Wednesday morning, I was pleased to host higher-education expert Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. His organization’s mission is to increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality postsecondary degrees, certificates and credentials to 60 percent by 2025. Others hearing from him in Alumni Hall included the presidents of other Massachusetts’ private and public higher education institutions of various sizes and degrees of selectivity.
Higher-education expert Jamie Merisotis, right, was our honored guest this week.
We shared the opportunity to learn from an acclaimed higher education expert, but we also had something else in common: we are all faced with the market-based and political forces increasingly hindering our ability to produce the “Americans with the high-quality postsecondary degrees” Merisotis describes in his book “America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating and Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce.”
Merisotis focuses on talent as the key to prosperity and progress, explaining that, in this case, talent refers to the people sufficiently educated to become part of the middle class that is necessary to fuel sustained prosperity and progress. Those goals are impossible without a robust higher-education system.
Merisotis began our 90 minutes together with a presentation in which he drew from his own experience growing up as a child of Greek immigrant parents determined to secure the best possible future for their children.
Today, he explained, the middle class dream eludes too many people because higher education has become unaffordable. At the same time, Merisotis pointed out, 2 million jobs are left unfilled in the United States because of the lack of qualified talent.
Many factors, but mainly economic ones, obstruct students’ path to financial security. I’ve written before about the stratification in today’s higher education market, as wealthy students attend selective, highly funded institutions that can offer considerable institutional aid, while financially disadvantaged students disproportionately attend open-admissions, poorly funded colleges, and middle-class students see their options evaporating.
Merisotis discussed a variety of strategies to tackle this problem, though he acknowledged, “there are no magic bullets.” As he told nearly half of all U.S. governors while he researched his recent book, the solution requires both creativity and steady investment in higher education,
The private sector should play a large role, he said, underwriting education for its present and future workforce, much as Starbucks’s College Achievement Plan offers full tuition reimbursement to eligible employees, with no employee “handcuffs” to the coffee giant after graduation.
Merisotis also endorsed more partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions, such as the bachelor’s degree-completion program we offer with Bunker Hill Community College, or the agreement between Central Massachusetts’s Anna Maria College and Quinsigamond Community College.
At the public level, Merisotis said cities (or “talent hubs”) need to stop simply vying for top talent — which can be a zero-sum game, benefiting one city at the expense of another, as well as impoverishing native and longtime residents while a new entrepreneurial class prospers — and work to create and nurture homegrown talent.
The federal government, too, should re-evaluate its approach to education. His suggestion is to create a Department of Talent, essentially merging the present Department of Education, the employment- and training-administrative functions of the Department of Labor, and the portion of the Department of Homeland Security concerned with immigration-related employment and education.
It was a thought-provoking discussion. The boldness, creativity and critical thinking on display are crucial to ensuring that colleges and universities remain viable and useful to students. As Merisotis pointed out, we want an ecosystem of educational opportunity, talent, and economic growth, and higher education needs to be at the “center of the ecosystem.”