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The Future of Postsecondary Education

Remarks by Jamie Merisotis, President, Lumina Foundation
Education Commission of the States, National Forum on Education Policy, St. Louis, Missouri

Thank you, Governor Hickenlooper, and good afternoon everyone. I’m pleased to be with you today, and I’m grateful to ECS for asking me to be part of this important conversation. We’re here today to look ahead … to peer into the future of higher education and look for ways to prepare ourselves ― and our students—for that future. In a few minutes, Governor Sandoval will lead us in that discussion, and I’m very pleased that we’ll be joined by two people for whom the talk is more than just rhetorical … two individuals for whom, in a sense, the future is now: Ashley Carter and Jeffrey Charbonneau.

Ashley, as a recent college graduate, and Jeff, as a high school teacher, are very much in the center of the discussion. I, for one, am very anxious to listen to what they have to tell us. So I promise I won’t talk at you too long this afternoon. Still, I have been asked to set the stage for the discussion, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that.

I believe most of you are familiar by now with Lumina Foundation, and with the ambitious goal that defines and drives all of our work. We call it Goal 2025: By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to have high-quality degrees, certificates or other postsecondary credentials.

Increasing postsecondary attainment ― while ensuring the quality of the credentials that students earn—that’s our dual mission. And it’s a mission that is being embraced by individuals and organizations and states throughout the nation … for very good reason: It’s vital to our economic future and to the strength of our democracy.

By now, the case for increased college attainment is well-documented—and by “college” I am referring to all forms of post-high school or postsecondary education, not just four-year degrees. Economists and labor experts agree that, in any city or region, the key factor in economic growth and job creation is the education level of its residents. Without access to a well-educated workforce—and in today’s global economy, that means a college-educated workforce ― no business is likely to thrive … or even survive.

And that truth will be doubly true in coming years. The simple fact is, two-thirds of all of the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by the end of the decade. That’s a huge increase since the mid-’70s, when only about a quarter of those jobs required any education beyond high school.

Of course, the arguments in favor of Goal 2025 aren’t limited to the economy or the job market. We all know that increasing college 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 the list goes on. These benefits have huge implications for the health and vitality of our democracy.

Finally, there is also an urgent societal need—an equity imperative for achieving Goal 2025. As all of you 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.

Just last week brought further evidence of those inequities, when the Council on Foreign Relations released a new report on remedial education. The report shows that, in the U.S.—unlike most other advanced countries and almost in defiance of logic ― federal policy continues to funnel a disproportionate share of education funding to those who need it least. As the Council’s Rebecca Strauss said in a New York Times column that accompanied the report’s release: “At every point along the education track, from preschool to college, resources are skewed to wealthier students.”

At every point along the education track, from preschool to college, resources are skewed to wealthier students.

Clearly, this serves to widen attainment gaps, not narrow them, and that is a trend that our nation must reverse. We must increase attainment among those who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education, including low-income and first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and adults. 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.

I know that many of you work hard every day to close those gaps. You know how life-changing education can be. You see it for what it truly is: an engine … one that powers the creation of better jobs, better lives, better communities and states.

And yet, for that power to be fully unleashed, all of the parts have to work together. The gears must mesh. There must be smooth and seamless connections all along the way—from pre-K learning outcomes … to K-12 standards … to college-admissions criteria … to workforce-readiness requirements and beyond. The learning and skills gained at each level must be transparently defined and clearly connected to the next.

Put simply, we need a fully linked system for developing human capital. And the fact is, we’re just not there yet. 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.

Some progress is being made, of course, and we’ll be talking about many points of progress right here at this forum over the next few days. For instance, we just heard a wonderful talk from David Conley about what “college and career readiness” really means. In later sessions, we’ll talk about the Common Core standards and P-20 data governance and proficiency-based systems for student progression. We’ll explore new ways to boost success among nontraditional students and English-language learners. All of these topics represent pieces in that larger puzzle I just mentioned: the seamless system of human capital development.

All of us need to work together to actively visualize and help design this new system … one that focuses intently on the needs of students ― today’s students, not those who fit the traditional definition. This redesigned system must deliver affordable, high-quality education to those who represent our future as a nation—the growing numbers of Americans who are low-income, first-generation, minority and adult students. It must be a truly student-centered system ― one that ensures access to all types of students, gives those students the support they need to succeed, and enables them to earn credentials that demonstrate real and relevant learning.

I said at the outset of my remarks that we’d be peering today into the future of higher education. Well, for me and my colleagues at Lumina, this student-centered, fully linked system is that future, and more and more of our work is aimed at building it.

So what will the future look like? How will this new system actually work? Well, there are many dimensions that will need to be tackled, and we don’t have time today to get into too much detail, but let me just touch on two key issues: how that system is financed, and how we award credentials for those who successfully meet the academic requirements.

First of all: the current student financing model is woefully outdated. It’s broken … and how could it not be? It was designed to serve a traditional student population that looks almost nothing like the real world on today’s campuses. We need a system in which resources are used to support—and to incentivize ― the success of 21st century students, a much larger and infinitely more diverse population. The incentives in this new model must apply to students and to institutions. And most important, the entire focus of the system must shift 180 degrees; it must be redirected specifically to support the success of low-income students.

In addition to redesigned student finance, the second step in building a more student-centered higher education system is forging a new system of credentials. The current system is far too closed and rigid. It awards credit not for actual learning, but for time spent in classrooms or labs. It’s a system in which the recognized levels of achievement—associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate—are too few, too widely spaced and too loosely connected. We need a new system of credentials to assure that high-quality learning is recognized and rewarded, no matter where or how that learning is obtained.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of 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 status, not tradition or reputation—but genuine learning.

This shift to a learning-based approach is the key to creating that overarching 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 clearly define career ladders and pathways for students to follow.

Of course, for all of this to happen, what’s needed is alignment: Alignment of goals, alignment of data systems, alignment of standards and assessments. And as we prepare for our panel discussion this afternoon, I want to endorse one other vital type of alignment: the alignment of people. Our shared task—increasing student success and eliminating attainment gaps ― is a huge challenge. We cannot succeed if we stay in our silos. We all must work together—in preschool classrooms, in statehouse meeting rooms and governors’ offices, in middle school math classes and high school counselor’s offices, in community college faculty meetings and university lecture halls ― wherever we work. Solutions must come from the front lines, at all levels of the education system, and they need to be shared. And most important, they ― and we—must remain focused on one thing: enabling many more students to reach the educational finish line of a high quality postsecondary degree or credential.

And, if I may, I’d like to take a moment to advocate for a particular subset of those front line stakeholders whose expertise must inform efforts to redesign our postsecondary education system. I’m talking about the people who work, every day, directly with students: classroom teachers, principals, teacher’s aides, professors, adjunct faculty, teaching assistants, advisors, and others.

As I’ve hopefully articulated clearly today, change is occurring rapidly in the postsecondary space …. and I believe the pace will only increase as the demands of a global economy compel the system to serve more students, better. The reform train has left the station, and it would be a huge disservice to students if the voices of their teachers and professors were not heard. As conversations around these important topics in your states and regions continue, make sure that all of the right representatives have a hand in shaping what the future looks like.

And so, I look forward to today’s discussion, and to your thoughts on how we can work together to build that brighter future.

Now, it’s my honor and privilege to invite Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, chair-elect of the Education Commission of the States, and my fellow panelists, Ashley Carter, a recent graduate of St. Louis University and Jeff Charbonneau, the 2013 National Teacher of the Year, to join me here onstage … and let’s begin.

Thank you.

Kate Snedeker

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