New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Lumina’s Merisotis on Increasing College Enrollment and Graduation

NEJHE’s New Directions for Higher Education examines emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.
The first installment of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the future of the credit hour; the second featured DiSalvio’s interview with and Publisher Mark Kantrowitz about student debt.

In this installment of the series, DiSalvio talks with Jamie P. Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, about Lumina’s commitment to enrolling and graduating more students from college and the changes needed in higher education to help encourage that goal.

The context

The U.S. ranks ninth in the world in the proportion of young adults enrolled in college and has fallen to 16th in the world in its share of certificates and degrees awarded to adults ages 25 to 34—lagging behind Korea, Canada, Japan and other nations. In addition, while high school graduates from the wealthiest families are almost certain to continue on to higher education, just over half of U.S. high school graduates in the poorest quarter of families attend college.

A Schott Foundation report suggests that without a policy framework to create opportunity for all students, strengthen supports for the teaching profession and strike the right balance between support-based reforms and standards-driven reforms, the U.S. will become increasingly unequal and less competitive in the global economy

In February 2009, President Obama declared that “ … by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” Around the same time, Lumina Foundation released its first strategic plan in 2009 with the goal that 60% of Americans obtain a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2025—a goal Lumina now calls Goal 2025.

Expansion of undergraduate enrollments and the need to improve degree-completion rates—essential in both the Obama plan and Goal 2025—call for recasting the role of American colleges and universities and system-level change to improve student access and success in higher education.

Merisotis observes that there are significant obstacles that stand in the way of these attainment efforts. Expressing urgency for widespread systemic change, he provides useful insights on what reforms are necessary and offers recommendations on how higher education campus leaders and policymakers can help manage those changes.

The interview

DiSalvio: You have said that the current generation of college-age Americans are on the way to being less educated than their parents. Why is the educational attainment rate so important to America’s future?

Merisotis: The drive for American success in the 21st century is going to be talent. Talent is the driver of our economic success, cultural success and social success. What we know from extensive research in this area is that the talent that is required now is different from what it was in the past. The talent that we need as a society is overwhelmingly that which is attained by having a high-quality education at the postsecondary level.

Now that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to enroll in a postsecondary educational institution, because what we know is that there are many different ways in which postsecondary learning is now taking place. But postsecondary institutions, i.e., higher education institutions, are going to continue to be extremely important for the foreseeable future.

I think what we’re facing as a nation is this rapidly increasing demand for talent and the challenge of being able to actually meet that talent demand with our educational system. This challenge is growing more acute, and the gaps between those who have talent with a postsecondary education and those who do not, is increasing. You see it in terms of wages and employment rates and other economic indicators. You see it in terms of quality-of-life indicators, in terms of the way in which communities that have high aggregations of people with college education, postsecondary education, actually drive the cultural and the social well-being of communities. And you see it in the ways in which people who have postsecondary education literally have a higher quality of life. They live longer, their family structures are better, and their quality of life in general is much higher.

So for lots of reasons, increasing educational talent is extremely important to our country’s future. And the challenge before us is to figure out how we’re actually going to get there given the significant challenges that we face at a government level and at a personal level.

DiSalvio: Lumina Foundation’s most recent strategic plan released in 2013 identifies two broad areas of action that will help the nation increase the number of college graduates. You have characterized this as another step in the organization’s long-term shift away from simply awarding grants as the key strategy for fulfilling its mission. What are these two areas, and how successful has the effort been thus far in helping the nation increase its number of college graduates?

Merisotis: Lumina’s focus is essentially around two imperatives. We think these two imperatives are going to be critical in aligning the country’s efforts on getting to Goal 2025.

The first imperative is mobilizing all of the key actors that need to focus on increasing educational attainment to get to that 60% goal. That mobilization includes policymakers and employers. It includes regions and communities. And most importantly, it includes higher education institutions and their ability to focus on student success. It also includes the broader public, particularly students.

In our mobilization strategy, there are five strategies aimed at helping to support those actors to focus on increasing attainment and to give them tools that they can actually use to help increase high-quality postsecondary attainment.

The second imperative is to help design and build a 21st century higher education system. Here the idea is to help build greater system capacity so that we can actually support that mobilization. Focusing on designing and building that system is an acknowledgement that we won’t be able to supersize the current one. We are actually going to have to help create a better system that takes advantage of all the successes we’ve had but gives us a lot more capacity to increase high-quality attainment rapidly. That includes things like redesigning student finance and the systems that support student financing, helping to create new delivery models and a different business model for higher education and helping to support the advancement of a different system of credentials that are focused on high-quality learning that can actually be better articulated in our labor market and for society at large.

DiSalvio: In 2012, Lumina Foundation made more than 100 grants for a total commitment of roughly $45 million. How will these grants advance that focus on increasing Americans’ success in higher education and increasing the proportion of Americans who have high-quality, college-level learning?

Merisotis: ​The Lumina overall approach is that we see ourselves as a leadership organization. By that I mean that we have a large base of assets … the largest private foundation in the country focused on higher education. Therefore, we have both capacity and expertise. And so we’ve tried to apply that through our work—through our grantmaking, but also through a lot of the other activities we undertake, whether it’s our work in terms of communication in public will building, whether it’s our efforts around informing the public policy process, etc.

Grants are obviously a critical tool for that, and the grants that we’ve made are important in terms of our capacity. But we see ourselves as an organization that does more than simply make grants. Our hope is that we are providing leadership for system-level change. I think that is the key issue. Our efforts, in terms of our grants and the rest of our work, are really aimed at creating system-level change that will help increase educational attainment in the country. Goal 2025, the goal we’ve been operating under for the last five years, is the “north star” for our work. It’s a way of organizing all of those efforts in a very coherent and cohesive way.

The focus of what we’re trying to do is to create system-level change that will improve student access and success in higher education. Toward that end, we hope our efforts will work toward increasing the capacity of the higher education system to serve more students in a better way and to help ensure that there is high-quality learning associated with the degrees and other credentials. That will help the outcomes of higher education to be shared broadly, both from an individual perspective as well as from a societal perspective, particularly from the perspective of employers.

DiSalvio: Most agree that a preeminent higher education system is needed to meet the global economy’s growing need for talent. With that in mind, you have said that the American higher education system is in need of systematic change. What elements of change in higher education are necessary to further America’s preeminence?

Merisotis: I see three elements that undergird the need for change: student finance, new business and delivery models, and new systems of credentialing.

Keep in mind that for student finance, the current tuition and financial aid systems were developed decades ago for a student cohort that essentially doesn’t exist anymore. Only one out of five college students today attend a residential institution where they  go immediately to college after graduating the prior year from high school. The diversity of students is dramatically greater than in the past. And perhaps most importantly, our tuition structures simply are not supportable by a growing number of families. That is, affordability has become a serious challenge for families. So for lots of reasons, creating a different model of student finance is very important.

Similarly, it’s important to develop new and improved delivery models to better serve more students. We need to take advantage of technology and use what we’ve learned from a pedagogical perspective to advance ideas such as competency-based learning. In the area of credentials, I think the current system of credentials has served us well historically, but it clearly falls short now. We need to make sure that each credential has meaning—that is, that what students know and are able to do with their credential is clearly understood by the student, by the employer and by the people who are delivering the higher education. We must make sure that high-quality learning is represented in those credentials so that the learning is cumulative and that students can actually take that knowledge and apply and apply it in work and in life.

DiSalvio: You have expressed urgency in higher education reform and have suggested that business-higher education partnership is a natural extension of the investment that private business already makes on education and training. Are there specific forms of partnership you see as especially effective in increasing the nation’s number of college graduates? How can business leadership help colleges meet the needs of students and employers?

Merisotis: This is really important. We’ve spent two decades in a discussion with employers about what employers need and what higher education does. I think there has been some disconnect in that conversation. We’ve got to be clear with employers about how they can actually contribute to increasing educational attainment in this country.

There are three core ways that they can do that. The first is to literally support educational attainment in their companies or organizations. That is, by actually “walking the walk” on increasing educational attainment, by supporting tuition reimbursement, by helping their employees develop learning plans, and by actually supporting the advancing skills and knowledge of their own employees. That’s one way which I think employers need to be better engaged.

The second way is the idea that companies, organizations and employers have to see increasing postsecondary attainment as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts. That is, they have a social investment, a social obligation to support increasing attainment. Finding ways to support community-based efforts, to work in metropolitan areas to actually advance things on a community level is really important.

And the last way is that employers need to engage in public policy advocacy. We’ve seen employers have a measurable impact on the K-12 debate and efforts in increasing educational attainment at the K-12 level. They have to weigh in on a public policy level around the issues of financing higher education, about student learning outcomes, and about productivity of higher education. In all of these ways, they can actually add value and be more than just a bystander to this conversation. They can truly be advocates for systemic change that will lead to increasing educational attainment for a much larger number of Americans.

DiSalvio: As trustees and campus leaders, what specific steps can be taken to help mobilize those who must act to implement that change?

Merisotis: I think it’s vital for campus leaders and trustees and policymakers to be actively engaged. The engagement is important because changes in higher education are occurring rapidly, and we want higher education leading the charge, not playing defense. So I want to see higher education institutions and their leaders focus on such issues as increasing innovation to deliver more high-quality learning to larger numbers of students. I want to see campus leaders focus on mission reinvention and find ways to either focus more tightly on an existing mission or consider a new mission focus. I want to see campus leaders focus on improving equity and making sure that there is equity of opportunity for low-income students, for first-generation students, for students of color and for the large numbers of adults needing to be served by higher education. And the focus on equity should include both creating more opportunity and helping more of those students actually succeed in our higher education institutions. Those kinds of things, I think, are really important in terms of trustee and institutional leaders to better articulate the attainment agenda for the nation.



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