US: Restoring American higher education leadership

Earlier this year the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education launched its Goal 2025 initiative to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60% by the year 2025. Shortly afterwards President Obama announced his - broadly similar - plan with a target date of 2020. In an exclusive interview with University World News, Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of the foundation, explains the thinking behind the initiative and its relationship with the Obama plan.

Read more about the Lumina Foundation at www.luminafoundation.org

Under your leadership, the Lumina Foundation set the United States the challenge to reach a target of 60% of the population with a degree by 2025. What is the percentage now?

Roughly 39% of American adults hold a two-year or four-year degree. That attainment rate has not changed measurably for most of the past four decades and, for much of the post-War period, led all other nations.

How does the US compare with the rest of the developed world?

In recent years, attainment rates in other countries have climbed significantly. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States now ranks only 10th in the percentage of young adults (25 to 34 years of age) with college degrees, though there are important distinctions by type of degree.

Is it a question of the rest of the world catching up while the US stands still?

Exactly. The fact is, college attainment rates are rising in almost every industrialised or post-industrial country in the world except the US. Today in some countries, more than half of young adults are degree holders. What's especially disturbing, given the increasingly global nature of the economy, is that attainment rates in many other countries continue to climb while ours remains stagnant.

How do you suggest the US seeks to tackle the issue?

Like most serious problems, it needs to be tackled several ways at once - by several groups of stakeholders working cooperatively toward one end. At Lumina, we've worked hard in the last couple of years to set the stage for this cooperative work - first by setting a specific, "big goal" for the nation to reach (60% degree attainment among Americans by the year 2025), and more recently, by mapping out a workable plan to attain that goal. Lumina's strategic plan identifies three critical outcomes - three significant results that must be produced for our big goal to be reached:
o Students must be prepared academically, financially and socially for success in education beyond high school.
o Higher education attainment rates must be improved significantly.
o Higher education must become more productive so that it can increase capacity and serve more students.

Clearly, any one of these outcomes represents a huge challenge that will take years of focused work, not just by Lumina, but by all of the relevant stakeholders, including the higher education community, state and federal policymakers, business representatives, and other philanthropic organisations. None of these outcomes will be reached quickly; all require a number of interim steps, some of which we can't yet even identify. Still, we have identified several steps to take now toward the achievement of each outcome. For example, to aid in student preparation, student service and advocacy networks should be expanded. To improve attainment rates, developmental education should be improved and barriers to transfer between institutions should be lowered. To increase productivity, alternative methods of delivering instruction should be created and expanded. Other specific steps are included in our plan, which is spelled out in full on the Lumina Foundation website www.luminafoundation.org

Your "big goal" is closely aligned with President Obama's declared aim of securing 60% degree attainment by 2020. Do your recommendations for the steps needed square with the President's?

Our stated time frame is a bit different, but our goals are very much in sync. And that's because we're all committed to ensuring our nation's continued economic prosperity and social stability. Fundamentally, we all agree that the only way to do that is to significantly increase the educational attainment rate of our citizens.

In particular, is the likely emphasis on the Community Colleges as the providers of the required expansions the approach you would favour?

Absolutely. At Lumina, we have long recognised the pivotal role that community colleges must play in helping us increase attainment rates. In many ways, they are well positioned to help lead this charge. They already educate 46% of the nation's undergraduates, some 6.5 million credit-seeking students. They're the institutions of choice for most students in the growing populations of minority and first-generation students - populations in which attainment rates must improve most dramatically if we are to reach the national 60% goal. They're accustomed to responding quickly and innovatively to the needs of the workforce. They have decades of experience in areas that are critical to our plans, including developmental education, alternative delivery systems and adult education. Community colleges have their own set of challenges, of course; they need help, and we're thrilled that the administration has seen the wisdom in offering that help in the form of additional federal funding. Still, even with that help, community colleges are only part of the solution. All institutions must contribute.

The current economic crisis is impacting in a complex network of ways on the higher education system of many countries including the US. Is it possible for the expansion - that the Lumina Foundation and the White House agree is needed - to happen when endowments are failing to deliver for the elite universities, budgets are under stress across the entire sector, and students fear for their ability to repay loans against a background of soaring unemployment that (in many cases) is bearing more harshly on younger people in an unprecedented manner?

We're under no illusions that it will be easy to attain our goal, and we're aware that increasing costs and current economic conditions represent major complicating factors. Still, we are convinced, not only that the goal is vital, but that it is attainable. Clearly, new approaches are needed, and our plan advocates and attempts to foster innovation in a number of areas - from progressive pre-college savings programmes for low-income families to lower-cost delivery systems, to better alignment between the various sectors of higher education. It will never be free to properly educate and prepare our citizens, but there is no wiser investment, and we believe that the cost should be borne fairly by all who benefit: students, the government, employers, and institutions themselves.

In many countries - the UK is a case in point - questions are now being raised over the impact of the rapid expansion of recent years and the implausibility of maintaining quality. Do you think that the expansion can take place without a dilution of quality?

Yes. Expansion can and must take place without a dilution of quality. Our goal very explicitly states that we want 60% of Americans to have "high-quality degrees and credentials", and we have initially defined those as degrees and credentials that have "well-defined and transparent learning outcomes which provide clear pathways to future education and employment". We have just begun the work of defining, fleshing out and reaching consensus on the learning outcomes we should seek and we are absolutely committed to maintaining - even improving - the quality of American degrees and credentials.

Can the expansion be sustained without massive investment in K-12 education where - if the UK is anything to go by - the real barriers to widening access beyond the socially privileged lie?

Good preparation certainly matters. It's one of the three pillars on which our plan rests. But we don't feel that "massive investment" in K-12 is necessary to bring our plan to fruition. Much good can be done at the postsecondary level, particularly at transition points - smoothing articulation and transfer, improving developmental education, providing effective student advice and support systems. Lumina will continue to diligently focus and work cooperatively toward achieving our big goal in the "post-12" arena while others take the lead with K-12.

Can the expansion take place without jeopardising the United States' reputation overseas as a destination for quality higher education?

Our nation must address the urgent problem of increasing the attainment level of our own population while ensuring that educational quality is maintained. Any issues regarding the reputation of higher education in the US will sort themselves out as we deliver on our goal.

Should resources be shifted from research to teaching to fund the expansion?

JM: In a world of limited resources, we need to invest the funds where they are likely to have the most impact on our society. In this case, that is in the learning that students receive from higher education, which translates into broad societal benefits as well as benefits to individuals. The research role of higher education is critical to the innovation that we need, to be at the cutting edge of change as a nation. But that role is and should be limited to a relatively small number of institutions.

Will the Ivy Leagues be recognisable in 2020/2025?

Institutions in American higher education like those in the Ivy League will likely always occupy a visible place in the higher education landscape because of their history and tradition. Sheer numbers, however, indicate that any real change in attainment rates must come from other quarters. Enrolment at public colleges and universities is nearly three times that at all private institutions. Total undergraduate enrolment at the eight Ivy League schools, for example, accounts for less than one half of one percent of undergraduate enrolment nationally.

Have you had the opportunity to see below the surface of universities outside the US, particularly in countries that have expanded rapidly in recent years, such as the UK?

Yes. Lumina is very actively examining the workings of non-US universities - in part through its research on the Bologna process. We believe strongly that - although it's unlikely and probably unwise for American higher education to simply "import" ideas from abroad and attach them to the American system - it's certainly vital to learn from what others are doing and adapt those lessons to the American context. Prior to coming to Lumina Foundation as its President, I had the opportunity to work on higher education policy development in other nations, especially in southern Africa and the former Soviet states, and learned a great deal about transformative change in higher education that is relevant and important to the US context.

Do you see higher education as a route to a specific occupation or area of employment, or rather more broadly?

It's not an "either-or" proposition. Rather, it's "both-and". Higher education must prepare students for the world of work while it also helps shape them more broadly as citizens of their nation and the world at large.

Does the US retain its international cachet for quality higher education with any decline in international student numbers attributable to other issues such as global politics or the emergence of alternatives e.g. the European Higher Education Area (Bologna)?

We want American higher education to serve Americans well - and it can't really do that unless it is competitive - even exemplary - in the global sense. If we reach the goal we seek, questions of cachet and status (whether global or national) will take care of themselves.

Read more about President Obama's American Graduation Initiative here.