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The Completion Goal and the National Outlook

Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation
Opening Keynote, Scaling Up Conference, Illinois State University, Bloomington, IL

Thank you, and good afternoon, everyone. I’m pleased to be with you today—not least because it gives me the chance to share the dais with your lieutenant governor, a leader with whom my Lumina colleagues and I have worked closely and for whom I have great respect.

In fact, at the risk of embarrassing her, I want to begin with a few words of well-deserved praise. For nearly six years, my work on behalf of Lumina Foundation has taken me all over this country. During that time, I’ve come to appreciate what an outstanding advocate for higher education—particularly for students in higher education—that this state has in Sheila Simon. She recognizes the transformative power of college-level learning, and she works hard to unleash that power and apply it fully here in your state.

Entire keynote including introductory remarks by Lt. Governor Sheila Simon. Jamie Merisotis begins at 5:10.

As lieutenant governor, she was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the college-attainment goal now known as Goal 2025. Since embracing it as a statewide effort, she’s worked tirelessly to realize that ambitious goal here in Illinois; that is, she’s sought to ensure that, by the year 2025, 60 percent of the state’s working-age residents have a high-quality postsecondary credential.

She’s visited 48 community colleges and each of Illinois’ 12 public university campuses, and she’s written extensively about college completion and college affordability. In fact, your presence here today—this very conference—resulted from the efforts made by your lieutenant governor and her determination to share the best practices seen on your campuses with an eye toward scaling up those that accelerate student success. In short, she has tackled the challenge of increasing college attainment with great energy and urgency—which is how it must be tackled. That’s why we at Lumina are proud to support this conference and pleased to have all of you as partners in this work.

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Why the urgency? Why is this work so important? Why must we explore and embrace new approaches to serve students here in Illinois and throughout the nation? The simple answer is this: The traditional approaches aren’t working well enough, or frankly, fast enough. Business as usual just isn’t sufficient—not in this time of sweeping and significant change.

And if there were ever a time of change in American higher education, that time is now. So many forces are at work to compel these changes, and as higher-ed leaders you deal with all of them, but let me mention four in particular.

First is the funding challenge. Even though Illinois, like most states, is past the dark depths of a few years ago, I doubt that anyone here believes that we’ll ever get back to the good old days. Like it or not—the pressure to do more with what we have is here to stay. And, frankly, despite the challenges it creates, that results-oriented mentality isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it creates the perfect opportunity to challenge the status quo of higher education funding in ways that we could not have imagined even four years ago. To increase college attainment to the level that we really need, we are challenged to restructure our thinking about ways to fund the higher-ed enterprise.

Another obvious change in the higher education landscape is the rapid rise of technology. Big data, online programs, the explosion of social media … these and many other 21st century trends are transforming pedagogy and forcing huge changes in every corner of the higher-ed system—from assessment and accreditation to student recruitment and support to faculty hiring and development.

Perhaps even more obvious: College students have changed. Today’s student population is huge and growing—and those numbers need to grow even larger in coming years if we hope to keep our economic edge and ensure social cohesion. In addition to its sheer size, today’s student population is also remarkably diverse; in fact, it looks nothing like your father’s freshman class or even our own freshman classes. The 21st century student represents all ages and income groups, all races and ethnicities, students pursuing not just four-year degrees but also adding skills and credentials of all kinds to their personal portfolios. The students that you must serve may live on campus or way off campus. They could attend part-time or full-time, and they’re likely to enroll in several institutions.

Today’s students also face a variety of challenges that few members of our college classes had to confront. Most struggle to pay for college, often incurring significant debt. A growing number are pursuing college and career, fitting classwork around the demands of their employers. Many are juggling family responsibilities. In short, the student population has grown much larger and infinitely more diverse, and that growth is transforming higher education.

The fourth change, however, may be the most profound. In a word, expectations have changed—at every level and from every quarter. Employers expect better graduates. They want degree and certificate holders who are truly prepared for the demands and complexities of the modern workplace. State leaders and policymakers expect better results. They want institutions to produce more and better graduates at reasonable cost; in other words, they expect a better return on the investment of public education funds. Students and families expect a more responsive higher-ed system. They want high-quality programs, delivered in a variety of modes and platforms at prices that don’t force them to mortgage their future.

These new expectations present the higher-education system with a series of challenges, to be sure. But the expectations aren’t unreasonable. In fact, a few months ago, we at Lumina commissioned a Gallup poll that demonstrates just how reasonable the public really is on the issues of college affordability and value. The results of that poll are public, and you can examine them in detail on Gallup’s website. Today I just want to share two highlights from that survey, two findings that speak to the public’s general views on higher education.

First, people are willing to pay for it. One in four respondents—26%—said that they’d expect to pay between $10,000 and $20,000 for each year of undergraduate study, and another 18% said $5,000 to $10,000 would be a fair price. Lower-income populations, not surprisingly, suggested that somewhat lower tuitions were affordable; this underscores the notion that we must concentrate resources on those who need them most. Second, people want a good return on their investment. Forty-one percent cited “the ability to get a good job” as the most important factor when choosing a college or university—more important than an institution’s cost or its graduation rate.

Taken together, these bits of data make an important point about the heightened expectations I’ve been talking about … and about the tide of change sweeping through the higher-ed system. Put simply, the big message is this: The expectations are valid and clear. Families want higher education to be responsive, affordable and workforce-relevant. Changes in the system are sorely needed—because our future depends on our ability to effect those changes.

The facts are inescapable: If this nation is to thrive in the global economy and continue to progress as a society, far more of our citizens need to be properly educated. This cannot be a surprise to anyone in this room today. All of you know very well that a proper education doesn’t end with a high school diploma. It just can’t. To attain and maintain a place in the middle class—and produce all of the economic and societal benefits such a position affords—Americans need the skills and knowledge that can only be gained in high-quality postsecondary programs. In a word, college is key … for Illinois residents, and for all Americans.

I won’t spend time today repeating the wealth of evidence that underscores the importance of college-completion agenda. You understand the economic and social imperatives for increasing attainment, particularly among the students we used to label “nontraditional”—that is, low-income students, first-generation students, students of color and working adults because you are serving those students. You know that nontraditional is now the norm … and that we must better serve these 21st century students—both to enhance social equity and to ensure economic progress.

The simple fact is, we can’t properly serve today’s students—and certainly not the students of tomorrow—without fundamental change. If you’ve heard anything from Lumina recently, that has been the message … that the higher education system must be redesigned so that it truly serves our needs as a society. This redesign effort is a major undertaking, of course—one that goes far beyond Lumina and will take many years to accomplish. Still, even though this work is just beginning, system redesign has already become a central focus for us … because we know that it’s critical to achieving that 60 percent goal.

Clearly, we won’t reach that goal by any well-worn path. We need new routes, new ideas, new approaches to serve much larger numbers of students. Your Illinois Board of Higher Education’s Faculty Advisory Council chair (Abbas Aminmansour) had it right when he said last week, “We need to make sure higher education does not become an opportunity only for the elite and wealthy families.” In particular, we need to concentrate on those 21st century students I mentioned earlier … 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 capital. Again, we need a redesigned system—one that is flexible, affordable, and relentlessly focused on quality.

At Lumina, we are working actively to design a truly student-centered 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. Today, I am looking forward to engaging students here at Illinois State University during a roundtable discussion. We learn so much from their experiences and their aspirations, and I’m looking forward to increasing my knowledge and certainly my commitment to this work as a result of today’s conversation.

So, how will this redesigned system actually work? Obviously, there are a lot of parts to this puzzle, and it’s not yet emerged in much detail. Still, we can begin to describe it, and we can listen to students and others who can help define it for us.

We know the basic aspects of the system the nation needs: First of all, at its core, it’s a system that offers 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.

Second, it’s important to understand that these pathways must be built on the foundation of learning. Degrees and other postsecondary credentials must represent well-defined and transparent learning outcomes. And all learning should count—no matter how, when or where it was obtained.

In the best scenario, then, 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.

We don’t have the luxury of commissioning long studies on how to make this system a reality, and we all know change is never easy. Still, the payoff for making this change will be huge, so let’s explore how it can happen. Let’s look at two major shifts in thinking that undergird the system-redesign project: a pair of new perspectives that must drive all of the smaller changes.

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. Those long-held perspectives won’t be enough to educate many more Americans. They need to shift.

Now this doesn’t mean that institutions are somehow unimportant. 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 to the needs of colleges and universities—that idea is no longer appropriate, if it ever was. It must be replaced by a focus on 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 abandoned. Again, it must be replaced by system that defines, fosters, measures and rewards what truly matters: student learning.

One can’t overstate this point when it comes to the redesigned higher-ed system: We must focus on learning outcomes as 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.

This shift to a student-centered, learning-based approach is the key. It is the foundation for that overarching, fully linked system of education that runs from pre-K, through higher education, into the workforce and even beyond. Once that shift is made, it becomes possible to take other vital steps. For instance:

  • We can align assessments and certifications at the various levels of education to prevent duplication and improve timely completion of programs.
  • We can create and refine financial aid programs and funding models that incentivize actual outcomes—paying students and institutions for what is actually learned, not for “time on task.”
  • We can clearly define career ladders and pathways for students to follow. And, I know you all are working hard on your pathway programs here in Illinois.
  • We can assure employers that graduates will have the knowledge and skills they truly need to succeed in the modern workplace, and better understand from employers what they are looking for.

Of course, from your perspective in higher education, this fully linked system extends beyond what you might typically consider your immediate area of responsibility. In fact, it extends in two directions—back into the K-12 system and forward into the workforce—and that’s another vital change in perspective. In an education system that is truly student-centered, your area of responsibility can’t begin in Year 13 and end after grad school. Rather, you and other higher-ed leaders must share responsibility all along the pipeline—with educators at every level—for the success of each student.

This sounds like a monumental task, I know. And I won’t deny the challenges involved. I mean, all we’re asking for is a redesigned system that can accommodate the lives and learning styles of every student, ensure consistent quality, and operate at a scale large enough to serve millions more students every year—all at a reasonable, or even reduced cost.

I get it. This is tough work.

But it’s not impossible. In fact, there are efforts under way right here in Illinois that prove it’s not impossible. The agenda for this meeting is replete with relevant examples—from institutions all over the state. It includes:

  • A model to reduce “credit creep” or the unnecessary credit students take to attain a degree. Modeled by Dr. Greg Budzban, Southern Illinois University
  • A plan to better increase internship opportunities, prepare students to join the workforce and connect with future employers. Modeled by Dr. Dale Fitzgibbons, Illinois State University.
  • A pilot project to streamline course credit transfers from one school to another. Modeled by Northern Illinois University and Waubonsee Community College.
  • An initiative aimed at quickly identifying when students may be heading off graduation course. Modeled by Northern Illinois University.

At this conference you’ll hear from many key leaders:

  • Officials from SIU and Kankakee Community College will talk about their guided-pathway programs.
  • Experts from the City Colleges of Chicago and UIC will discuss new approaches to developmental education.
  • Student support and student-centeredness will be the topic for teams from SIU-Edwardsville and Moraine Valley Community College.

Every one of these examples—and more than I have time to list here—are pieces of postsecondary education’s newly emerging puzzle. These programs—and similar efforts under way all across the nation—exemplify the spirit of innovation and the sense of urgency that are driving higher education’s redesign project. Right now, admittedly, these efforts are comparatively small and disconnected. As vital and promising as they may be, they won’t reach their full potential until they grow sufficiently large and effective to somehow merge into that fully linked, student-centered system … that is, until they scale up.

And that, my friends, is why we are all here today … to explore the ways by which this scaling up can occur. Again, Lumina is proud to sponsor this conference, and I’m personally grateful for the opportunity to help set the stage—and, in a moment, to respond to a few of your questions.

We appreciate your participation in what I’m sure will be an enlightening two days. I encourage you to leave here with a specific action item—something that will work well on your campus and assist you in meeting the goal of educating more of the students you serve. We in education enjoy convenings, but it’s in the commitment to innovate and the focus on student-centered implementation—that’s where real change can occur. That action, that relentless focus, can make this two-day conversation something significant. Today and tomorrow could turn out to be two very important days—for your state, for the institutions you represent, and ultimately for the students you serve and the society those students will inherit.

Thank you.

NIU programs identified as best practices | NIU Today | Oct. 31, 2013

Tracy Chen

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