Q and A With Jamie P. Merisotis: June 2011

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Jamie Merisotis

Jamie P. Merisotis has been president and CEO of Lumina Foundation for Education, the nation’s largest private foundation committed solely to enrolling and graduating more students from college, since 2008. Before he joined Lumina, Merisotis was founding president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonpartisan higher-education research and policy center.

He spoke with State Legislatures about the challenges of increasing college completion rates.

State Legislatures: Everyone knows that trends in state budgets present challenges and concerns for higher education. Do you think there are any opportunities for states and for higher education in this tight economic climate?

Jamie P. Merisotis: The current climate poses an excellent opportunity for state leaders to examine the role of higher education in creating stronger futures for all citizens. State budget cuts, though certainly challenging, present an opportunity to ask what is working most effectively in higher education and explore ways to improve traditional ways of allocating resources.

A good place to begin is to approach funding a state’s colleges and universities differently. Reward colleges for increases in student performance, rather than for enrollment, or what peers spend, or across-the-board increases or decreases over last year’s funding. Today, at least 15 states have legislation or are actively pursuing performance-funding policies. These policies and proposals generally follow four basic principles:

  • They use simple and understandable formulas with a primary focus on student success, such as course and degree completion, especially for those student populations that are lagging.
  • They recognize institutional differences. Two-year schools are different from four-year institutions, and a research university is different from other types of colleges and universities. These differences in mission and orientation should be reflected in the details of performance measures.
  • They include progression measures, such as year-over-year increases, to protect against large fluctuations of funding among institutions.
  • They commit a meaningful amount of total appropriations – at least 5 percent – to performance.

Their efforts point the way for how a state can signal to its colleges that meeting completion goals is a top public priority.

Difficult budget times should not stall these efforts. In fact, Indiana used completion metrics as a tool to allocate necessary mid-term budget cuts in early 2010. As a result, colleges and universities that were doing a better job in meeting the state goal of increasing completion saw their budgets cut less than others.

SL: Lumina Foundation talks about improving the productivity of American higher education. What does "productivity" mean and what are the policy levers that state legislators can consider?

Merisotis: Lumina Foundation defines higher education productivity as increasing the numbers of college graduates with available resources while preserving academic quality. Productivity has also been described as how inputs are used to produce outputs or degrees. We know that the completion and attainment rates vary considerably among institutions of higher education, from two-year colleges, to public four-year universities and among private and for-profit institutions. Discussions of institutional productivity provide a way to look at outcomes across types of institutions.

In our work with states to address institutional productivity, we have identified an approach called “Four Steps to Finishing First” as a guide to states to launch productivity projects that make sense for their colleges and universities.

Step 1: Rewarding Institutions That Focus on Students’ Completing Quality Programs, Not Just Attempting Them

Step 2: Rewarding Students for Completing Courses and Degree or Certificate Programs

Step 3: Expanding and Strengthening Lower-Cost Models to Deliver High-Quality Instruction

Step 4: Investing in Institutions That Demonstrate the Result of Adopting Good Business Practices

SL: Lumina's "Big Goal" is to increase College Completion so that 60 percent of adults have a postsecondary credential by 2025. What are the three most important ways state legislators can engage and contribute toward this goal?

Merisotis: We are pleased that the Big Goal, or what we also refer to as Goal2025, has been adopted by states, other foundations, and many national organizations in response to the need to increase higher education attainment in our country. It has become a national goal and we are pleased to support that goal in our role as a national foundation with a singular focus on increasing postsecondary attainment of degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025.

Lumina Foundation believes there are three essential steps a state must take to position itself for national leadership and economic competitiveness: setting goals, publicly reporting and using common completion metrics, and aligning funding to meet these goals.

Let’s begin with the first of these points: setting goals. It is imperative that a state set statewide completion goals that are broadly agreed upon by the key stakeholders. These goals also should be defined at the college and university level. This will ensure that every campus in the state knows how many students they are responsible for graduating to meet the needs of the state and the country. This will also help identify which groups of students are struggling and therefore may require new and different support and incentives to graduate in a timely fashion.

Once a state’s campuses share a common direction through completion goals, I encourage you to take advantage of the common completion metrics adopted by the National Governors Association. These metrics measure student movement to and through certificate and degree programs. They help shine a light on gaps in the current accountability system, particularly in areas such as credits to degree and developmental education. To best pinpoint these gaps, the state should report these metrics annually to the public in a user-friendly manner. They should also be disaggregated by age, race, and income so that we can tell who is being well served by higher education and where we can improve.

That brings us to the third step: aligning funding to meet the completion goals. Two policies in particular are common-sense ways to take that step. One, again, is performance funding – funding colleges based on student completion rather than on other factors – and the other is revising financial aid policies to support timely completion.

SL: The decline in state funding for higher education indicates that states are rethinking the "public" nature of public higher education. What do you think about this? How important is it for the state to maintain a public system? Has it come time for us to think about a more market-driven system?

Merisotis: It is absolutely critical to maintain a public higher education system which has served our nation well. Public colleges and universities are the portals of opportunity; they ensure that access to higher education is an enduring value. That access – coupled with a redoubled effort to ensure student success – is the surest way to maintain a high quality of life for all Americans.

Higher education is a market serving many individual and social needs. We have the best of both worlds: public institutions of higher education that serve a wide range of needs of students and society alongside thriving and responsive private institutions –nonprofit and for-profit – that deliver both traditional education and specialized training. The vast diversity of American colleges and universities reflects the history and evolving mission of higher education in our country.

As we work to dramatically increasing postsecondary attainment, it is important to keep further opportunities for students to earn high-quality degrees and credentials. With high-quality learning as the constant, the public and private opportunities for higher education need to continue to evolve, improve, and expand.