Friday, September 11, 2009

ACCT's Exclusive Interview with Jamie P. Merisotis

Here is the beginning of my post.

Jamie P. Merisotis, President and CEO, Lumina Foundation for Education

The next in ACCT's series of exclusive summer 2009 interviews is with Jamie P. Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation for Education. Merisotis is a featured keynote speaker at ACCT's upcoming 40th Annual Community College Leadership Congress in San Francisco, California.

The following interview is an extended-length version of the Q&A printed in the summer 2009 issue of ACCT's magazine, Trustee Quarterly.

Jamie P. Merisotis leads Lumina Foundation for Education, one of the nation’s 45 largest private foundations and arguably one of the greatest advocates for community colleges. Under his leadership, Lumina employs a strategic, outcomes-based approach in pursuing its mission of expanding college access and success, particularly among low-income, minority, and other historically underrepresented populations.

Before joining Lumina in January 2008, Merisotis founded and served for 15 years as president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, one of the world’s premier education research and policy centers. He previously served as executive director of the National Commission on Responsibilities for Financing Postsecondary Education, a bipartisan commission appointed by the U.S. president and congressional leaders. Merisotis also helped create the Corporation for National and Community Service (AmeriCorps), and has served on numerous national and international boards of directors, including Scholarship America, the European Access Network in London, and Bates College in Maine.

Q. How much of Lumina’s efforts relate to community colleges?

A significant portion. Lumina Foundation was established in 2000 and has been a supporter of success in community colleges from the beginning. We’ve spent most of the last few years focusing on this big goal of dramatically increasing the number of Americans with high-quality college degrees and credentials. This big goal has effectively become the president’s Best in the World goal. We like to think that we had a contribution toward creating the conditions that made that proposal a possibility.

Q. What are your thoughts on President Obama’s initiative?

The initiative is consistent with the Achieving the Dream initiative because it focuses on student success, the need to create a paradigm shift, and focusing on creating incentives for institutions to improve their developmental education efforts to better the first-year experience and to help improve transfer and articulation rates. All of that is exciting and timely, and something the federal government can have a dramatic impact on moving the needle.

The biggest gap in the public conversation about higher education is that we haven’t really been able to make the clear linkage between workforce development and our postsecondary education system. We’ve been trying to say, particularly in this time of economic crisis, that we don’t need to develop a workforce development system — we already have one. It’s our colleges and universities. And the community colleges are a critical element of that because of the array of opportunities that they provide. So this initiative, this opportunity to have a measureable difference on the nation’s workforce development and having those 5 million more graduates in the pipeline able to contribute to our economic and social health in the country, is very, very encouraging.

Q. Do you think there will be any challenges in getting the initiative passed through Congress?

There will be a lot of conversation about the level of resources, about how to successfully measure, about ensuring that the resources are being applied toward creating the conditions for success. That’s the right conversation. I don’t think that the government can really treat this as stimulus funding for community colleges. It needs to be targeted in a different way around success, and that’s what the president has done.

The real challenge is going to be to ensure that once it’s passed, the regulations and the implementation stay true to that goal of ensuring student success. That’s going to be hard because we’re facing a long-term economic challenge in this country, and community colleges are really going to be hampered in this environment with a lot more pressure in terms of burgeoning enrollments and fewer local and state resources that they’ll need to do their job well.

Q. Has Lumina’s focus on community and technical colleges changed since the recession began?

Not in a specific sense. The switch—and it’s reflected in all of our work—is that as we’re working toward the implementation of our big-goal strategy, we’re seeing that part of what we can leverage is not just improvements in what institutions do, but also influencing the public’s will for change and ultimately supporting public policy advocacy that’s going to help community colleges do more and do better. So in that sense, there has been a shift because we’re emphasizing public will-building and public policy as pillars — or catalysts— toward meeting those outcomes and that big goal.

Q. What can trustees do to take advantage of new public goodwill and public awareness efforts and maintain the momentum?

Trustees have two very good opportunities to help. One is to take part in that public will-building. Trustees tend to be community leaders, and they need to be a part of that advocacy and awareness process in communities. Many colleges and universities in this country miss the opportunity for their boards to be effective advocates. And that means using them as spokespeople in the media, interacting with policy makers, getting out into the community and really making the case.

The other is to meet their fiduciary and other obligations — to ensure the focus of their colleges is the success of students. That may sound like an obvious idea, but as we all know, there is a lot of pressure on colleges to do a lot of different things, and community colleges are asked to play multiple roles in communities — everything from GED training sites to community training centers. Those roles are terribly important, but the focus of the institution needs to be on the academic and social success of students. That means that trustees need to make sure that resources are applied toward making students successful.

Q. Do you see an increased interest in the community college model elsewhere in the world?

Absolutely. I was in Paris recently for the World Conference on Higher Education, and the U.S. delegation was headed by Martha Kanter, the new U.S. Under Secretary of Education and several distinguished higher education leaders including Dr. Jill Biden. The messaging from them was overwhelmingly about the world’s lack of understanding of the U.S. community college model. This was a great opportunity to help bring this message to the world, saying that when we talk about higher education in the United States, this is a big part of that. And it is going to become even more important, given the economic situation.

Under secretary Kanter told me after the conference that she had two dozen bilateral meetings and the majority of them were about the community college model. And I thought that was tremendously interesting, the interest in understanding the differences between the community college model and, say, a technical or polytechnical model that you might see in other countries, as well as the transfer and articulation models that are not very common in most of the rest of the world. There is clearly a lot of interest.

Q. How does the Lumina Foundation define student success?

Our definition of student success is measurable, transparent learning outcomes for students. We’re interested in ensuring that students know, understand, and are able to do something with their postsecondary credential. That means being able to demonstrate proficiency both with content in whatever program the student is in, and being able to demonstrate generalizable skills, analyze problems and express oneself effectively. Both can be measured.It also means we should do a better job of measuring and evaluating the success of student outcomes.
Graduation rates are one tool in the toolbox, but the current way in which we measure graduation rates is quite ineffective for a variety of reasons. At the national level, we really only have the capacity to measure first-time, full-time students, which is the minority of students at community colleges. So if we can do a better job of creating graduation-rate calculations, graduation rates could be a better measure, but we have to focus less on that than on the question of what students are learning and what they are doing with that knowledge.

Q. Is that something Lumina is investigating?

We’re doing so in a couple of ways. We supported the National Survey of Student Engagement, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, and other tools. We are now experimenting with a derivative from international models — something the Europeans have done called the Bologna Process. This takes a discipline-based approach — graphic design, physics, for example — and develops models of what students need to know, understand, and be able to do with their credential in that area. It’s a faculty-driven process called “tuning” that includes the input of employers, recent graduates, institutional leaders, and students. The idea is to tune the academic program to what the students are actually doing with that specific credential. That’s a great example of how we’re trying to push the envelope in doing a better job of defining and ultimately measuring the learning outcomes for students. We’re also supporting some other experiments. For example, there’s an effort just getting under way supported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that measures learning outcomes across countries, and we’re going to try to contribute to this experiment.

Q. What is the role of community colleges in learning preparedness?

Preparation is key to success in college. We believe there is a combination of key economic, financial, and social factors that make you prepared for college. And what we need not to treat them as stovepipes, but as interactive and interconnected elements of what ultimately becomes student success in college — not just making sure they’ve taken the right courses or have financial aid, or the right counseling. The reality is that they need all of those to be successful in college. One of the ways community colleges can play an important role is improving success rates for individuals in remedial courses and programs. And that’s one way that the American Graduation Initiative could be particularly helpful in helping community colleges do a better job of getting more students through developmental work and therefore ready for success in college.

Q. With all of the new pressures from increased enrollments and physical classroom capacity demands, what can community college trustees do to maintain the focus on student success and meeting the needs that were there before the recession was a factor?

Boards are the public conscience of these institutions, and in that role, they need to be the ones who [ask], “Are our programs relevant to the needs of this community or this region?” That’s easy to say and hard to do, because you’ve got the reality of employees and contracts, for example, that you’ve got to work through. But maintaining a focus on workforce relevance is something boards can do particularly well.

They can also use their own stature in their communities to elevate the profile of the college. I come across too many community colleges and too many community college leaders who use the line that “community colleges are one of America’s best-kept secrets.” We need to stop being modest about the important role of community colleges. There is some lingering stigma for some people associated with community colleges, which you can see reflected in popular culture, and boards can help de-stigmatize what community colleges do and help elevate the profile of community colleges within their communities.

1 comment:

  1. Given the current employment environment, community colleges and other post-secondary institutions are being called upon to play an even greater role in helping young adults gain the skills needed to qualify for work. A new report from Workforce Strategy Center (WSC) and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation titled “Employers, Low-Income Young Adults and Postsecondary Credentials,” highlights programs in 14 communities that are successfully addressing the challenge of providing disadvantaged young adults with the technical and postsecondary education that may qualify them for skilled positions. For the full report visit