Higher Education and Talent

Jamie Merisotis of Lumina Foundation wrote a book on how to rethink higher education and immigration policy to fix America's talent pool problem.

October 29, 2015

Lumina Foundation has been at the forefront of a national campaign for more Americans to earn a college credential. From his perch as the foundation's president and CEO, Jamie Merisotis has been a prominent voice in the completion push.

Yet degree completion alone won't solve America's growing problems with income inequality, unemployment and dysfunctional cities, Merisotis says. In a recently published book, America Needs Talent, he describes a broad fix to the talent pool problem that includes immigration policy shifts and the creation of a new U.S. Department of Talent, which would absorb the U.S. Department of Education.

We sent Merisotis some questions about his book and what the proposals would mean for higher education. The exchange follows.

Q. Most people think of talent being about innate, natural ability. But the definition you use for the book is broader, and applies more to what students get out of college, ideally. What do you mean by talent, and how does it apply to higher education?

A. I see talent as much more than innate ability. Talent has both cognitive dimensions -- knowledge, skills and abilities -- as well as noncognitive dimensions, such as values, interests and personality traits. Talent is what happens when these dimensions are honed by education and experience in a way that benefits both individuals and society at large. It’s knowledge of particular domains and the human contexts that give it meaning.

The challenge we’re facing today -- and the challenge I try to illuminate in the book -- is that America lacks the requisite talent both to fuel our economy in the 21st century and to meet our civic needs. Ample data underscore this. Since 1983, the demand for college-educated workers has grown by an average of 3 percent a year, yet the growth in supply of those workers has grown by only 2 percent annually. As a result, there’s a gap in the number of qualified workers to fill open positions. Employers are unable to fill more than two million jobs, and 76 percent of CEOs of companies in the Inc. 5000 say that finding qualified people is a major concern for their companies. And of course our civic needs are growing: a recent report from the Corporation for National and Community Service documented waning levels of civic engagement nationally, with declines in four of the five civic engagement indicators measured by the agency.

Higher education certainly plays a critical role in addressing these gaps by equipping more Americans with the cognitive and noncognitive dimensions of talent that they’ll need to thrive in our modern economy and democracy. We must ensure the postsecondary education system -- and the policies surrounding it -- are in sync with the needs of students today so that we can maximize the number of people with talent. But it’s not just up to higher education to tackle this challenge. A whole host of players -- from the private sector to philanthropy to government -- must be involved in a comprehensive approach to meeting America’s talent needs.

Q. In the book you say education and labor-market institutions are “out of sync” with the 21st-century economy. How so?

A. I argue that what led to America’s meteoric rise in the 20th century, which the Life magazine publisher Henry Luce famously described as the “American Century,” was our ability to attract, train and deploy the talent needed for the economic and social demands of that era. The American system has dramatically shifted over the last 60 years, but our infrastructure for building talent in the U.S. has failed to keep pace with this change in several ways.

Take higher education. To meet the workforce needs of today, many more people will need to have an education beyond high school. As evidence of this, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has projected that two-thirds of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by 2020. Yet only 40 percent of Americans have an associate degree or higher right now. But the postsecondary system -- as currently designed -- is not structured to accommodate the huge growth in higher education attainment that’s needed.

This is not a criticism of what higher education was designed to do in the past. It is, rather, an acknowledgment that the system doesn’t have the capacity to meet the current demands for talent. To achieve such growth, we have to commit to educating the increasing number of college students from various paths and backgrounds -- low-income students, students of color, first-generation students, immigrants, as well as older, working adults balancing education with raising children and supporting families -- and that will require restructuring the system for their success.

But it’s not just higher education that must change. Other policies and practices that impact America’s social and economic prosperity need to be reimagined in light of our need for talent. Immigration, for instance, has long been a pipeline for attracting and retaining talent in the U.S., but today’s dysfunctional, hard-to-navigate immigration system is a hindrance for the best and brightest from other countries to make America their home. What’s more, we have no comprehensive strategy for giving those immigrants already here -- both legal and undocumented -- the tools needed to be successful. We’re also missing key opportunities, as I argue in the book, to leverage the powerful channels of cities, the private sector and the federal government as mechanisms for growing talent.

Q. The book draws on Lumina’s work to encourage a focus on learning outcomes and competencies rather than time in class. Is a fundamental shift in the currency of higher education feasible, at least within the short timeline you say is needed?

A. It’s feasible, but no one should be overly confident that this change will come easily.

The fact is, there’s perhaps never been a greater need or urgency for making this change, and this is driven by a few critical forces. One is that there’s clearly growing demand and support for competency-based programs, or education designed around the mastery of a specific set of skills, knowledge and abilities. A number of such rigorous, learning-focused programs have emerged in recent years, such as those developed by Brandman University, Western Governors University and the University of Wisconsin System’s Flex Option, and their early success has positioned them to scale quickly and serve dramatically more students. Still newer models -- like Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America -- are showing it’s possible to untether completely from the Carnegie Unit. And as federal policy continues to become more favorable toward allowing federal aid to be used for these types of programs, they will be even better positioned for success.

Second, employers are demanding a change in the way we think about higher education. Only 14 percent of employers believe colleges and universities are adequately preparing students for work, according to the 2014 Lumina Gallup poll. And as the staggering (and growing) number of unfilled jobs indicates, this creates major challenges that make the status quo unsustainable.

As the demand for talent increases, the pressure from organizations in need of workers with the requisite skills and knowledge will increase, too. And the support for programs that turn out qualified workers -- by measuring what students know and can do as the currency for advancement -- will grow accordingly.

Q. There's a line in the book about how colleges do too little to guide students to areas that touch on their strengths. What do you mean by that?

A. We have to think about education beyond high school less as a rite of passage and more as a pathway for equipping students with the skills, knowledge and abilities needed to thrive in work and in life. This includes the character building that traditional, brick-and-mortar institutions have thrived at imparting. But what these institutions have done less well is providing students with thoughtful direction about honing their strengths in a way that most benefits them in today’s economy.

Simply put, higher education needs to be intentional about examining what jobs are and will be in demand, and helping students figure out how they can develop themselves in ways that position them for success. I’m certainly not arguing that postsecondary education should only be about career preparation. But it’s also foolhardy to suggest that we don’t prepare people for jobs in higher education -- that “life preparation” is all that matters. Both should be priorities. Given the talent gap and need to provide more people -- especially low-income and minority populations -- with economic opportunity, we must do a better job than we are today to ensure the credentials students earn through higher education translate into something meaningful in the workplace.

Q. How would your proposal for a new U.S. Department of Talent reduce the federal bureaucracy?

A. My call for a federal Department of Talent isn’t an appeal for more federal bureaucracy. Quite the opposite. Here’s the idea. This new Department of Talent would include three parts:

  • The entire U.S. Department of Education, whose focus is on fostering educational excellence and ensuring access;
  • The U.S. Labor Department’s Education and Training Administration, which administers programs and funds that help grow the workforce and support dislocated workers; and
  • The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ talent and recruitment functions under the Department of Homeland Security, including programs that connect companies in need of talent with skilled immigrants and help foreign-born talent navigate the immigration process.

Each of these entities plays a distinct and important role in talent cultivation. Bundled together, these components would make for an entity that could develop and implement strategies for linking standards-driven K-12 education (taking the lead from states), locally managed workforce development programs and highly focused global recruitment strategies. The net result would be a powerful vehicle for tackling the nation’s talent challenge head-on -- both efficiently and effectively.

A new U.S. Department of Talent could help put talent development at the center of federal workforce, education and recruitment policies. It also would help reduce bureaucracy by greatly improving efficiency and focus. This kind of interconnected approach would surely help us as we seek to close the nation’s workforce gaps and enrich our cultural and social well-being.

A U.S. Department of Talent would link efforts that have long been disconnected and bureaucratically entrenched, and thereby create approaches that focus on outcomes. Such an agency would send a powerful message to our citizens, employers, and global partners and competitors. It would show that the federal government is serious and strategic about its role in developing, harnessing and deploying our talent.

Q. What do you mean with the call for that department to focus more on the outcomes of policies rather than on processes and tools -- and how would that apply to what the U.S. Department of Education does currently?

A. One of the key benefits of creating a U.S. Department of Talent would be to elevate the sense of urgency around addressing America’s talent challenge. The department would be focused sharply on outcomes, and its effectiveness would be measured against its ability to execute on the highly measurable goal of talent creation. What’s more, the pre-existing practices and protocol that hamper some agencies from keeping focus on the end results would not be a hindrance, given the agency’s targeted mission.

These changes have little to do with how the U.S. Department of Education operates in its current form. As I state in the book, under a federal talent agency, that department would remain largely intact, since its work already is aimed at developing and deploying a diverse talent pool for the nation. But the agency could be more effective if married with key functions from other agencies, including the workforce functions of labor and the talent and recruitment functions of immigration. These other entities could supplement the Education Department’s current focus on the pre-K though higher education pipeline, and thereby provide key supports for growing and diversifying America’s talent pool.

Q. The book describes the potential of public benefit corporations, including for the for-profit college sector. Is this corporate status meaningful enough to make a serious difference in how a for-profit college operates?

A. In the book I propose a series of ideas to test out as ways of advancing the number and type of high-quality postsecondary providers. Public benefit corporations are certainly one idea worth testing. Though we’ve seen a few high profile cases of existing for-profits “converting” to benefit corporations, my real interest is in seeing the creation of wholly new B corps -- entities that see the social mission as part of their core values from the start. I’m not sure what to make of these conversions, but if they are an attempt to skirt regulatory or other scrutiny, we should be skeptical.

I do think public benefit corporations as a general rule might provide a powerful way of expressing a private entity’s orientation as being more focused on doing social good and not merely turning a profit. Because B corps make social return part of a binding commitment and give shareholders authority to sue or remove leadership if that commitment is not upheld, there’s authority to ensure those companies keep their obligations and act responsibly. What’s more, a company’s declaration that it’s a public benefit corporation puts a certain amount of social pressure on the organization to perform in the sense of doing good. If the company fails to do this, it could face public pushback and brand damage for not acting in accordance with its commitments.

Q. You wade into the politically fraught topic of immigration reform in the book. Are there any feasible policy fixes you think folks in higher education should get behind?

A. Immigration is a core part of the American success story. After all, we’re a nation of immigrants, built on and constantly renewed by the energy and innovation of a diverse population.

The immigrants of the last century arrived on these shores with energy and guts, but often little in the way of cultivated talent or advanced education. Despite this, through hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit, they carved out a place for themselves, and in the process, they dramatically improved the American landscape. But the 21st century is a different ball game. “God-given” talent, grit and hard work still matter, of course, but they’re not enough. It’s worth asking: How would our immigrant grandparents and parents fare today? Without the proper training, likely not very well.

Immigrants are not a “nice to have” for America -- they are a “gotta have.” Immigrants are nearly twice as likely as their native-born counterparts to start businesses, and while immigrants with college and graduate degrees now represent 6 percent of the U.S. labor force, their earnings represent 9 percent of all combined wages in the United States. Immigrants also are widely acknowledged for their contributions to our social and cultural richness -- a national trait that is envied by much of the rest of the world.

The notion I put forth in the book -- that immigration should be viewed not as a problem to be dealt with, but a powerful opportunity to grow America’s talent pipeline -- is something that should resonate for higher education. Millions of talented foreign-born students come to the U.S. each year to attend our higher education institutions. But in too many cases, they’re kept from staying by complex, burdensome and outdated immigration policies. It’s a loss because many of them could play a meaningful role in addressing areas of talent deficit and building our economy.

People in higher education -- especially faculty, who form the intellectual and moral core of the academy -- can use their vantage points to press for new approaches to immigration, like the deliberate, talent-based models that have worked in places like Australia and Canada, complemented by improved education and training policies to educate the immigrants who are already here -- undocumented as well as legal immigrants. By focusing on what our nation needs in terms of talent, we have the ability to actually meet the entire continuum of talent needs, from low to middle to high end.


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