Leadership & Governance

Talking About Talent: Jamie Merisotis on the Role of Higher Education

Jamie P. Merisotis, the Lumina Foundation

September 24, 2015

Video produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz
The Lumina Foundation's chief executive discusses his new book, his take on modernizing higher education, and immigration.

Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation and a longtime advocate of helping low-income and first-generation students into higher education, says it’s time to take a broader view of what he sees as the nation’s “talent” deficit. In his new book, America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating, and Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce (Rosetta Books), Mr. Merisotis argues that the United States must not only modernize higher education but also open up more paths for immigration.

Last week he visited The Chronicle’s offices, where he described some of his ideas for accomplishing those goals. He also talked about whether competency-based education undervalues teaching, and, in terms of improving educational equality, about how to move from lip service to action.


GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Hi, I'm Goldie Blumenstyk, senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. And we're here today in the Chronicle newsroom with Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation. Jamie's author of the new book, America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating, and Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce. Thanks for coming, Jamie.

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: Thank you very much, Goldie. Great to be here.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: We're glad to have you. So my first question. America needs talent. You didn't say America needs education. Why do you frame it this way?

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: As many people know, I've spent my life in the space of education, education policy, education philanthropy. This is really what I've done. And I think education is obviously critically important to our future as a country. But education and related strategies like immigration, urban policy, private-sector innovation, are in some ways in service to a greater good here, which is the talent of our society.

In other words, the outcome that we need is new knowledge, the transmission of knowledge, or the transmission of knowledge ultimately results in talent. Talent that we can apply in the work force. Talent that we can apply in our personal lives. And frankly, we have a shortage of talent. The problem that we have in American society today is that we don't have enough talent to meet our economic and social goals.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: And obviously, this book includes a lot of information about immigration and some of your thoughts about opening the doors of immigration a little bit. Not quite in sync with where some of the politicians are right now running for president and others. How do you think this message is going to be received?

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: I think my view of immigration is that we have to treat immigration like an asset to our talent base as a country, not merely as a problem that's got to be solved. And so it's true that we need to deal with things like border security. But the fact is, in the 20th century, immigration was a proactive part of our success as a country. The proportion of people who are entrepreneurs who are immigrants is very high. The fact that immigrants have contributed to our culture, to our society, that they pay taxes, all those things.

But in the 21st century, we seem to be treating immigration as a problem that has to be fixed. And my view is that we need to have a conversation about the talent that we get from immigration as a sort of complement, an asset to our overall talent framework. We obviously have to grow most of the talent that we need through our education and other structures.

But I think that having a sort of skills-based immigration model, which is what I advocate, like the Australians and the Canadians do, is a better conversation for us to be having at the national level. And my view, frankly, is that if we don't have that conversation, if our national debate with the presidential candidates, with others, continues to be about simply putting up more fences and dealing with more of those kind of border-security issues, we are going to miss out on the tremendous upside of enhancing our society through immigration.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I mean, in the book, you even talk about creating a Department of Talent, recognizing I guess that most people are going to cringe at the notion of another bureaucracy. But basically, it's just shuffling the deck a little bit about who reports to who, or do you see a bigger picture coming out of that?

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: Yeah, I've had this idea for this U.S. Department of Talent in my head for several years. And I actually start out the chapter saying, I know, I know. We don't need another federal agency. That's not what I have in mind. But the idea here is to actually do two things — one is to get greater efficiency by merging the U.S. Department of Education in its entirety with the employment- and training-administration functions of the Department of Labor and the part of Homeland Security that deals with visas and other talent-recruitment strategies.

And the idea is to use that as a way of actually improving how the federal government meets society's needs through its efforts. In other words, seeing the outcome as talent as opposed to the processes of education or labor development or visa processing. Actually seeing the outcome as being talent. It would be an important signal to our own work force. And it would also, I think, be an important signal to our international competitors that, in fact, we see talent as a part of the strength, the success, of what makes us great, what makes us prosperous as a country.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: You've been involved in higher-education issues for a long time. As you mentioned, earlier at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. We're seeing the equity agenda, the notion that low-income students and first-generation students should have more access to higher education and actually have more success in higher education. It's getting a lot more lip service these days from groups and from the media, maybe even from politicians. Do you think it's also getting real action?

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: I don't. I think that the real problem is that equity is something that I think, at a surface level, is a widely shared value, but in fact, we don't have the leadership, the political will to actually create the kind of change that we need. So we need to have a serious conversation about how immigration is a part of our equity strategies. We need to have a serious conversation about the fact that improving educational attainment for Latinos, African-Americans, low-income populations, first-generation populations needs to be a proactive, stated part of our educational goals, whether it's through state policy, federal policy, or what the actions are of colleges and universities.

And I don't think we're doing enough. And one of the things I point out in the book is that, in fact, we are missing out on the fact that our work force and our democracy are enhanced as a result of these more-diverse populations' actually being educated. This is about our collective well-being, not about their success as individual populations.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Is there something with the way this issue has been messaged up until now that you think doesn't capture that well enough?

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: Yeah, I think part of it has been that — I think the failing of the social-justice message is that it hasn't been matched to the economic message. And I think linking those two — saying, it's not just the right thing to do, it also serves our shared economic interest as a country — would be a better way to approach this. I think that's what we've missed. It's been about somebody else instead of about us. Equity is not somebody else's agenda. Our fastest-growing populations are Latinos, African-Americans, first-generation populations. We need to be thinking about them as us. It's our future, not their future.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Switch gears a little bit. I know the Lumina Foundation has taken a great deal of interest in this whole notion of wrangling credentials a little bit, trying to understand a little bit more about what are postsecondary-education credentials and what are good ones and bad ones. Why do you think this is such an important topic?

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: I think what you know and are able to do — whatever the credential may be, whether it's a degree, a certificate, some other type of credential — is going to be increasingly important in our society because that demand for talent that I talk about in the book is really growing. And yet, one of the problems I think that we have, and it's a widely shared view, I think, that we don't actually know what we get out of the system. We have a sense here that we obviously recognize a labor market rewards people with higher credentials. So there's a wage premium as a result of having a college degree, having certain kinds of credentials, etc. We don't actually know what they mean. And so that's one element of, I think, this broader credentials conversation.

The second thing is that it turns out that while higher education was busily doing its work, other types of credentials were being developed and actually implemented in our labor force. And I think thinking about these nondegree credentials, whether they're issued by work-force agencies, whether they're issued by employers themselves, whether they're issued by some other third-party entity, are going to be a very important part of the national dialogue, particularly as technology changes how people learn, where they learn. I think you're going to see a proliferation of credentials.

One of the things I mention in the book is that it's not inconceivable to think of cultural institutions like libraries and museums as potential credentialing agents at some point. They have all of the raw material that we tend to think of when we think of learning environments. They've got access to the learning resources. They've got the people who sort of have the intellectual capital to be able to deliver the material. And some libraries, they actually have so many branches that they sort of look like they've got access to the learners.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: They look like branch campuses.

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: They look like branch campuses. And so it seems to me that what we should be talking about here is a broader ecosystem of postsecondary learning in the United States, one within which, obviously, American higher-education colleges and universities are a critical element, but they're not the monopoly. They're not the sole provider. And we've got to find a way for us in higher education to figure out how to talk to these other credentialing entities and figure out what our space is in that different universe.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: One of the things I've noticed in this whole debate about sort of the future of higher education is that there's a big demand for education to be faster and cheaper and a little less discussion about the quality of education. Obviously, Lumina has been very concerned about the quality of education with your efforts in the degree-qualifications profile. But who's winning that fight? Is it the faster, cheaper crowd, or the quality crowd?

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: Yeah. I love the competition. I hope they both win. I think that in that debate, I think what we do need is to recognize that it does take too long and that it is unaffordable for many, many of our learners. And that we don't know enough about the quality of what people are learning to actually be successful. So to me, these are simultaneous equations that need to be solved, not things that should be addressed in a sort of horse race about who's winning and who's losing.

I do think that the issues related to educational quality are going to become increasingly important because I think back to the labor market. The labor market is signaling increasing dissatisfaction with what it's getting. It is paying that wage premium that I mentioned earlier, but the fact is that it's suggesting that it's looking for different ways to get the talent that it needs. Because in fact, it does take too long and it is too expensive. And they're not entirely sure what they're getting. They need to know more about what these degrees or other credentials actually mean.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: One of the things of that bugs me about this whole discussion, and maybe it's just me, but all this discussion about competency-based education. It feels like people who support it, which includes groups like the Lumina Foundation, undervalue teaching, undervalue what happens actually in the classroom or in the online classroom. Does it?

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: I hope not. That is not the intent. I actually think that teaching is going to continue to be a critical part of how you learn for the foreseeable future. I think if you look at the innovations that have taken place in terms of competency-based learning, it has been superstar faculty that have actually developed these competency-based learning models and found ways to implement them.

But the nature of teaching is changing. The way in which you as the teacher deliver the knowledge you're trying to transmit. Because of technology, because of an increasing understanding about what students should be learning is changing. That in fact, your role is changing as a faculty member, as a teacher. What I'm concerned about, frankly, is that — we saw this in the K-12 environment — we saw teachers become the problem that had to be fixed. And so in the K-12 debate, what we overwhelming are still talking about is how we fix the teachers.

To me, that's the wrong question to ask in American higher education. The right question that we should be asking is what should our students know and be able to do? And how do we make sure that the teaching is as effective as it possibly can be to meet those outcomes? And I think American higher education, its faculty, are well positioned to continue to contribute to that evolution of what's always been the case in American higher education, which is our ability to adapt to societal needs.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: OK, great. Jamie, thank you for coming by.

JAMIE P. MERISOTIS: Thank you very much, Goldie.

Video produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.