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Influential Lumina Foundation Drives Higher Education Change, Innovation

Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis travels the country urging local, state and federal government officials and higher education leaders to rethink higher education and determine what steps will create the work force the nation requires in the future to remain competitive.

When the Lumina Foundation for Education opened in the summer of 2000, it had lots of ideas and, for a brand new foundation, loads of cash — $770 million. Its agenda for the future was clear and fuzzy, say those familiar with its launch. Unsure about how best to improve higher education, it spent years funding exploratory projects.

Lumina approaches its 10th anniversary this month with a focused higher education funding mission targeting efforts aimed at expanding access and success beyond high school, “particularly among adults, first-generation college-going students, low-income students and students of color.” It is the only foundation in the nation touting this as its central mission.

In 2009, the last full calendar year for which information was available, Lumina put more than $55 million into higher education projects in this zone. That was several million dollars higher than its 2008 funding, despite the sour economy and slump in the value of its investment portfolio.

By pouring millions of dollars into new ideas and ad campaigns aimed at expanding access and success for these target groups, Lumina hopes enough educators and policymakers will buy into its campaign to boost the percentage of Americans with “high-quality degrees and credentials” by 20 percent by 2025 from what it says is the “longstanding rate” of 39 percent. Lumina calls its 2025 campaign “the Big Goal.”

Lumina’s financial size (it has grown to more than $1 billion) as one of the 30 largest foundations in the nation and its aggressive push of its 2025 program have made the Indianapolis-based foundation the buzz of the higher education community. Still, it’s a smaller being among the cluster of the nation’s bigger and much older foundations, and some marvel that this midget among giants is moving like an 800-pound gorilla.

“Right now they are being disproportionately influential,” says Dr. Michael Lomax, president and chief executive of the UNCF, crediting Lumina for having a much larger impact on the debate about how to improve higher education than its financial size would suggest it could. The Gates Foundation, for example, can afford to put $100 million into one project, he notes, nearly double the total annual payout of Lumina.

“The jury is still out,” on Lumina’s long-term impact, says Lomax. Still, its drumbeat focus on getting more people into the higher education system, and including HBCUs in the solution, is a welcomed one. “People are seeking them (Lumina) out,” he says.

Lumina has put its stamp on myriad activities around the country aimed at expanding access and success, from accelerated degree programs to initiatives to consolidate education operational costs. It has challenged the higher education community to rethink how to train, retain and better educate students. 

That includes working with educators on ways to better tailor learning so students can get through the process faster and still as equipped for the future. It’s touting benchmarking, performance and other buzz words of the day. All along the way, it has been talking up the importance of community colleges in helping the ranks of the nation’s educated.

Lumina was “the first to recognize community colleges as critical,” says Dr. George Boggs, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Community Colleges. “I think (Lumina) is doing well and having a strong impact because it’s very focused. They’ve got to be focused to make a difference.”

Lumina has emerged as a player so quickly and forcefully that some educators say privately they are not 100 percent sure of its motives. Lumina is not quiet about its “responsibility” as the nation’s “largest private foundation focused exclusively on getting more Americans into and through higher education.” In its annual report, it notes its charge to “create a national sense of urgency” around higher education and public policy to “achieve the big goal. Lumina will be a catalyst in America’s pursuit of the goal and the critical outcomes.”

Veteran education policy wonk Jamie Merisotis, president and chief executive officer of the foundation since 2007, says much is at stake for the nation if it does not face the challenge of expanding educational opportunities and boosting the size of the college-educated work force. If structural changes in postsecondary education systems are what are required to achieve those ends, so be it, he says.

Merisotis travels the country urging local, state and federal elected and appointed officials and other higher education leaders to rethink higher education, who needs and seeks it, and what steps need to be taken to create the work force the nation requires in the future to remain competitive.

“We’re 100 percent behind all the activities around improving school performance but that alone won’t help us meet ‘the goal,’” says Merisotis. “It’s not just about your traditional age student. It’s also about the 21st-century student.”

The 21st-century student, says Merisotis, is older, more likely to be a minority, comes from a low-income home, has basic academic deficiencies from high school, is more likely to be enrolled in a community college and is a first-generation student. “We have this 19th-century mindset when these folks are already there,” says Merisotis.

“In this environment, the challenge of results is every institution is going to have to change their delivery model. What programs are we most successful at? What are we trying to achieve? The focus on learning outcomes. The (Lumina) agenda is increasingly the agenda for the country,” says Merisotis, noting the similarity of the foundation’s goal and the education views voiced by President Barack Obama. “We’ve gotten good feedback from policymakers.”

Noting the U.S. spends nearly twice the amount per student as the average developed nation, Lumina pushes for reforms that “reduce the amount spent for each degree earned, thereby increasing the efficiency of colleges and universities” and making college education more affordable without sacrificing quality.

With the tough economy, Merisotis says, “There’s a huge potential to advance the productivity of the system. This is not about doing more with less.” 

Lumina’s overarching vision and a decision to expand its governance beyond its founding group of student loan executives have helped it attract the attention in recent years of a larger influence constituency beyond its Indiana roots.

Among its 14 board members, seven of whom are from Indiana, are board chair Marie V. McDemmond, president emeritus of historically Black Norfolk State University.

Dr. Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges of the Decatur, Ga.-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, joined the foundation’s board a year ago.

“Our nation can only retain its position of power if all of its citizens are prepared to keep it strong,” says Wheelan, a former community college president. “Lumina is dedicated to increasing the number of adults with a credential that will prepare them to make that reality happen. I want to be a part of the group that leads to that goal.” 

With every grant it makes, Lumina is trying to boost the chances for access and success for these students, Merisotis says.

“We’re absolutely convinced ‘the goal’ is attainable. I’m pleased with the way in which the national conversation has gone in the last few years. Increasingly, you can see this goal orientation. The point of the goal is there is enormous economic and social benefit (to the nation). We’ll stick with this goal, no matter what. What will change and should change is the pathway to getting there. So, tactics may change,” he said shortly before announcing Lumina would place more emphasis on state-level reform. “But, ‘the goal’ should not.”

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