State needs to boost college graduation rates, higher ed expert warns

As a boy growing up in Connecticut, Jamie Merisotis absorbed his parents’ message about the value of higher education–a message he brought back to his home state Wednesday, along with a warning.

In building an educated workforce, Connecticut is slipping, said Merisotis, one of the nation’s leading voices on higher education.

“Today, other states are increasing the share of their young adult population with college credentials much more quickly than what we’ve been seeing in Connecticut,” Merisotis told the State Board of Governors for Higher Education.

Merisotis, president and CEO of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, spent the day meeting Gov. Dannell Malloy, legislators, business leaders and educators to promote his message that colleges not only must do a better job of producing graduates but should be held accountable for their performance.

Despite Connecticut’s generally good reputation for postsecondary education, the state has slipped from fourth to seventh place among the 50 states over the past decade in the percentage of adults with college degrees, he said.

Citing U.S. Census data, Merisotis said 47 percent of the state’s adults have college degrees, still above the national average of 38 percent but well below a level needed to sustain a healthy economy. Lumina has begun a national campaign, Goal 2025, to increase the proportion of Americans with college degrees to 60 percent by 2025.

The 2006 economic forecast “New England 2020” projects a decline in the percentage of young people with bachelor’s degrees in New England over the next decade.

By 2018, about two-thirds of jobs in Connecticut will require postsecondary education, according to a Georgetown University study. The state will have to fill nearly 600,000 jobs by then as a result of job creation, retirements and other factors, Merisotis told the higher education board.

“The nation’s workers and citizens simply won’t have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today’s globally competitive environment without a much higher level of skills,” he said.

All of this is against the backdrop of a deep financial crisis that is expected to result in significant budget strains for public colleges and universities.

Despite the budget constraints, colleges can make fundamental changes to improve their performance, including graduation and retention rates, according to Merisotis.

One key strategy is to establish goals for degree completion at the various public colleges, he said. Higher education budgets also can be tied to performance measures such as graduation rates,  job placement rates and enrollment levels of low-income students and students who are the first in their families to attend college, Merisotis said.

He said about 15 states have passed laws or revised higher education funding methods to reflect levels of performance. He also suggested changes in financial aid policies to provide incentives for students to complete degrees, such as requiring them to maintain a minimum grade point average and limiting the number of semesters they are eligible for aid.

Merisotis has had a long career in higher education. Lumina is the nation’s largest foundation devoted to enrolling and graduating more students from college.

Before joining Lumina in 2008, Merisotis was founding president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a leading independent higher education research and policy center in Washington, D.C.

Before that, he was executive director of the National Commission on Responsibilities for Financing Postsecondary Education, a bipartisan government commission that produced the report “Making College Affordable Again.” He also helped create the Corporation for National and Community Service, also known as AmeriCorps.

Merisotis grew up in Manchester, where his father was a traveling salesman and his mother a bookkeeper for the local police department.  Although neither of his parents had a college education, Merisotis and his three brothers all went on to obtain degrees.

“We had parents, who despite their very limited financial resources, instilled in all of us the strong sense that education really is the most important pathway to prosperity,” he said.