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The Changing Higher Education Agenda

Jamie P. Merisotis, President/CEO, Lumina Foundation
Closing remarks, National Energy Education Network meeting, Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD)

For Holly Zanville's presentation at this event, see: Adult Learners and the Completion Agenda »

Thank you, and good morning everyone. I’m very pleased to be with you today, and I want to thank CEWD for its great work in planning this meeting and making it a success. My Lumina colleagues and I have been proud to support and participate in this gathering. Of course, we’re also pleased to have you here in our hometown, but for us, proximity is merely a bonus. What really matters is synergy … the clear connection between your agenda and our own.

The fact is, the conversations you’ve had here over the past few days fit in seamlessly with the work we’re doing at Lumina. You represent an important trend ― one that we want very much to foster: that is, the cooperative convergence of educators and employers. This group ― and other, similar groups all over the country—are a vital part of a larger, national picture that is just beginning to come into focus. My task today—in my brief remarks and in the question-and-answer period that follows ― is to try to sketch out that picture … to describe, as well as I can, one view of the future of American higher education.

Now, I admit I’m no soothsayer. No one can see the future with clarity. Still, we at Lumina have done a fair amount of work recently to try to envision the type of higher-ed system that the nation needs. We’re not the only ones involved in this visioning exercise, of course, but it’s become a vital and growing part of our work ― because it is crucial to the big goal that we’re trying to achieve … Goal 2025, the national college attainment goal that drives everything we do at Lumina.

Now you’ve already heard about Goal 2025 from my colleague Holly Zanville, so I won’t repeat what she so effectively conveyed. But if you think about the fact that national college-attainment rates have been hovering for decades around 40 percent … and with experts predicting that nearly two-thirds of jobs will require some level of college-level learning by the end of this decade … it’s clear that college attainment must increase dramatically—and soon. The status quo is simply not an option.

Again, I’m no clairvoyant, but it really doesn’t take a crystal ball to see, at least in general terms, where higher education is going—indeed, where it must go in coming years if we expect to compete in the global economy and maintain a vibrant democracy. Simply put, we must move toward a system that is more productive, more affordable, and better able to meet the needs of an increasingly demanding workplace and an increasingly diverse student population.

If you’ve paid any attention to what Lumina has been doing and saying recently, you’ve noticed one constant: our persistent push for fundamental change in American higher education … for system redesign. Our pursuit of Goal 2025 has shown us again and again that redesign is absolutely necessary.

Despite the many contributions it has made to our nation, our current higher-ed system simply can no longer get us where we need to be as a nation. It unfortunately lacks the capacity, the flexibility, and the affordability that are necessary to produce the tens of millions of additional graduates this country must have if we are to thrive in the 21st century. That’s not an assessment of blame, it’s a reality we must confront, together. And it’s why we need a redesigned higher-ed system ― one that is flexible, affordable, and relentlessly focused on quality.

In particular, the system must be oriented to better serve the students who, for decades, have been on the wrong side of the growing attainment gap in higher education: low-income and first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and adults. To close those gaps, and to meet the full range of societal needs, we need an integrated, fully linked system for developing human potential—the talent that will drive our social, economic and cultural well-being in the coming decades.

As I said, we’ve been working at Lumina to help design a truly student-centered, learning-based system—one that ensures access to all types of students, gives those students the preparation and ongoing support they need to succeed, and enables them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning. For us, this redesigned system is the future; it really is higher education’s new agenda.

Success will require many years of coordinated effort by a full range of stakeholders inside and outside the higher-ed arena

This redesign work is just beginning … and it’s certainly not just our project at Lumina. We know that success will require many years of coordinated effort by a full range of stakeholders inside and outside the higher-ed arena. There are a lot of parts to this puzzle, and it’s too early to see it in much detail.

Still, even at this stage, we can begin to describe the system that the nation needs. For one thing, given the growing demand for higher education among an increasingly diverse student population, the system must include all types of institutions: public and private; religiously affiliated and secular; online and brick-and-mortar; small, large and in-between. It must offer multiple, clearly marked pathways to various levels of student success ― pathways that are affordable, clear and interconnected, with no dead ends, no cul-de-sacs, and plenty of on- and off-ramps. We also know that these pathways must be based on learning ― that the degrees and other credentials awarded must represent well-defined and transparent learning outcomes.

The redesigned system will guarantee that all learning counts—no matter how, when, or where it was obtained. Every credit should represent learning, and should therefore be transferable and applicable to further education.

In the new system, the learning that any credential represents will be explicit and transparent to all concerned

In the best scenario, then, this new system will be one in which everyone 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. In the new system, the learning that any credential represents will be explicit and transparent to all concerned. Faculty will agree on—and students will clearly understand—what skills and knowledge a graduate in a particular discipline should possess. Policymakers will be able to allocate resources rationally, based at least in part on those expected learning outcomes. Employers will be able to hire graduates with confidence, knowing what skills and knowledge are embedded in a two-year degree in English or a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.

There are two huge shifts in thinking that undergird this new system: a pair of new perspectives that are really driving all of the other changes I’ve been talking about. For many decades, if not from the very beginning, our higher education system has been organized around institutions and measured by time. Put another way, institutions have been the focal point of the system, and time ― defined by the credit hour—has been the lens we use to view it. By and large, this is still very much the case. While this focus served the country reasonably well for many years, the fact is that this model is simply not able to serve the dramatically larger number of Americans who need high-quality higher education.

Clearly, our focus needs to shift. The idea that decisions and funding and policies should respond primarily to the needs of colleges and universities must be replaced by a focus on first meeting the needs of students and, by extension, the needs of society. Just as important: the time-based method of “keeping score” in higher education must be replaced by one that measures and rewards what truly matters: student learning.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this latter point when it comes to the redesigned higher-ed system: Learning outcomes simply must be the true measure of educational quality. Not time, not institutional reputation, but genuine learning ― that is, competencies informed by the real world in which students must thrive. Those competencies should be transparent,

I know you understand what I’m talking about, because that real world is very much your world. As Holly said to you earlier this morning, Industry is an important lever to get higher education to change ― pressure must come from industry to higher education that change is needed in the curriculum. The collaborative work you are doing to create new educational pathways to energy-sector careers … pathways that can lead all types of students to a brighter future … pathways that forge solutions for your industry as well as for individuals…pathways that enable nimble responsiveness to rapidly advancing human capital needs within the industry—this work is a living, breathing example of higher-ed system redesign. It’s exciting, it’s innovative, and it is very much needed.

Your part in this redesign project will certainly benefit many deserving Americans, including women and minorities ― groups that are now underrepresented in energy-sector jobs. It will strengthen your industry by widening and deepening the labor pool. Finally, it will aid the broader, national effort to secure America’s energy future.

Again, this work is just beginning. We all have a long way to go in making the shift to a learning-based, student-centered system. But you are demonstrating quite clearly that the redesign project is under way, and it’s moving in the right direction.

My Lumina colleagues and I thank you for the strides you’ve already made, and we hope to learn a great deal from you and your work. To that end, I look forward now to your comments and questions.

Thank you.

Kate Snedeker

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