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Jamie Merisotis on Meeting the Talent Demand

June 2013

By Matt Hamill

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After taking the helm as president and CEO of Lumina Foundation in 2008, Jamie Merisotis spearheaded the development of  Goal 2025. The goal—to ensure that, by 2025, 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality degrees, certificates, or other postsecondary credentials—represents an ambitious bump from a starting baseline of less than 40 percent. In the five years since the goal was announced, much has evolved within the higher education delivery system, spurring new conversations shaping the debate of how to get from here to there, notes Merisotis. 

In this interview, Merisotis discusses the importance of increasing attainment and what a degree should mean.

What led Lumina Foundation to adopt Goal 2025, and how have you kept focus on this? 

If you think about what the goal represents, ultimately it’s not about outcomes for higher education. It’s about our societal need for talent and higher education’s role in meeting this demand. That need has grown rapidly in recent years. You see it in the relationships between economic capacity and educational outcomes, between having a better-educated population and civic participation, and in the many ways in which higher education and the broader capacities of society are integrally linked.  

The 60 percent goal Lumina set was motivated largely by two data points.  The first is the fact that roughly two thirds of all jobs being created today require some postsecondary education. The second concerns international comparative data around degree attainment, particularly for 25- to 34-year-olds, which has shown the United States in decline in this arena. The issue of increasing degree attainment has caught President Obama’s attention as well as the attention of many governors, state policy makers, and business leaders. 

What have you learned from your conversations with these various stakeholders? 

The dialogue has changed. In the beginning, conversations were rooted in ideas about increasing participation, which is critical to building talent. But Lumina’s agenda is not a completion agenda. It’s easier to focus on the people already in the system and try to boost their completion rates, but that alone won’t get us where we need to go. 

We have to make sure more individuals from underserved populations are getting into higher education and that more of them succeed. We also have to reengage adults who have some higher education experience and help them get across the finish line. In our conversations with stakeholders, we’ve begun to hear greater recognition that this has to be an attainment agenda if we are going to meet this country’s pressing need for talent.

Closing educational  attainment gaps—–especially for low-income and first-generation students and underrepresented populations—–is one essential ingredient to achieving Lumina’s goal. Are people starting to take action?

We still have significant structural impediments on this front—everything from the clearly documented evidence that sticker price is a barrier for low-income and first-generation populations, to this matching problem we have for low-income students who are high in academic ability, but who don’t choose the right institution. 

Within our current higher education system, the combination of academic, financial, and social factors that create barriers for underrepresented groups remains a huge problem, and the persistent gaps in attainment for these populations are a function of this. We’ve long known that low-income, high-ability students go to college at the same rates as high-income, low-ability students. We haven’t acknowledged that in many instances our institutional and policy strategies aren’t adequately aligned to bridge these attainment gaps. 

There are exceptions, such as the federal TRIO programs, but they don’t represent the norm for how we view these concerns on the whole. We still tend to see academic factors in one bucket, financial factors in another bucket, and social factors in a third bucket. If you look at the reform efforts in K–12, which are hugely important in terms of improving college readiness and academic outcomes, most of the people engaged in that conversation are focused exclusively on academic factors. 

It simply doesn’t make sense to focus on one factor when we know from research that in real life all three factors come together to create barriers to participation, student success, and degree attainment. We have to see these factors as integrated, and respond in a holistic manner.

Has the specificity of the goal been helpful?

The idea that there should be specific goals on which we focus has gained currency, but it’s also difficult for people to understand what changes are needed to achieve 60 percent. Lumina’s new strategic plan offers two key priorities to help get us there. One is much broader mobilization involving that diverse group of stakeholders to create the necessary momentum to turn this broad belief that increasing attainment is good into actionable steps. 

The second priority of our plan—the big idea—is our core belief at Lumina that you can’t supersize the current system to reach the goal. The gap we need to fill will require a fundamental redesign of our higher education system. Until fairly recently, our current system led us to the best attainment rates in the world. In building a new system, we need to take advantage of the many successes of the current system while fashioning a different approach, so that we can serve more students better. 

What is Lumina’s specific role in fashioning a new higher education system? 

We believe we can add value in three areas. One is contributing to the conversation about the development of new student finance models. A second area of focus is creating new business and delivery models, whether through some of the curricular and delivery model innovations we’ve already seen, like Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, or through broad efforts around productivity. The third area involves building a new system of credentials that better  serves students, employers, and society. 

The credentials we award today are too widely spaced, poorly understood by higher education consumers and employers, and not well connected to the outcomes we say we expect. This will require thinking about a new system of credentials that is stackable, integrated, and focused on student learning.

Lumina has been at the heart of conversations around competency-based learning models. What is their potential as an alternative to the traditional seat-time model?

Competency-based learning is an important part of the larger ecosystem of changes we need to see put in place. What we’re talking about is the need for a fundamental shift from that time-based, primarily institution-focused system to one that’s more learning-based and student-focused. Many competency-based learning advocates argue that in our current system time is the constant and learning is variable; in this new system, we want learning to be the constant and time to be the variable.

One challenge in the conversation about competency-based learning is that competency is used to describe course-level outcomes as well as outcomes at the degree level. Lumina has been deeply involved in the degree-level competencies discussion. In addition to forming consensus regarding the specific tasks and capacities you should demonstrate at the course level and how to measure those competencies, it’s critical that we are clear about what a postsecondary education is and what that learning actually means in terms of the degrees and credentials we award. 

This is what motivated Lumina to work with higher education leaders to develop a degree qualifications profile and related efforts to characterize the meaning of a degree. What are the skills, knowledge, and other capacities that should be part of an associate’s, a bachelor’s, or a master’s degree? That is a fundamental question we need to address, not only for higher education but for students and employers. 

How can CBOs support Lumina’s attainment efforts?

One way is helping institution leaders understand how to move the needle by using available resources more effectively and ensuring that resources are allocated in ways that serve more students better. A second important aspect of their involvement involves participating in the sphere of public policy influence. To the extent that our institutions can articulate and demonstrate success in responsibly allocating resources to serve students, that transparency should generate more investment from government, the private sector, and philanthropic sources  to reach these bigger goals.  CBOs are a critical part of  those conversations.

Finally, business officers must contribute to conversations about our higher education degree and delivery models. If we are talking about fundamentally changing how we deliver degrees, reduce time to degree, and better focus on learning outcomes, we all need to understand the financing structures we should adopt to deliver on those goals. 

Our current tuition, budgeting, cost allocation, and other finance models are not likely to endure for much longer. In that context, how do you determine tuition? How do you calculate cost? What costs are reasonable to assume in the delivery of higher education? How do you make sure that institutions provide the services that are most needed? And identifying those critical services goes beyond instructional services to encompass those related to the broad functions of the institution that will allow our colleges and universities to thrive so they can continue serving more students better.   

MATT HAMILL is NACUBO senior vice president, advocacy and issue analysis.