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The Changing Higher Education Agenda … and the Trustee’s Role as Change Agent

Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
Opening Keynote, Spring Conference, Pennsylvania Association of Councils of Trustees (PACT), Harrisburg, PA

Thank you, and good afternoon, everyone. I’m very pleased to be here today, and I want to thank Marcus Lingenfelter and the conference committee for inviting me to help kick off this important gathering. PASSHE and its member institutions have been great partners with Lumina in recent years, and you deserve enormous credit for the good you’ve done here in Pennsylvania. Chancellor Garland, Chairman Pichini, administrators, faculty and trustees at all 14 PASSHE universities … you’ve all done solid work to make your institutions more productive and more affordable to the citizens in your state. In short, you’ve helped hundreds of thousands of deserving students realize the enormous benefits of a college education.

Of course, we’re all here because we know that the job isn’t finished, and that the challenges before us are significant. Despite the great progress that’s been made in Pennsylvania, we know that much more effort is required, and that innovative approaches will have to be taken. We know that, as the title of this conference makes abundantly clear, a “new higher education agenda” is being written. We’re here to explore that new agenda together … to look for ways that you, as trustees and campus leaders, can advance that new agenda.

I certainly share your interest in that agenda, both personally and professionally. First of all, as a trustee of my own alma mater, Bates College in Maine, I feel the same sense of commitment, responsibility and devotion that no doubt drives many of you. More broadly, as president of Lumina Foundation, I lead an organization that is intensely focused on that new agenda … that is, creating positive, substantive change in higher education.

Naturally, I’ll spend some of my time this afternoon exploring Lumina’s approach to change. But my real purpose is not to present our view; rather, I will do my best to approach this issue from your perspective. I want to underscore your critical role as change agents and point out some specific areas in which your leadership can make a real difference in how these changes come about. Because the simple truth is, change is needed in higher education … and it is coming ― even in institutions and systems that may not want it. The only question is how quickly — and how well ― those changes are implemented. For this reason, the role of a trustee has never been more important; governing boards that are engaged, that thoughtfully and proactively work with institutional leadership to navigate this sea of change, will emerge as effective leaders, focused on what is best for students and the state as a whole.

I know most of you are familiar with Lumina and its work. You’re aware by now that we direct all of our resources and efforts toward achieving one goal, what we have come to call Goal 2025. Let me state that goal clearly right at the outset: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality degrees, certificates or other postsecondary credentials.

We see Goal 2025 as a necessary response to an urgent national need. Simply put, our nation needs far more college-educated citizens than are now being produced. Experts agree that some measure of postsecondary education will be necessary for anyone who hopes to maintain a middle-class lifestyle in the coming decades. The simple fact is, jobs are becoming more complex and require higher-level skills than ever before … and that trend is sure to intensify in coming years. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that, by the end of this decade, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require some postsecondary education and training.

Of course, the arguments in favor of Goal 2025 aren’t limited to the economy or the job market. We all know that increased education attainment also generates significant societal benefits, including greater civic and social engagement, higher rates of voter participation and volunteerism, healthier lifestyles, less dependence on public assistance, and so on. These benefits have enormous implications for the health and vitality of our democracy.

Finally, there is also a compelling equity case to be made for achieving Goal 2025. 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. Here in Pennsylvania, the inequities are stark. The most recent Census figures show that more than 40 percent of white, working-age residents of this state ― that is, Pennsylvanians 25 to 64 years old — have at least an associate degree. For African-Americans in the same age group, the rate is far lower, just 23 percent; and for working-age Latinos in Pennsylvania, the rate is just 19.7 percent—less than half the rate of whites.

Right there ― in those huge and stubbornly persistent attainment gaps — you can see why change is so vital, and so urgent. And there are other gaps as well … attainment challenges associated with low income, with first-generation status, with military service, with age and employment and family responsibilities. We can’t allow these attainment gaps to continue. The stakes are just too high—not merely for the people who are directly affected, but for every employer who needs skilled workers … for every citizen who stands to benefit from the economic and social progress that education brings … in short, for all of us as a nation.

For all of these reasons,—economic, civic and societal ― Lumina sees Goal 2025 as a vital national effort. As I said, that’s why we direct all of our resources toward achieving the goal and have organized all of our work around it.

In fact, we’ve just adopted a new strategic plan that is geared specifically to maximize our progress toward that goal. The plan, which will guide our efforts through 2016, lays out two broad imperatives for us as we strive to reach Goal 2025. First, we want to mobilize all of the relevant stakeholders to join this effort. The second imperative is to design and build the 21st century higher education system that will actually help us reach the goal. In my remarks today, I want to explore each of these imperatives in some detail ― again, not because these two areas of work represent Lumina’s thinking or approach, but because every one of you here today can play a vital role in each area.

Let’s begin with the plan’s first imperative: mobilizing stakeholders to make change happen. Clearly, when considering higher education, the range of relevant stakeholders is wide. It includes policymakers at the federal, state and local levels; higher-ed officials and institutions in every state; K-12 systems and teachers; employers, workforce groups and economic-development organizations; metropolitan areas and regions; philanthropic and social-service organizations, students and families. In essence, we want everyone to commit to achieving this 60 percent college-attainment goal. That certainly includes college and university trustees here in Pennsylvania … if only because the need for progress is so pronounced in this state.

Again, let’s look at the numbers. According to 2011 Census figures, the most recent available, 38.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s working-age residents hold at least an associate degree. This is no doubt frustratingly average ― right on par with the national rate of 38.7 percent. Perhaps worse, Pennsylvania’s college-attainment rate has only increased modestly since 2008, when the statewide rate was 37.9 percent. My friends, in these demanding and dynamic times ― with increased educational attainment so critical to individual success and societal progress—this modest progress equals failure.

To make real progress, change is needed here in Pennsylvania, and you are in a unique position to be the change agents. As trustees and campus leaders, there are specific steps you can take to help mobilize those who must act to implement that change. Let me list just a few areas where you can influence the policy direction here in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania should set a goal for increased attainment–clearly, publicly, and soon.

First of all, I’ve talked about Goal 2025 ― the specific, concrete, 60 percent attainment goal toward which we work at Lumina. In recent years, many states and organizations have adopted this goal, or a similar one, because they recognize that real progress is much more likely when one aims for a clearly defined target. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is not one of them. The state should set a goal for increased attainment—clearly, publicly, and soon. And you, as trustees, should encourage state leaders and policymakers to make that move. They will listen to you … at least they should. After all, you who represent the PASSHE schools have earned your right to help set the agenda. You’ve proved your worth as good stewards of the taxpayers’ money. You’ve cut costs dramatically and maximized business efficiencies on your campuses. You’ve also implemented a performance-funding system.

And that brings me to a second step that you can take to influence the change agenda here in Pennsylvania. As important as it has been for you to accept performance funding, your system is modest compared to many of your peers in other states. It’s time to do more … to really embrace it. That means three things: First, tie the performance-funding formula directly to that statewide attainment goal I mentioned earlier. Second, commit more of your budgets to the formula. Right now, only 2 percent of PASSHE’s budget is tied to student outcomes. States like Tennessee, Ohio, and Indiana all commit a much higher percentage of funding to outcome based distribution. In fact, Tennessee’s formula commits an impressive 100% of base funding to allocation via clearly articulated performance benchmarks. Surely, there’s room for improvement there.

Finally, in looking to the future as trustees, consider how the performance-funding formula might be used to help foster innovation at your institution. Use it to encourage improvements in curriculum and the development of new modes of delivery. Despite the undeniable strengths of the traditional classroom model, we all know that it has limits … that it simply cannot serve the vast and growing numbers of students who will need postsecondary education in the coming years. More energy and more resources must be directed to expanding and improving the online and blended programs available to your students—and outcomes-based funding can help do that.

Of course, as trustees and campus leaders, you don’t just help direct funds where they’re needed; you also help direct policymakers’ attention where it’s most needed. And that leads me to one final way that you can help with the mobilization effort: prioritizing. You’re well-equipped to help set the priorities for change … to point out the most urgent needs and make sure that policymakers stay focused on meeting them. For instance, I can list two such urgent areas where your voices should be heard … one narrowly specific, the other more broad ― even sweeping—in its scope.

The first area is student financial aid eligibility. Right now Pennsylvania appears to be the one state that bars state financial aid from going to students enrolled in online-only programs. As trustees, you should work with the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency and the legislature to change that. It’s a rule that no longer makes sense … one that runs counter to the vital goals of increased access and attainment.

Nearly 1.2 million Pennsylvanians between ages 25 and 64 have some college credit but have not yet earned a credential.

Second, you should do all you can to shift the focus of the state’s higher-education system from serving traditional-aged students to serving those in the adult population. It’s easy to make a case for urgency and opportunity in this area. For one thing, Pennsylvania has a declining number of high school graduates and an aging population. In fact, demographers predict that, by 2020, the number of high school graduates in the state will decrease by 10 percent. What’s more, much of the state’s working-age population already has a leg up on college success. According to the most recent Census figures, nearly 18 percent of Pennsylvanians between ages 25 and 64 ― almost 1.2 million people—have some college credit but have not yet earned a credential. That group represents a deep well of potential, one that can be tapped fairly quickly if policymakers and campus leaders take the right steps now.

As I said, this emphasis on adult learners is huge in scope; it’s an area that encompasses dozens, perhaps hundreds, of individual policy issues that you as trustees can make your own. Focusing on the state’s adult students means everything from boosting online delivery … to easing student transfers … to pushing for wider acceptance of credits earned through prior learning … to increased cooperation with employers in developing workforce-relevant programs.

In addition to adults displaced from the workforce, returning veterans are a growing population of non-traditional students seeking college level learning. In Pennsylvania, you are all too familiar with the sacrifices your friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens have made in service to their country—risking their well-being, enduring long stints away from family, and often putting formal postsecondary education on the backburner. Too often, veterans show upon on college campuses and are told, “welcome to freshman year.” The knowledge and skills that were amassed during their service often go unrecognized. Like other adults who have accumulated skills through employment or service, veterans often can demonstrate college level competencies that should be recognized by institutions. Simply providing a mechanism to recognize learning that has already occurred can reduce the time to a high-quality degree, thus helping veterans and other adults with skills gained through experiential learning transition more quickly to becoming productive contributors in the workforce. There are some institutions and systems across the country that are doing this well, but many must vastly improve to better serve non-traditional student populations.

Adult learning is also a good place for me to shift from the idea of mobilizing to the second imperative laid out in Lumina’s strategic plan: that is, designing and beginning to build the 21st century higher education system that can actually help us achieve Goal 2025. The few steps I just listed ― and many more besides—have one important element in common: All are designed with students’ needs at the very center. And that, my friends, is a radical and much-needed departure from the norm in American higher education.

As I said earlier, today’s higher-ed system is inadequate to our needs as a nation. Why is it inadequate? Because it is outmoded. It was designed decades ago to serve a student population that bears little resemblance to the huge and richly diverse population of students who must be served today. Clearly, we need a redesigned system—one that is flexible, affordable, and quality-focused to properly serve the needs of students, employers, and society at large.

This redesigned system must deliver affordable, high-quality education to the growing numbers of low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students who represent our future as a nation. In other words, American higher education must become a truly student-centered system. It must ensure access to many more students—adults, of course, but all types of students. And it must give those students the support they need to succeed, enabling them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning.

You, as campus leaders and trustees, have a critical role in shaping this new student-centered system. One of the most obvious ways you can help in this area is one in which you’ve long been active: that is, working to keep your institutions affordable and highly productive. Of course the state should increase its investment in higher education, and as trustees you must continue to push hard against the rising tide of disinvestment. Clearly, that tide has been strong here in Pennsylvania. You’ve fought in recent years just to keep state funding levels flat ― and it’s easy to see how you might be tempted to consider that a victory. After all, when PASSHE was established in 1983, 65 percent of its budget was supported by the state; that figure has now dwindled to just 26 percent. This continued erosion has severe and lasting consequences, and you need to make it clear to policymakers that it must be reversed, not merely slowed.

At the same time, given economic and fiscal realities, you and your institutions must continue to make the best use of the funds that you do have. Maintain and strengthen your efforts to cut costs and improve productivity. Continue to incorporate business efficiencies into your institution’s operations. Focus even more energy on developing low-cost, high-quality delivery options—including accelerated and online programs. Use financial incentives to support the goal of graduating more students, on time, with high-quality credentials. And make sure those performance incentives apply both to the institution and to the students themselves. Everyone must have a meaningful stake in fostering student success.

Of course, the goal of all of these efforts isn’t just to produce more degrees and credentials. It’s important to understand that this redesigned, student-centered system must work simultaneously toward two ends: quantity and quality. In short, it is your job as a trustee ― a vitally important part of your job—to ensure that genuine learning is taking place at your institution.

In fact, trustees must lead the way in reframing the conversation about institutional and educational quality. And that conversation can’t be merely rhetorical or theoretical. It must reach down into the real-life details of who learns what ― and how. The Association of Governing Boards listed seven “guiding principles” in its 2011 Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of Educational Quality. Let me highlight just one of those principles. AGB says, quoting here:

“The board should charge the president and chief academic officer with ensuring that student learning is assessed, data about outcomes are gathered, results are shared with the board and all involved constituents, and deficiencies and improvements are tracked.”

The quest for quality isn’t haphazard or serendipitous. It can’t be left to chance. It takes work … work that you, as trustees, must ultimately understand and supervise. As AGB notes, a board should know how assessment is conducted at its institution, what the academic goals are, and how the institution is performing against such goals. The idea is to collect data that measures not just inputs, such as the number of students enrolled, but outcomes—that is, what students have actually learned and can do as a result of their studies.

For our part, Lumina Foundation is now testing a Degree Qualifications Profile to help institutions more clearly define what students should know and be able to do with the degrees they earn. The DQP describes five basic areas of learning: 1) broad, integrative knowledge, 2) specialized knowledge, 3) intellectual skills, 4) applied learning, and 5) civic learning. Specific student outcomes for each area are described independently, although in practice there should be much overlap and integration.

Right now, more than 200 institutions in 30+ states are testing the DQP. At least five of those institutions are right here in your state, including PASSHE’s own Clarion University. The lessons we’re learning from this extensive “beta” test are significant and enlightening. And we plan to incorporate these lessons into a new iteration of the DQP—one that can serve as a very useful tool for all types of institutions.

I’m happy to talk in more detail about the DQP in the question-and-answer period that follows my remarks. We see it as a promising effort in what for us has become a central part of our work: that is, ensuring genuine learning while working to increase college attainment—quality with quantity, if you will.

That dual effort is nothing new to any of you, I’m sure. Again, as a trustee of my own alma mater, I appreciate the dual commitment you have made, and I understand the pressures you face in trying to meet that commitment. Like you, I have felt the conflicts that inevitably result from trying to balance the demands of board membership and corporate citizenship.

And I suppose my suggestions can best be summed up this way: The best way to meet the demands of both camps is to focus on neither. Rather, remind yourself where your ultimate responsibility lies—in either role. It is not to your institution, not to a particular economic sector or industry, not even to “society.” No, your ultimate responsibility is to the individuals your institution has pledged to serve … the students who choose to attend.

If you truly serve those students, you’ll find the right balance. What’s more, you’ll do more good—for everyone involved—than you can even imagine. Truly serving students means that you put their needs first … before your employers’, before those of your fellow trustees or your president, before the university you represent. Practically speaking, that should lead you to several steps.

  • No. 1: Pay for results: As a trustee, you must ensure that attention—and resources—are focused on helping students stay in school, truly learn while they are there, and complete their programs. Graduation and progression rates matter, and so do dropout rates, especially for underserved populations. Reducing the time that it takes for students to get a degree is also important to ensure that students—and society—benefit from that credential quickly and cost-effectively. And learning outcomes matter, so that your students—and the employers who hire them—can be assured of quality.
  • No. 2: Educate in new ways and places: Today’s colleges and universities must educate students in innovative and affordable ways, not merely perpetuate the traditional classroom setting. All Pennsylvanians—all Americans—need access to high-quality instruction and to the services that can give them every opportunity to succeed. As trustees, it’s your job to ensure that your institutions employ new models that are nimble enough to respond to students’ needs.
  • No. 3: Reallocate and reinvest in student success: Colleges must analyze their spending, eliminate unnecessary outlays and apply the savings where it matters most: in helping more students graduate with high-quality degrees and credentials.

As trustees, your role here is absolutely central. No one is better positioned than you to make sure that student success is the driving force … the organizing principle of your university. Trustees at many institutions have done this and done it well.

For real-life examples, take a look at some of the exemplary schools featured in Advancing to Completion, a recent report from The Education Trust. This 2012 report highlights institutions that have made great progress in recent years in closing attainment gaps and increasing graduation rates among students of color. East Stroudsburg is among those exemplary institutions—as are Millersville and West Chester. Drexel, Penn and Penn State are also on the list. My point is, you needn’t look far to find peers who can advise you on how to build a culture of student success on your own campus.

No doubt their advice will vary, but some specific recommendations for trustees are sure to emerge. For example:

  • Insist on an institutional plan that has student success and equity at the core ― and be sure the plan sets aggressive, concrete, measurable goals for each.
  • Regularly monitor the data that tracks progress toward those goals, and ask the tough questions when progress lags.
  • Insist on seeing evidence-based changes in policy that have been shown to boost student success.
  • Finally, support your president ― on campus and off ― when he or she takes the courageous steps necessary to drive improvement.

I realize that this student-centered approach can be challenging. Clearly, the road to student success is not the trustee’s path of least resistance. If you’re doing your job properly, the decisions you make will inevitably put you at odds with other stakeholders, including leaders at your own institutions.

But remember who you’re there to serve: the student. That student needs you—even though she may not even know it … even though she’ll probably never realize that you’ve helped. Students truly need your help to succeed. And if they fail, no stakeholder can succeed—not your institutions, not area employers, not the state of Pennsylvania, not this nation.

I urge you to embrace your role as the student’s advocate … because that is the best way for you to be a real change agent ― at a time when positive change is urgently needed.

Thank you very much.

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FEATURED VIDEO
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.