Road to 60 – Presidents Speak: Reimagining college for a new generation of learners

This blog is the last in a four-part series highlighting progress toward the nation’s goal that six of every 10 adults will earn a college degree or other valuable credentials beyond high schooland showcasing what’s possible.

Student success may look a little different at a Texas community college than at a Michigan public university or a historically Black college and university in Virginia. But presidents at all three agree on this: it’s time to reimagine college for a new generation of learners.

At a time of unprecedented change on college campuses, presidents are exploring new ideas and partnerships to revitalize learning. And they look to national education leaders like Lumina Foundation to help states and colleges partner to create innovative funding models, redesign pathways to credentials, and secure the promise of learning beyond high school for all Americans.

When the foundation set an ambitious goal in 2008 for 60 percent of American adults to earn a degree or high-value credential by 2025, 48 states stepped up to set their own goals. Since then, the U.S. has achieved a 16 percentage-point increase in attainment, from 38.1 percent to 54.3 percent in 2022. The numbers continue to climb.

As 2025 approaches, Lumina’s research partner, Sova, interviewed educators, policymakers, and community leaders, asking how states made progress toward those goals. We found they want Lumina’s continued help to mobilize and support colleges and universities. To get a sense of what’s changing, we gathered unique perspectives from college presidents in three states.

In college, money talks

It’s no surprise that when it comes to thriving in college, money talks. Makola Abdullah, president of Virginia State University, a historically Black land grant university, found that the top reasons students don’t graduate involve breakdowns in financial aid. “Everyone should have the opportunity to go to college,” he said. “Investing in American citizens is cheaper than importing talent.”

Bill Pink, president of Ferris State University, one of Michigan’s 15 public universities, said his state has invested in scholarship programs that reflect partnerships between the state, schools, and students to promote attainment. The combination of the pandemic-inspired Futures for Frontliners, Michigan Reconnect, and the Michigan Achievement Scholarship has put at least two years of higher education within reach for nearly every Michigan resident.

Meanwhile, Texas has revamped its community college funding formula and added $683 million to focus on student outcomes, said William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College. He said this new funding formula is good for both students and resource-strapped institutions.

The bottom line? Partnering on innovative funding solutions can add valuable dollars for schools, scholarships, and services. Institutions need better ways to ensure students can find those resources and stay on track.

Energize faculty, supercharge pathways

All three presidents acknowledged there is work to do to reimagine college for new generations of learners with fast-changing needs. They called for closer partnerships with employers, a renewed focus on credentials, and the need for faculty from all academic areas—including humanities and liberal arts—to prepare students to thrive in the workforce.

In Texas, Serrata said that the state collects information about employers’ certifications, and his college aligns its programs with those credentials to give students all the credits it can. He also emphasized a need for professional development to help faculty outside of career programs understand how their disciplines promote “soft” workforce skills.

At Virginia State, Abdullah said students get help finding “off-ramps—not less rigor—but more aligned to their interests” when they change direction from STEM-intensive programs like nursing or pre-med. Virginia State also offers a revamped General Studies degree and individualized programs students can build with faculty members.

The bottom line? New, flexible pathways to degrees and credentials can help students, employers, and the economy. Colleges need to revamp their practices to keep pace with change.

Rethinking a graduate’s value

Simply put, we need to rethink what it means to be a graduate, Pink says. “When I was in college, postsecondary meant a degree. Certificate holders weren’t included. Recognizing all that postsecondary can mean now has moved the needle.”

Moving the needle means ensuring that learners can quickly become strong earners. Serrata notes that “savvy students know they can earn $15 to $17 per hour at an entry-level job or they can go to college. Institutions need to be able to accommodate those who are looking for short-term programs with high-wage returns.”

But presidents also say valuing graduates only for their earning power ignores larger social issues. For example, women in the workplace earn less than men in the same occupations. As Abdullah notes, “Their degree doesn’t have less value. The discrimination happens after they graduate.” People of color face this same persistent discrimination in the workplace, earning far less than their white colleagues, even with the same college degrees and training.

The bottom line? Amid much progress, there is unfinished business in the college attainment movement. It will take time, money, and effort to close wide gaps in attainment and wages. It will take fresh ideas and investments to ensure affordability and equitable outcomes. It will take us all—college presidents, policymakers, parents—to build a more educated nation. And it will take continued, bold Lumina Foundation leadership, with its power to shape the national narrative. Together, we can reimagine college for that new generation of learners.

Jenny Schanker, Ed.D., is Senior Director of Learning and Research at the Michigan Community College Association. She has led the center’s work on guided pathways, math pathways, developmental education reform, dual enrollment, and alignment of noncredit and credit career education. She partnered on this project with Lara Couturier, Ph.D., a Principal at Sova, which builds partnerships to drive positive change across higher education. Lara works to ensure equitable learning and career outcomes, particularly through learning mobility for learners of color and students from families with incomes below the poverty line. Both are working with Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation that helps all Americans learn beyond high school, on assessing progress toward its Goal 2025. Visit Lumina’s A Stronger Nation website to see detailed attainment rates by age, race and location.


Recent Posts

Are you interested in learning more about Sova?

Please complete the form below in its entirety to be contacted by one of our team members.