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Business Officer Magazine

Breaking Attainment Barriers

Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis identifies key barriers that must be removed for more Americans to participate and succeed in earning a higher education credential.

By Matt Hamill

In 2008, Lumina Foundation set a goal to increase the percentage of Americans holding high-quality degrees, certificates, or other postsecondary credentials from less than 40 percent to 60 percent by 2025. Goal 2025 is ambitious enough on its own. Certain barriers to degree attainment persist that make the pathway less clear-cut for many in the country who would pursue higher learning. In this interview, Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis suggests how to break down these attainment barriers.

For more about Lumina's Goal 2025, see the June 2013 issue of Business Officer.

Do you see various initiatives around online education—from the simple extension of the classroom model, to the MOOC model, and all things in between—reshaping key elements of how higher education can better serve individuals?

When we talk about online education, what we're really talking about is this broad continuum of ways in which technology can be used to deliver instruction. In the end, all these must converge around the central idea that student learning is the most important outcome we're trying to achieve. When you get to the granular level, there are some things for which technology is better suited to help people learn than others. The real question is how to make sure there aren't barriers to learning. That includes eliminating barriers to how individuals access and acquire education.

Lumina has been centrally involved in the issue of state authorization reciprocity agreements, urging states to figure out a way to recognize online degree programs. This relates to the use of federal student financial aid to support new learning models like online programming and competency-based learning, for instance. The recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that competency-based programs could be eligible for federal student aid was big news, in that it represents the removal of a regulatory barrier getting in the way of institutions and educational providers developing more innovative, outcomes-focused approaches to learning.

If student financial aid can now be used for competency-based learning, this opens the door for more low-income students to participate in this innovation. Much of what needs to happen across the board is removing some of these barriers so that the market can develop approaches focused on student learning.

As you engage corporate leaders, do you find the view persists that new graduates of higher education aren't fully prepared for the jobs employers have to offer? What must happen to bridge this talent gap—or the perception of a talent gap?

We know that employers have lamented the skill levels of graduates of varying types of programs for some time, so this is an extremely important matter. In the next several years I think we're going to see a breakthrough regarding this idea that training people for jobs and training them for life are fundamentally different things. Important to employers are those core competencies—critical thinking and problem solving and communication capacities. Well, that is what higher education has always said it does well.

So, it seems we have to create better alignment around the learning outcomes we're producing and how those fit with what employers need for the continuum of the workforce, from very specialized skills to broad generalized competencies. Bottom line, employers are still interested in certification and credentials as an indicator of talent, but what they really care about is what's behind the degree. They want assurance that if they're hiring someone with a bachelor's degree, they know what that means.

Engaging employers is a critical component of getting to the big goal and increasing degree attainment in a way that fundamentally matters for American society. What Lumina has said to employers is that their lamentation isn't good enough. They must participate in processes that support their own employees in their development—whether through individualized learning plans, or tuition reimbursement, for instance. They must also become advocates for higher education in the policy arena in the same way they have had a measurable impact on the debate about K‒12 education by collaborating with educational institutions, civic organizations, other employers, and government leaders to work on solutions to our talent and workforce needs.

With so much changing so quickly with how students can acquire a degree or credential, what must change regarding societal views in particular about acceptable pathways to attainment?

We know that fewer than one out of every five students in the American higher education system today graduated from high school and continued to college within one year, enrolling in a residential four-year institution. That model is an outdated view of what higher education means for the vast majority of students today, and yet that is the model that drives how the media tends to write about higher education, and it's the model that still drives a lot of our public policy decision making, in large part because it represents what many of today's policy makers and decision makers experienced.

The question must come back to how we recognize learning. How do we tie together all the different ways in which individuals are accessing their education—including online and through military experience or on-the-job training—into some system where an individual receives a credential that has real meaning not only to that individual but to society and to employers?

Going forward, something higher education must do a much better job of is articulating to the public the variety of ways in which individuals can achieve a postsecondary education. Making understandable the various pathways to attainment will go a long way toward helping individuals believe they can succeed in achieving that degree or credential, and taking action to pursue it.

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

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