Q&A: Susan Johnson, Lumina Foundation

Susan Johnson, Lumina Foundation
Susan Johnson, Lumina Foundation - Courtesy Lumina
College success in many ways is simple: It means making sure students don't just enroll in college, but persist and complete a certificate or degree. You either graduate or you don't. But on the ground, the picture of college success can be complex. As a culture and as a community, how do we support students who attend part-time? Those who enroll in a two-year community college with the intention to transfer to a four-year school? Adults who drop out, then return? First-generation students who lack a support system to solve problems and stay in school? Students who rely on financial aid?

The Lumina Foundation's Goal 2025 is similarly multi-faceted. Increasing the percentage of degree holders in the U.S. by 2025 is a simple challenge -- until you consider how many different strategies must work in harmony to move that needle in communities across the country. We spoke to Lumina Foundation Program Officer Susan Johnson about the many tactics at work to reach students at every point in the pipeline, and why Lumina's efforts pair so well with the work of CEOs for Cities and the Talent Dividend.

Talent Dividend Network: How do you define college success, and what does it mean to improve it? 
Susan Johnson: For Lumina, success wraps around our Goal 2025: to increase the number of people with a quality credential or degree to 60% by 2025. We've been at about 40% for decades and it's simply unacceptable to maintain that level and still move ahead in the global economy. Our numbers aren't where they should be compared to a generation ago. 
Success icludes adult learners, underrepresented students, Veterans -- the twenty-first century students entering the pipeline at varying points in time, or for the first-time, or full-time. Our adult completion effort -- helping those adults with some college but no degree -- has been a good way to seek out individuals within a city or a state and tie that in to what that means for that city in terms of economic development. 
TDN: What's changing in efforts to improve college success? 
SJ: Well, not much has changed in higher education, which is why we're not seeing the increases in completion that we need to see. We are in this comfort zone where there's no push of the status quo -- there's little push to seek out or assist students that are first generation or coming from various backgrounds. These struggles were there 30 years ago. Higher ed hasn't been very open to new approaches that might render greater success, which is where Lumina comes in. 
Transforming higher ed is not an easy task, but there are innovations we can test in the water and see what is attractive to academia, to policy makers, and to families that would benefit student success overall -- things like degree qualifications profiles, which measure competency-based learning as opposed to credit hours, and prior learning assessments -- the idea that where you got the information doesn't matter; what matters is that you learned something and you can prove it. 
TDN: Can you give an example of how the Lumina Foundation has chosen to support college success? 
SJ: In our work around Latino student success, we are looking at place-based efforts. It's our first endeavor where we're directly seeking the assistance of community-based organizations, local governments, policy-makers, K-12. As a community, it matters. Whether you're an existing Latino community or an emerging one, you need all of these entities to come together to tackle the issue of Latino student success and look at the pipeline from high school or earlier into post-secondary, and to realize that people are coming in at different points throughout the pipeline. 
We funded work that was already happening -- we weren't able to do a large amount for every city but we wanted to help people scale up. That's a new area for us and I'm excited to see how that plays out, and we're just now entering into an implementation phase. 
TDN: In your work across the country, have you seen any especially effective strategies for improving college success? 
SJ: An interesting piece of our work with adult learners was with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). They have a Plus 50 Initiative focused on students over the age of 50. They have had tremendous success in partnering with community colleges, bringing in people that have been displaced, laid off, or are trying to get additional training. Older Americans are needing to work longer, and AACC is leading efforts to educate older students about coming into community colleges, completing prior learning assessments, and helping them to complete degrees they may have started long ago but didn't finish. They've seen a significant uptick, and they were able to ratchet up their efforts because of our funding -- which allowed them to seek other funding. 
We recognize that not everyone is going to start off at a four-year insitution. The number of transfers from two- to four-year schools -- that's extremely important. We were one of the first foundations to focus on community colleges before it became commonplace. With Achieveing the Dream, we looked at how community colleges can improve success through data-driven decision making. 
TDN: What advice would you offer to cities competing for the Talent Dividend Prize? 
SJ: In order for any city to strive toward the Talent Dividend, there needs to be consistent and open communication. When I look at the cities making the most progress, it's because they're actively engaged within the community. It's constant, it's regular, and even if they don't "win the prize," they have shown a commitment to what it means for the community. There's a difference between cities that are interested in the prize and those that truly recognize what it would mean for their community, regardless of the prize. Those with that level of consciousness -- that no matter what, beyond the prize, they realize that this will have an impact -- will come out ahead regardless.
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