College Costs 101: Merisotis Offers Much to Consider

The March-April BizVoice magazine will be packed with stories, features and analysis on education and workforce development. One of those articles will be interviews with Tom Snyder and Jamie Merisotis on their recent trip to the White House to discuss higher education affordability and productivity.

Here’s a sneak preview in the form of Merisotis’ answer to my question on who is responsible for escalating higher ed prices. As always, his take is informative and insightful.

"The responsibility for rising prices rests primarily with three things. First, the seeming inability of colleges and universities to significantly bring down their costs. Rather than beat up on colleges and universities, we’ve got to create the right kinds of opportunities and incentives to help them actually bring down their costs.

"The second is public policy/government as there has been a systematic disinvestment in higher education at the state level that is pretty pronounced. We’ve seen a declining share of resources for public higher education in virtually every state in the country.

"The third might be one that would surprise you … us collectively as Americans. We have been willing to pay the rising price for higher education because we intuitively get the benefits you get from a college degree. The question has been posed a lot in recent years — is college still worth it? From my perspective, the answer is a resounding yes.

"It’s unequivocal; college is definitely worth it, but the public’s willingness to continue to pay prices that have exceeded the rates of inflation for nearly three decades and the capacity of the public to take on increasing debts for students is part of the problem as well.

"We’ve got to find ways for the public to also be more judicious about how they select a college or university, how they’re willing to pay for it — how much should really be debt-based as opposed to saving more and doing more to prepare. Any efforts are going to have to get at all three of these root causes."

See, I told you it would be good. You might have to read it again to take it all in. And be sure to check out BizVoice (new edition online on February 28) for much more.

Going In-depth on Higher Ed Reporting

In case you missed it, it was announced yesterday that Indiana is one of 10 states to receive a $1 million grant from Complete College America. As the name suggests, the goal is to improve college completion rates — in Indiana and across the nation.

You can check out the governor’s press release. Seeing it prompted me to recall some of the interesting higher education stories I have had the privilege to write in recent years. I’ll share a few below — most relating in one form or another to the truly important college completion topic.

  • In early 2007, the article "Graduation Evaluation" revealed just how poor timely college completion rates are at many schools
  • The Indiana Commission for Higher Education’s grant proposal focused on redesigning remedial coursework at Ivy Tech (we updated the community college’s tremendous surge in "Growing Gains" in 2009) and supporting student success at regional campuses ("Breaking Down Walls" in March-April 2010 recently earned a national award for education reporting)
  • In addition, this year’s education issue featured a profile of Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis. Read "Working to Educate America"
  • And, the person presenting the $1 million as the leader of Complete College America was none other than Stan Jones, Indiana’s longtime higher ed commissioner and the Indiana Chamber’s 2009 Government Leader of the Year

There is no underestimating the importance of education, no matter the level. It’s all about the young people of today, who will comprise our workforce and our leadership of tomorrow. The Chamber will continue its focus in its policy efforts, as will BizVoice through its reporting and analysis. 

Double the Pleasure With Merisotis Stories

Three years ago, the subject was higher education in general — and Indiana’s system of colleges and universities in particular. It was a BizVoice roundtable with some high-powered participants. And I wanted the fourth expert to be someone who had spent a total of about two weeks in the state.

That person was Jamie Merisotis, at that time the new president of the Lumina Foundation for Education. His lengthy career in education policy in Washington and his selection by Lumina gave me confidence that the lack of Hoosier history would not be a problem. As it turned out, far from it.

Merisotis teamed with university presidents France Cordova (Purdue) and James Edwards (Anderson University) and Chris Murphy (then chair of the Commission for Higher Education) for one of our absolute best roundtables. Lumina, of course, has gone on to expand on its already excellent work throughout the country.

A few months ago we had the opportunity to sit down with Merisotis for a one-on-one discussion. Again, no disappointment. Merisotis and Lumina are truly making a difference and striving for more. Find out more in our current issue.  

Jones, Merisotis Offer Education Plan

Stan Jones, Indiana’s longtime commissioner for higher education, was the Indiana Chamber’s 2009 Government Leader of the Year (BizVoice story here). Jamie Merisotis is president of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education. The two teamed last Friday to deliver a clear message to the Obama administration: get newly appropriated funds to community colleges that do a good job taking displaced workers, helping them earn a needed certificate in a timely manner and putting those people back in the workforce.

Inside Higher Ed has an in-depth report on their proposal. Here are some key excerpts:

While Merisotis and Jones did not set a time limit, they generally praised as models programs that take a year, maximum, to finish – quite a contrast from the two-year norm for many associate degrees – assuming students enroll full time. If anything, the model Merisotis believes community colleges around the country should emulate is a rather old idea – that of a traditional vocational school.

In a handful of states – Ohio, New York, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin – there are technical institutions separate from community colleges. In Tennessee, for instance, 13 community colleges offer associate degree programs, whereas 27 “technical centers” offer only one-year certificate programs in high-demand fields. These institutions, like for-profit trade institutions, focus on getting students a credential and getting them out out in a short period of time.

Jones: "There’s nothing wrong with directed choice. … I call it kind of back to the future. They didn’t invent this yesterday; They’ve been doing this [in Tennessee] for 20 years. Some of the rest of us kind of discovered it – that they were on the right track for 20 years. Block scheduled, cohort-based, integrated – it’s highly effective.”

Jones and Merisotis believe the government should encourage the development of short-term, quick-hit programs like this at community colleges around the country with the $2 billion Community College and Career Training Grant program, which passed as part of the health care/student loan reconciliation bill earlier this year.

Additionally, Jones and Merisotis say that Congress should extend unemployment benefits so that anyone receiving them can attend college, as long as they are enrolled full-time in a one- or two-year degree program. Finally, they suggest that the government create a new program of “education stipends” to offset the tuition and living costs of going to college, essentially making the completion of a program the “job” of the recipient. 

Colleges and Costs: We’ve Got a Problem

While students at all levels strive for "A" grades, that letter comes into particular play in higher education with a big focus on concepts including access, achievement, accountability and affordability.

Several of those rise to the top for the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education, which has a goal to increase the percentage of Americans who hold high-quality degrees and credentials to 60% by 2025. Last week, Lumina announced additional grants for seven states, including Indiana, that are seeking to enhance college and university productivity.

Wednesday, the latest (86-page) edition of The Fiscal Survey of States was released. Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina, offered the following insightful comment in regard to expenditures and higher education:

"The report released today by the National Association of State Budget Officers and National Governors Association underscores the urgent need for states to reexamine the cost structure of American higher education. We cannot continue to spend twice as much per student as other developed countries and meet the nation’s needs for additional college graduates while also reducing our public investment. States challenged by falling revenue must find ways to finance public colleges and universities that encourage these institutions to graduate more students at lower expense with the same or higher quality.

Lumina is investing in potential productivity-enhancing solutions in seven states that are stepping forward to commit to change even amid dire fiscal circumstances. Governors, state legislators and business and higher education leaders all have roles to play. They need to be engaged in making sure every dollar is spent as wisely as possible to meet the challenge of increasing college access and student academic success, especially for underserved groups such as minorities, students from low-income families, first-generation college-going students and working-age adults."


Higher Education Expertise

Each issue of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s BizVoice magazine contains a roundtable discussion with expert opinion on the topic of the day. The March-April edition hit a home run with the following high-profile panel discussing higher education issues and trends:

  • France Cordova, president at Purdue University since July 2007
  • James Edwards, president at Anderson University since 1990
  • Jamie Merisotis, who came to Indiana in January as president of the Lumina Foundation for Education after more than 20 years of work in education policy
  • Chris Murphy, a member of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education for six years and chairman since 2006

You don’t want to miss what they have to say in the BizVoice focus on higher education.