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Serving the 21st Century Student

Jamie P. Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation for Education
Luncheon keynote at "Challenges and Opportunities: Future Pathways Towards Immigration and Higher Education", Sponsored by the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, Washington, DC

Thank you, and good afternoon, everyone.

It's wonderful to be back in Washington, where I spent so many years immersed in the world of higher education policy. I want to thank John Burkhardt and his colleagues at the National Forum, as well as the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance, for inviting me here today—and not just because it gives me a chance to visit with friends and colleagues. I'm very pleased to be here because the issue you're all here to discuss—increasing educational opportunity for immigrant students—is so vitally important. It's important to our economy ... to our culture ... to the very future of this nation.

It's also important to me personally. And that's another reason I'm grateful for the opportunity to be here today. My own family is made up of Greek immigrants. We were a working-class family without much money, but that didn't matter: my parents still saw college as a requirement for my siblings and me, not as an option. And so I did what I had to do to afford a college education: Pell grants, work-study, summer jobs, student loans, private scholarships—you name it, I took advantage of it. And I can say without reservation that it was worth every effort. College has enriched my life immeasurably, and in innumerable ways. In fact, it has defined my professional life.

And now, in my role as Lumina Foundation's president and CEO, I have the enviable task of leading an organization whose sole purpose is to extend the enormous benefits of college to millions more Americans.

I know many of you are familiar with Lumina, but for those who aren't, let me offer a quick overview. Lumina Foundation for Education is a national foundation, established 10 years ago in Indianapolis. With assets of more than 1.1 billion dollars, Lumina is among the top 30 or so largest private foundations in terms of asset size. That makes us the single, largest foundation in America that focuses exclusively on getting more Americans into and through college.

We pursue our mission in a focused way, working toward one specific aim—what we call our "Big Goal." The Big Goal is this: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of the American population to hold high-quality college degrees or credentials. Right now, the percentage of Americans with degrees is 40 percent, and unfortunately the youngest generation is being educated at almost the exact same rate as their parents—a disturbing trend given what we see in terms of dramatic increases in educational attainment in other parts of the world. Let me put the Big Goal another way: Over the next 16 years, Lumina wants to increase the percentage of Americans with college degrees by 20 percentage points—a big leap from what we have seen over the last few decades.

So, yes, we know our goal is ambitious. But we feel that achieving it is vital—a national imperative. What's more, we're convinced that it is attainable ... so long as we work with a variety of effective partners, and work according to a plan.

At Lumina, our plan is clear. It identifies three critical outcomes—three significant results that must be produced for the Big Goal to be reached. Those three outcomes are: preparation, success and productivity — PSP for short—and all three must be tackled ASAP.

By preparation, we mean that students must be prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school. When we talk about success, we're saying that college attainment rates must increase significantly, which means students must be properly supported so they finish their programs. Finally, by productivity, we mean that higher education must become more efficient, more innovative and more cost-effective. These gains in productivity are vital because they will increase capacity and allow the system to provide high-quality education to many more students.

So, that's Lumina's approach: working simultaneously on all three outcomes—and with a variety of partners—as a means of reaching the Big Goal of 60 percent attainment of high-quality degrees and credentials.

And if there's one thing we have learned in the work we've done so far, it is that we won't reach the Big Goal unless we concentrate now on serving 21st century students—the students of today and tomorrow, not those of yesterday.

In many ways, American higher education was built for the 19th century student—some might even say the student of the 18th century. Borrowing its tradition from medieval Europe, the system was designed to educate a favored few: the sons—and yes, back then it was almost exclusively the sons—of the wealthy elite.

Of course this has changed over the decades, most dramatically in the last half of the 20th century, thanks to the GI Bill and the development of the community college system. These and many other advances have opened the college doors much wider, to be sure. My own experience as a first-generation student proves that, as do the slowly rising rates of college attendance among some groups of non-white students.

The challenge is that while the number of students entering the doors of college has increased, significant gaps remain for too many students who we must rely upon for our collective economic, social, and cultural prosperity. And even more challenging is that too little has really changed behind those doors. Systems, structures and practices have not adapted quickly enough to properly and productively serve this new group of 21st century students ... a group more diverse and variable than any 18th or 19th century college professor could ever have imagined.

The 21st century student runs the gamut—racially, ethnically, and socially ... From recent high school graduate to second-career retiree ... From part-time distance learner to full-time resident student ... From GED completer to certificate seeker to evening MBA student to Ph.D. candidate ... With roots in every country from Mexico to Malaysia to Mali.

Speaking of these students as 21st century students is more than just a semantic exercise. We must recognize them as essential to our future, helping to move the dialogue from a deficit model to a growth model, where all sectors—industry, government, education institutions, communities—see these students as the future leaders of our nation, taxpayers, and contributors to the standard of living we cherish so much.

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 the Big Goal, America needs all types of students to succeed, and they must succeed in far greater numbers. That means we need a student-centered system—one that is flexible, accessible, accountable and committed to quality. This system must meet each student where she is and offer the support she needs to succeed. It must ensure quality by fostering genuine learning, not mere program completion. It must truly prepare students for work—and for life—in an increasingly global society. These factors are what will define a postsecondary system that serves the 21st century student—a responsive system that acts as an effective engine for the development of our most precious national asset: human capital.

A quick look at the numbers will demonstrate how desperately we need such a system:

  • One obvious reason is global competition. For decades, our 40 percent rate of college completion among 25- to 34-year-olds led the world. Now it ranks 10th among developed nations—and rates in many of these countries are continuing to climb.
  • Employment trends also illustrate the need. Studies by noted labor economist Tony Carnevale predict that, by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. That's a huge increase since the mid-'70s, when less than 30 percent of jobs required anything beyond a high school education.
  • And finally, a few basic demographic facts underscore the urgency of developing our human capital engine. Census estimates predict that by 2050, the citizens who used to be called "minorities" will constitute the majority of Americans. And in the interim, our school-age population is expected to grow by 19 million ... 17 million of whom will be Hispanic. Right now, college attainment rates among many groups of 21st century students—including adults, first-generation college-going students, low-income students and students of color—are significantly lower than those of other students. These achievement gaps have endured for decades, and are now actually widening.

Clearly, if we hope to prosper as a nation, this can't be allowed to continue. We must address and overcome inequities, and to do that, we must work toward all three of the critical outcomes I mentioned earlier.

Of course we can't focus exclusively on immigrant students as we seek these vital outcomes. But we will certainly fail to reach the Big Goal if we don't see these students as essential to our efforts to increase college attainment. After all, we are a nation of immigrants, built on and constantly renewed by the energy and innovation of a diverse population. If we are to maintain our momentum and feed this spirit of regeneration, education must be a constant factor in the equation. Education empowers immigrants, and we all benefit when that power is turned on. As a society, we need to make sure that that energy flows at its maximum rate; we must find ways to tap into the enormous potential that immigration represents.

Recent research has brought new proof of that potential—just in case anyone in this room actually needed further proof.

  • A story in the April 16 edition of the New York Times reported on a new study showing that "immigrants played a central role in the cycle of economic growth over the last two decades." The study, conducted by the Fiscal Policy Institute, showed that the fastest economic growth between 1990 and 2008 occurred in cities that experienced large influxes of immigrants—including many workers in lower-paying service and blue-collar jobs. For example, in metropolitan Denver, where the economy doubled during the period studied, nearly two-thirds of immigrants held jobs at the low end of the pay scale.
  • A second study—this one conducted by noted author and thought leader Richard Florida belies the notion that immigrants pose an economic burden on the areas in which they settle. The study, reported in The Atlantic, actually shows the opposite to be true: that earnings in a state are positively associated with the percentage of immigrants in the population. According to Florida, a state's openness to immigrants effectively boosts wages by enabling it to "better compete for more highly educated and highly skilled workers across demographic, ethnic and racial categories."

It is abundantly obvious that the nation's immigrant population represents tremendous potential; it's a reservoir of talent that is deep, wide and expanding. Our task—really, our duty—is to properly develop that potential, to give these individuals every chance to contribute. And, as I hope I've made clear today, that means we need to give them every chance to succeed in college.

So, faced with this challenge, what can the philanthropic sector do—more specifically, what can Lumina Foundation do—to help meet it? Well, let's talk first about what we can't do. As a private foundation, we are prohibited from direct lobbying on specific legislation. That means, for example, that we cannot publicly call for passage or defeat of the DREAM Act. However, that doesn't mean we can't weigh in on the topic that the act is meant to address. For example, if requested to do so, we can provide Congressional testimony about the issues involved. In fact, such testimony would fit perfectly into a foundation's role as a source of nonpartisan research and analysis. As independent organizations established to promote the public good, foundations are well suited to act as purveyors of credible information and to express views on matters of public concern. Lumina would relish the opportunity to educate legislators and the public on the issues surrounding immigration and higher education.

And as I've said, our research shows clearly that, to ensure economic security and social stability, the nation must focus on increasing educational attainment among the growing population of immigrant students. And the best way to do that is to ensure the inclusion of these students as we focus on the three critical outcomes that lead to the Big Goal. Again, we must work to better prepare immigrant children so they can succeed when they reach college age. Once enrolled, we must do all we can to properly support them so they succeed in college. And we must work to improve higher education productivity so many more immigrant students can enroll and earn quality degrees and credentials.

Lumina is committed to working toward those outcomes because we know the whole country will be better for it. One particular effort that underscored that truth for us was a project we funded in our home state of Indiana. That project, a major research study done by the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, detailed the benefits, challenges and opportunities posed by Mexican immigration in the state. It was an important study that highlighted the many positive effects of immigration in Indiana and urged policymakers to take action to maximize immigrants' educational potential. One quote from a 2009 briefing paper on that study is particularly telling: "The opportunities available to Indiana's immigrant youth are of the utmost importance to the state's long-term prosperity," the report states. "Their educational attainment must surpass the attainment levels of adult immigrants."

That statement certainly bears repeating in the national context. As a sponsor of this summit, the National Forum is making that statement loud and clear—and we at Lumina applaud that effort. We also commend the Forum for launching an effort to build national partnership to tackle this issue. The National Forum knows—as we at Lumina know—that this partnership must be broad-based and committed, involving not just the higher education community, but also representatives from the policy arena, from philanthropy, and the business community. In fact, I'm proud to announce that Lumina has agreed to help support the development of this partnership.

The details aren't yet fully worked out, but I can say today that Lumina will provide funding for a series of national meetings that the Forum will hold over the next few months, all aimed at raising awareness of this issue and creating the momentum to address it. Also, sometime in early 2011, Lumina plans to convene a culminating meeting at our headquarters in Indianapolis. From that capstone meeting, we hope will emerge a concrete plan of action that can harness this energy and direct it toward real and meaningful progress for immigrant students.

I'm sure my colleagues at the National Forum will talk more about this partnership-building effort as the summit progresses, so I won't say much more here—except to restate what I hope is already obvious to all of you: immigrant students matter. In fact, their educational success is tied to the success of this nation. We can no longer afford to shortchange or overlook them.

As I've said many times today, they are 21st century students ... and the 21st century is here.

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.