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The boat is rocking … so set a new course

Jamie P. Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation
Opening keynote, Oregon Higher Education Symposium, Portland, Oregon

Thank you, and good morning, everyone. I’m pleased to be with you today, and I want to thank Duncan Wyse and his colleagues at the Oregon Business Council for inviting me to join you this morning. It’s truly an honor for me to help set the stage for today’s discussions, and I’m genuinely excited to be here ― and not just because it gives me the chance to visit the beautiful and, comparatively speaking, warm Pacific Northwest. The fact is, this symposium puts me exactly where I want to be: among people who are in the midst of grappling with the same opportunities, challenges and priorities that we are working on at Lumina Foundation.

Certainly, all of you are aware of the changes under way in Oregon’s education system, as well as the enormous changes happening at all levels of higher education throughout the nation. This is a period in which higher education’s importance to both the nation and its citizens has never been clearer or more widely recognized, but also one in which almost all of our assumptions about how higher education operates are on the table. This kind of change is exciting, but, I fully recognize, also scary. In fact, I’d wager that most of you are attending this symposium precisely because of those changes: You’re here to learn how best to navigate this new landscape, including how to adopt and adapt to the new system here in Oregon. Still, because you are working within that system, you may not fully appreciate the broader significance of those changes for those in other states and for the nation. Well, as someone who comes at this issue from a national perspective, let me assure you that people all over the country are closely watching what’s going on in Oregon. What you’re doing here really matters, and we at Lumina Foundation are encouraged by the example you’re setting.

I’m sure that most of you know that Lumina is the nation’s largest foundation focused solely on increasing college attainment, and that we organize all of our work around a single ambitious 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.

That singular focus on a clear, specific goal probably sounds very familiar to you. In fact, Lumina’s outcomes-oriented approach is right in line with what the 40-40-20 plan is all about. That ambitious plan—your effort to ensure that, by 2025, all adult Oregonians have at least a high school diploma, 40 percent have an associate degree or college-level credential, and 40 percent have a bachelor’s degree ― that plan, in itself, is commendable. A great deal of time and effort went into the plan ― hard work marked by strong leadership and cooperation from dozens of individuals and organizations, from the Governor and legislative leaders to the terrific team at the Education Investment Board, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the Oregon Business Council and other employer and labor groups, K-12 representatives, members of the policy community, and of course the higher-ed community at large ― both community colleges and four-year institutions.

Clearly, the spirit of cooperative innovation is strong in this state, and your engaged presence here today proves your commitment to that spirit. You deserve high praise for what you’ve already accomplished in resetting your own compass. You’re moving in the right direction, you’re moving with a sense of urgency, and you’re moving with a shared vision. Trust me: That’s a rare combination.

In the last few years, I’ve traveled all over the country in the course of this work. I can tell you from direct experience that the changes you’re tackling here in Oregon are not being universally or enthusiastically embraced. I’ll wager this is no real surprise to you. In fact, I’m sure that some of you are genuinely anxious about what will happen here. After all, any change is unsettling, and big change can be really tough ― especially in large, complex systems bound by decades of tradition. At first glance, the peril of big change often seems to outweigh its promise … I get that.

But let’s look beyond that first glance. Let’s look more closely at both the peril and the promise of system redesign in higher education—and, indeed, in the education arena more broadly. First, let’s examine the peril—or, to put it more pointedly, the peril of inaction. What happens if we stand pat … if we choose not to implement the kinds of changes now under way here in Oregon? The results are predictable, and they are sobering. Simply put: The existing higher-ed system will continue to fall short of meeting the nation’s growing need for talent, and our citizens and society will suffer for it.

Economists and labor experts are quite clear on that point. Studies from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predict that 55 million new American jobs will be created by the end of this decade. Of them, 40 million ― more than 70 percent—will require a college-level certificate or degree. And by 2020, the Center says, 65 percent of all U.S. jobs will require a postsecondary credential.

According to the latest Census figures (2012), less than 40 percent of Americans hold at least an associate degree. In Oregon, the figure is 39.8 percent, right in line with the national rate. Nationally, perhaps another 5 percent hold a postsecondary certificate or other credential. Clearly, then, there is a wide gap—a gap of some 15 to 20 percentage points ― between what we have in terms of college attainment and what we need as a nation. And under our traditional higher-ed system, these attainment levels have been essentially flat for decades. They’ve barely budged. That, my friends, is genuine peril: Those stagnant attainment rates represent vast amounts of unrealized human potential. We must change the system to unlock this potential—to realize the promise inherent in increased college attainment for your state and your students.

Clearly, you have recognized that promise, and you’ve taken some very important steps in making it a reality for the citizens of this state. In preparing for this visit, I reviewed a great deal of information, including the Oregon Learns website and the vision for statewide system redesign. Let me tell you, that vision, that plan, is every bit as ambitious and impressive as the 40-40-20 goals that it seeks to achieve. I think what struck me most powerfully is that the plan is designed around student pathways to success. At Lumina, we too have concluded that we must think more in terms of providing students smarter pathways into and through higher education. All learning should count, everyone should know what degrees represent so they can be put to use most effectively, whether it’s for employment or further education, and everyone should know the next step they need to take to move forward toward their personal goals. Your plan is moving in that direction. The plan is bold, sensible and well-thought-out, and it can very easily serve as a blueprint for the types of changes that need to come about in virtually every state.

I won’t spend much time detailing a plan with which you’re already familiar, but I do want to at least name the five key strategies on which it rests ― because, again, these are the strategies that the higher ed system in virtually every state should pursue.

Strategy 1: Put students at the center of decisions, investments and practices. From Lumina’s perspective, this just about says it all. A truly effective higher-ed system is one that is purposefully and relentlessly designed to serve its students first. That’s not to say that institutions are unimportant—far from it. The knowledge-development role that colleges and universities play is critical, as is their broader role of service to community and society. But the institutional focus ― the idea that decisions and funding and policies should respond primarily to the needs of colleges and universities—that idea is simply no longer viable, if it ever was. A focus on meeting the needs of students and, by extension, the needs of society, must be at the core of what we do.

Strategy 2: Expect, establish and invest in high outcomes. As the plan states: “the belief in student potential is fundamental to everything else.” That means we must reject the notion that some students are expendable … that their failure can somehow be tolerated. This sense of shared responsibility for student success—of mutual accountability by everyone involved, including students, educators, the state, and employers ― is vital. This also means, importantly, that we must focus on high outcomes for all students, not just the ones most likely to prosper because of prior academic experience, geography, demography, or other factors.

Strategy 3: Make sure students are on track for success at every stage. In other words, establish specific learning outcomes and systematically measure students’ progress toward those outcomes. Again, emphasizing the importance of populations not well served currently must be central to our policies and practices.

Strategy 4: Encourage and support great teaching and deeper learning. At Lumina, we’re adamant that the push to boost attainment—the relentless focus on increasing the number of degrees that we are so highly associated with ― can’t come at the expense of quality. For us, genuine, measurable learning must be the coin of the realm. Modes for fostering the learning can vary ― in fact, the delivery methods must vary, given the increasingly diverse nature of today’s student population—but the rigor and relevance of that learning must be maintained. And we must be clear about what we expect students to know and to be able to do.

Strategy 5: Organize state policies and support structures around the priorities above. Pursuit of these strategies requires a change in our thinking and adoption of new rules and practice that are grounded in sound state policies. Here I’d like to modestly suggest that you take advantage of the deep knowledge and capacity that we have developed in this area. Lumina has identified 20 proven policies as a guide to states seeking to increase attainment. I won’t recount them here, but you can check out our website for more information. I’d especially commend to you our new StrategyLabs website, which you can reach directly from our home page. That website is designed to be a resource on what states can do and already are doing to increase postsecondary attainment. It’s a rich and up-to-date forum for ideas, information and collaboration for everyone who is involved in developing or informing state policy aimed at increasing attainment. StrategyLabs was just launched in the last two months, but we are already seeing intense use of it by legislators, coordinating and governing board leaders, governors’ staffs, higher education leaders and many other interested and informed parties.

Again, the five strategies that undergird the plan represent the building blocks for a new system that is very much needed ― a system designed to meet the nation’s attainment goals. It’s a system that puts students firmly at the center by building it around pathways based on learning. It challenges everyone to be accountable for the success of students … all types of students in greater numbers than ever before. It’s a system that requires transparency and cooperative effort, one that encourages innovation by rewarding actual outcomes, not process or effort or good intentions.

Certainly, a great deal of work needs to be done in the coming years to flesh out the details of this redesigned system of higher education. But it’s clear that we are of like mind when it comes to the fundamental aspects of this new system. You know that, at its core, the system must offer multiple, clearly marked pathways to various levels of student success ― learning pathways that are affordable, clear and interconnected, with no dead ends, no cul-de-sacs and plenty of on- and off-ramps.

These pathways must be built on the foundation of learning. Degrees and other postsecondary credentials can’t simply be defined by the amount of time a student spends in classrooms or labs. Rather, degrees must represent well-defined and transparent learning outcomes. In short, students should get credit for what they know and what they can do. And all learning should count ― no matter how, when or where it was obtained.

In the best scenario, this new system will be one in which every student knows where he or she is going, how much it will cost to get there, how much time it will take, and what to expect at journey’s end—both in terms of learning outcomes and career prospects.

Again, we all know that the new system won’t emerge overnight. In fact, we all recognize that this redesign project is in its early stages. But make no mistake, it is under way. The boat has already been rocked. Fundamental change is coming to American higher education … because it must. Without such change, this nation ― along with tens of millions of Americans and their families—will steadily lose ground in the rapidly changing global marketplace.

As I hope I’ve made clear this morning, Oregon has already staked out a position of leadership in this change effort—and I commend you for the energy you’ve put into the vision for this new system. Now, though, the real work begins. The higher-ed boat is rocking, and it’s up to you to steady the ship and steer it forward … together.

That collaborative approach needs to take full advantage of what’s happening elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to shape the unique approach that is needed here in Oregon based on the accelerating number of examples that are being developed elsewhere—not just at the state policy level, but in other ways, such as through institutional innovations, private sector partnerships, philanthropic collaborations, and other means.

At the risk of recounting too much of the broad array of work we do at Lumina, let me just say that we are ready to do whatever we can to assist you in that effort. We’ve thought a lot about system redesign, and we are eager to share what we know and have learned. Let me quickly highlight just a few of the areas where we are clearly able to connect.

One opportunity is through something that is known to many of you here, the Degree Qualifications Profile. The DQP ― a baseline set of reference points for what students should know and be able to do at the associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree levels—was released in beta form in 2011. Since then, it has gained significant traction nationwide as a tool that can help redefine educational quality in terms of actual student learning. So far, the DQP has been faculty-tested in more than 400 institutions across the country, including 28 public and private institutions right here in Oregon. A newly revised version just came out last week, and it’s available for further testing and comment at our website. Work is now under way to incorporate postsecondary certificates into the DQP framework ― an important step in the larger effort to design and build a system that can meet society’s needs in the 21st century.

Related to this work to define what degrees and credentials actually mean is the growing work we are seeing across the country to advance what is fundamentally not a new concept: competency-based learning. We’ve actually known about and seen very limited examples of competency-based learning that goes back a couple of decades. But the approaches being pioneered nationally by Southern New Hampshire University, Western Governors University, Brandman University, and the University of Wisconsin System, to name just a few, have taken advantage of the transformative power of technology to develop rigorous, demanding and learning-focused programs of study unlike what we’ve seen before. We believe these models will be scaling quickly, and that they represent a sea change in the way postsecondary learning is delivered.

Two other resources we would commend to your attention are the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. CAEL has worked for years in developing tools for prior learning assessment, and NILOA is developing an online library of assignments developed by faculty from around the country to support the growing number of competency-based assessment systems.

We are also pleased with the state-driven efforts to forge the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), which increases the reach of online degree programs through simpler, more uniform regulation of programs offered across state lines. SARA is a voluntary solution to the challenge of the patchwork of state regulation that has the potential to strengthen consumer protection for Oregon students, and help maintain quality state regulation of on-the-ground instruction offered by out-of-state institutions.

These illustrations are all easy to study, explore and refine to meet your needs in this state. But we know that the work you have set out to do to promote system redesign aimed at increasing attainment will not be easy; indeed, in many ways, it will be quite challenging. As you tackle this redesign, some will no doubt be tempted to revert to established patterns, to cling to familiar processes and practices, perhaps even to circle the wagons and protect what has long been considered you “turf.” Please, do all that you can to resist that temptation … because if you do, if system redesign succeeds here in Oregon, the payoff will be huge.

For one thing, the system you’re creating here is built to incentivize progress … and to reward outcomes. That means, the institutions and systems that truly serve their students—the ones that ensure their students succeed and obtain high-quality credentials ― these are the institutions that will reap the greatest financial benefit from state policymakers and ensure their continued success as centers of learning and knowledge creation.

Fundamentally, though, the greater benefit goes beyond funding. It’s more personal, and it’s intrinsic. Over the years, I’ve been in scores of rooms like this, and I’ve talked with thousands of people just like you ― faculty members, presidents, administrators, business representatives and policymakers, all with a shared commitment to the transformative power of education. Almost without exception, you do what you do because you want to unleash that power. You do this work because you want to serve students, to empower your citizens and give them the tools they need to build a bright future here in the state you love. You recognize higher education’s vast potential—for addressing social inequality, for increasing economic opportunity, for improving society.

And yet, what is happening here in Oregon isn’t some utopian, pie-in-the-sky exercise in feel-good social engineering. It’s real, and it matters. Your plan for system redesign is a pragmatic, well-considered effort ― rooted in economic reality, bolstered and shared by all of the necessary stakeholders, and aimed squarely at the issues you know you must address to build a bright future for your citizens.

The path to that future is before you. You’ve all worked hard in recent years to forge it, and you’re here today to prepare yourselves for the next step. So I urge you: Take that step with courage and conviction. You’re moving in the right direction, and you’re moving together. We at Lumina are proud to walk with you, we’re eager to help any way we can, and we’re confident that other states will follow your lead as you turn an ambitious plan to increase postsecondary attainment into a reality for this state and its future.

Kate Snedeker

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