Foundation Seeks to Increase Access to Higher Education, Graduation

By Jenn O’Hanlon

UTEP News Service

“UTEP is where education is going,” said Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis before delivering the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce annual State of Higher Education Address May 23.

At UTEP, the nation’s underrepresented student demographic thrives, Merisotis said.

“The amount of border talent is not found at any other university in the nation,” he said. “There is a great complexity and enormous opportunity for students to benefit from the geographic location of the university.”

The Lumina Foundation is the nation’s largest private foundation that seeks to enroll and graduate larger numbers of higher education students. The organization’s objective is to expand access and success in education beyond high school, particularly for adult, first-generation and low-income students as well as those of color. Foundation resources are focused on system-level change that can lead to a large-scale impact on education.

The ultimate goal of the foundation is to increase the stagnant percent of Americans with high quality degrees to 60 percent from nearly 40 percent by the year 2025. Merisotis believes that “time is the enemy for people who want to earn degrees.” To get to 60 percent, he is attempting to foster a sense of urgency to streamline and accelerate the higher education process.

“Higher education needs to strive to provide accelerated attainment programs, urging students to attend school full time. By streamlining curriculum, students can better meet their goals,” Merisotis said. This is ever more important as the wage differentials for those who have college degrees compared to those who have high school diplomas continue to grow, he added.

“Individuals with a bachelor’s degree make an average of 84 percent more over their lifetimes than those with just a high school diploma,” he said. “This is an increase over the 75 percent differential in 1990.”

Merisotis opened up about the amount of intensive work the Foundation is completing in Texas to improve productivity at universities and colleges.

“Ultimately, we want to bring more people through to increase the capacity of academic institutions in an effort to both educate and graduate more students,” Merisotis said. “We continue to strive for a higher attainment rate for currently underrepresented students.”

Citing a Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce statistic, Merisotis brought the national numbers to the state level.

“Here in Texas, 56 percent of jobs will require a post-secondary degree by 2018,” he said. That being the case, “in the coming years, fewer and fewer jobs will be available to those who lack post-secondary education, with the best-paying jobs going to people with college degrees, especially in high demand fields.”

During the State of Higher Education Address address, Merisotis expressed the importance of changing the long-term problem of education attainment in El Paso.

“The nature of work changes in what we now see as a knowledge-based economy. This should alter the way the city looks at education,” he said. He urged business leaders to emphasize the importance of higher education to students at a young age. “Engaging in discussions and reaching out to early education institutions can reform and strengthen schools to get students on board early.”

Ultimately, Merisotis hoped to help the city of El Paso recognize ways to increase the 28 percent of El Paso residents who have an associate degree or higher. He and the Lumina Foundation aim to bring the number of degrees closer to the state average of 34 percent.

“The collaborative effort of the community and the university will continue to increase access to education,” Merisotis said. "The success of this will help UTEP reach its goal of graduating more students and, in turn, becoming the first Tier One university with a 21st century demographic. Students will embrace the fact that opportunity is always far better with skills. In turn, they will realize their dreams.”