the means and methods of effecting change in higher education, not so much on the rationale behind the changes. In other words, before you focus intently on the how of change, I want to spend just a few more minutes this morning reminding you of the why.

I’ll try to be brief—first, because I want to leave time for your questions, and second, because I know that, deep down, you already know why change is so important in higher education.

Any of you who are at all familiar with Lumina Foundation knows that we are wholly committed to increasing college attainment. You’ve heard about ― and in many cases adopted—Goal 2025, the national attainment goal that drives all of Lumina’s work.

By now, the case for increased college attainment is well-documented—and by “college” we mean all forms of post-high school or postsecondary education, not just four-year degrees. The simple fact is, two-thirds of all of the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by the end of the decade. That means the drive to increase college attainment is more than merely worthwhile; it is vital to the nation’s economic and social future. And it is urgent; in fact, we can’t postpone it another day.

Research from Tony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce underscores this urgency. One such report, “The College Advantage,” shows that undereducated workers are increasingly being left behind and that we need to do a lot more to produce the skilled people our nation needs to seize opportunities and face challenges in the global economy. Nearly four out of every five jobs destroyed by the recent recession were held by workers with a high school diploma or less ― and those workers have continued to lose jobs during the slow recovery.

By comparison, those with a bachelor’s degree or better actually continued to gain jobs even during the recession. And since the weak recovery began in January 2010, workers with some college or an associate degree gained more 1.6 million jobs; those with a bachelor’s degree or higher gained another 2.2 million+ jobs. During the same period, people with a high school degree or less continued their downward slide, losing more than 230,000 jobs.

The trends are clear, and the solution is obvious: more Americans—many more Americans ― need college-level learning. In fact, so many more students need to be served that there is simply no way the current system can serve them properly.

As everyone in this room is well aware, online learning and other technological innovations have a huge role to play in addressing the system’s capacity issues. In fact, it would be difficult to cite any single trend in higher education that has done more to increase educational opportunity than online learning. It opens doors to all types of students for many reasons, but most obviously because it can reduce costs—for states, for institutions and, ultimately, for students.

Clearly, college affordability is a huge concern ― no doubt a greater concern for today’s student than for any population of college students in this nation’s history. And that leads me to another important change that’s needed … a crucial change in perception. As a nation ― and even more narrowly, within many areas of higher education itself—we need to update our perception of what it means to be a college student.

The fact is, fewer than one in five of today’s college freshmen graduated from high school in the prior year and immediately enrolled in a residential four-year institution. Today’s students run the gamut in terms of age, race, ethnicity, culture and income level. We can’t properly serve them ― or our states or the nation—if higher education conducts business the way it always has. On the contrary, we need to build a higher education system that is specifically geared to serve these 21st century students—the ever-growing number of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students who constitute the “real world” these days on college campuses—and in those online classes.

Without question, postsecondary success is key to their future as individuals … and their success is key to our future as a nation. At its core, that’s what the drive to reach Goal 2025 is all about: forging a brighter future. And for that brighter future to be realized, we need to redesign the higher education system so that it truly meets the needs of those 21st century students I just mentioned—the growing populations of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students who define America’s very near future.

If we are to reach that big goal ― 60 percent attainment of high-quality credentials by 2025—we need a higher education system that is genuinely student-centered. It must ensure access to all types of students; it must give those students the support they need to succeed, and it must enable them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning.

Equity must be at the core of this new system. As we all know, there are massive gaps in educational achievement in this country linked to race and class … persistent and pernicious inequities that have plagued us for decades. More and more of the work of Lumina and its partners is aimed at building a student-centered system that explicitly serves those students better.

Again, this represents big change … change that can’t be accomplished quickly and certainly can’t be accomplished by any one organization. The work we’re all here today to discuss is certainly part of the larger redesign project. Clearly, improving the alignment and increasing the reach of online programs will enhance system productivity … and improved productivity is key to increasing the system’s capacity. In fact, in the current economic climate, as states and systems continue to be squeezed and education budgets are flat-lined, productivity gains sometimes represent the only viable means for increasing system capacity in a state.

And yet, enhancing the system’s ability to serve more students ― as vital as that task is—it’s just one part of the challenge. We also need to serve those students better. In other words, system redesign must focus on ensuring quality at the same time it boosts quantity.

Without a doubt, quality assurance is a key element of the SARA project and of much of the other work you’re here to discuss. In fact, quality has to be key, because any effort to increase degree attainment without ensuring quality would be a fool’s errand.

The student-centered system I am calling for must produce credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning. Clearly defining and assessing what a student has genuinely learned ― whether online, in a traditional classroom, on the job, in military service, through volunteering or life experience—that is at once the challenge we confront and the huge opportunity we must seize. For quality to be truly realized and widely assured, learning outcomes must be the cornerstone of the credentialing system … and that is simply not the case today.

Right now, we’re operating under a system of credentials that is still far too closed and rigid to meet the needs of students or of society as a whole. For the most part, the system awards credit primarily not for actual learning, but for time spent in class. It’s a system in which the recognized levels of achievement ― associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate—are too few, too widely spaced and too loosely connected. It’s a system in which students ― first-generation students in particular—often can’t understand the pathways to degrees and other credentials. It’s a system that too seldom connects in any clear or meaningful way with the needs of the workforce.

We need a new system of credentials to assure that high-quality learning is recognized and rewarded ― no matter where or how that learning is obtained. In truth, the shift to a learning-based, flexible, stackable credentialing system has been little more than an intriguing idea for a long time. But it is now an idea whose time has come. In fact, the task of defining and improving learning outcomes has risen to the top of policy agendas in many institutions, systems and states … and many of you can actually take some measure of credit for that.

Admittedly, we all have a long way to go in building this new credentialing framework, not to mention the redesigned higher-ed system that it must support. Still, the work you’re here today to discuss is central to that effort.

I urge you to embrace it with the same enthusiasm and goodwill that has marked your efforts so far. As you do, be assured that my Lumina colleagues and I are grateful for your partnership, and eager for the change we’re all working to bring about.

Thank you very much, and best of luck with these important discussions.

Kate Snedeker

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