Interview: The Lumina Foundation on post-secondary education

Dr. Michael Nietzel
Dr. Michael Nietzel

Dr. Michael Nietzel is a Senior Educational Policy Advisor to the Missouri Governor. He was appointed President of Missouri State University in 2005. He has also worked as the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where he was Chair of the Psychology Department, Dean of the Graduate School, and Provost.

Interview: The Lumina Foundation on post-secondary education

A post-secondary education is vital to achieve success in today’s economy.

Any program, whether baccalaureate, associate, or short-term credential, must demonstrate success in providing economic ROI to students.

Employer-college credential partnerships can help create a more skilled workforce.

Community colleges must focus on completion rates, which are unacceptably low.

The Lumina Foundation has long been a leading advocate for increasing post-high school educational attainment. In 2008, the foundation embarked on a national goal that by 2025, would see 60% of working-age adults with a college degree, certificate, industry-recognized certification, or other credential of value.

In the following years, the foundation adapted its approach—for example, placing racial equity at the center of its work and embracing the importance of certificates and other short-term credentials (less than 2 years in duration) that are typically offered by the nation’s community colleges.

Recently, Mike Nietzel spoke with Chauncy Lennon, vice president for learning and work at Lumina, to learn more about the foundation’s work and the importance of short-term credentials.

What is the Lumina Foundation?

The Lumina Foundation is an independent Indianapolis based private foundation committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all Americans.

Lumina launched its effort toward the national goal in 2008. Where does it stand today?

As of 2019, 51.9% of working-age adults had earned a college degree, certificate, or other high-quality postsecondary credential. That’s an increase of 10 percentage points since we began our work, and it represents significant improvement. Another signature accomplishment is that when we set out the goal, only 2 states had their own educational attainment goals. Today, 47 have them.

Why was it important to have the goal?

There are 3 reasons. First, the reality of the economy is that for almost everyone, success in today’s economy requires post high school education, training, and credentials. Second, our economy needs more talent. For the nation to continue to prosper, it must have workers with the skills necessary to perform in an increasingly more technological and knowledge-based workplace. Third, having a postsecondary credential is one of the best ways to create economic opportunities for individuals who historically have been marginalized in society. By removing the barriers to credential attainment that students of color face, we can both achieve fair outcomes and make the system work better for everyone.

Quality of life as measured by income, civic participation, and personal well-being is highest among those with a college degree or other credential of value and lowest among those with a high school diploma or less.

What kind of progress is necessary to reach 60% by 2025?

That’s a complicated question, primarily because of the huge educational disruptions caused by the COVID19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, we projected that to reach 60% by 2025 we would need to add 6.9 million more people with postsecondary credentials, over and above the normal expected rate of growth. That would have required 1 million more baccalaureate degrees, 3.3 million more associate degrees, and 2.6 million more short-term credentials.

However, during the pandemic, we realized we need to reassess and possibly readjust the level and timing of the goal. We are grappling with how to articulate that goal considering current realities.

The pandemic also has interfered with reliable data collection. This is the reason that our most recent attainment data are for 2019. But we hope to have an updated number by the beginning of 2023.

Lumina often uses the term “educational credentials of value.” What do you mean by that?

We count all baccalaureate and associate degrees as credentials of value. We also include certificates and certifications that demonstrate earnings better than the recipient would earn with only a high school diploma—in other words, that they have economic value to the recipient.

How can you assure a short-term credential carries a good ROI?

That’s a key concern. Our 2-year and 4-year colleges are continuing to offer too many programs for which there is simply no economic ROI whatsoever. The current regulatory framework for higher education has not proven adequate to the job of assuring students that the programs they pursue are likely to be worth it.

Read: Calculating ROI in higher education

Good data collection is essential. We need to assess the value of a degree or certificate at the program level rather than just at the institutional level, which has been the practice in the past. The trend toward data at the program level is a good thing. Also, accreditation probably needs to shift more from applying to an institution as a whole and instead focus on assuring the quality of individual programs.

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Financial aid obviously plays a vital role in increasing access and attainment levels. What are some of the changes you would like to see in this area?

As community colleges have become more dependent on tuition for their funding, smarter financial aid policies become more essential if we are to guarantee greater access to them. One set of proposals has to do with increasing tuition support through Pell. Another set looks at expanding who has access to Pell by including short-term workforce education and training programs.

Whether we are talking about so-called traditional-aged students or adults enrolled in community colleges, we also need to address the costs beyond tuition that many students are struggling to afford. Transportation, housing, childcare, and medical expenses are generally not covered by current forms of financial aid. Until they are, financial barriers will continue to thwart many individuals’ ability to afford more education.

Recently, major employers like Walmart, Amazon, Target, and Starbucks have introduced educational benefits that involve them paying for their workers to attend college or earn industry-recognized credentials. What’s your opinion of these benefits?

I think it’s a great idea. One of the challenges workers face when it comes to re-skilling or up-skilling is understanding what skills their employers value. When employers pay for training and help workers understand what credentials are necessary to move up, everyone wins.

Overall, what are 3 changes you would recommend for community colleges that would improve the chances that more individuals earn the educational credentials they need.

Great question. First, although community colleges currently have hundreds of excellent short-term certificate programs that are of high quality and yield a substantial, tangible payoff for students, there are simply not enough of them. A keyway to increase the number of these program is for colleges to expand their partnerships with local business and industry, offering the credentialed training that employers desperately need in what’s become one of the tightest labor markets we have seen in a while.

Second, community colleges need to do more to enhance their brands and increase their outreach to prospective students. For too long, they have relied largely on 2 messages to attract students: they are more affordable than 4-year institutions, and they offer open enrollment in most of their academic programs.

That’s not enough anymore. Those messages are not resonating sufficiently. New forms of engagement are essential.

That is why Lumina has launched The Million Dollar Community College Challenge, to award grants and technical assistance for community colleges to think more strategically about how they build their brands and structure their marketing efforts around new themes. How can community colleges best emphasize the quality of the student experience they provide? What messages convey their expertise? How can they strengthen connections with potential employers and regional communities

Finally, community colleges must focus on improving student success, developing policies, and providing supports that help students complete the programs they start or transfer to a 4-year college or university. Program completion rates at 2-year colleges are unacceptably low. It’s essential that institutions commit to a completion agenda, where they provide the resources necessary to increase student retention, progress, and credential attainment.

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