Q&A: Jim Applegate, Lumina Foundation

Jim Applegate speaks at the 2013 Talent Dividend Meeting in Philadelphia
Jim Applegate speaks at the 2013 Talent Dividend Meeting in Philadelphia - Courtesy CEOs for Cities
Jim Applegate, Vice President of Strategic Impact for the Lumina Foundation, is driving change toward Goal 2025 -- the strategic initiative to achieve a 60 percent higher education attainment in the U.S. by the year 2025. (You can learn more about Lumina's strategic framework here).

You may have heard him speak at the 2013 National Talent Dividend Meeting in Philadelphia, where he delivered a rousing keynote about the imperative to not only increase levels of educational attainment but to do so equitably and with a slavish devotion to data.

We followed up with him via email about some of the ideas that stuck with us. 

Talent Dividend Network: Lumina's Goal 2025 (to attain 60% college completion rate in the U.S.. by 2025) is pretty audacious. Are we making progress toward that number? How do you see us ultimately reaching that goal?

Jim Applegate: We have seen consistent but modest growth in attainment levels, especially among our younger workforce, which is encouraging. However, the pace of change is far too slow. We need to mobilize our cities, states, and higher education systems to act with greater urgency. We have included in our latest strategic plan one among many scenarios that could be envisioned that lead us to the 60 percent goal by leveraging improvements in high school graduation, college going, and college completion that, while challenging, do not even require the national averages to exceed what our best states and systems are doing now. We are also paying strong attention to college opportunity for returning adults and the role of workforce-relevant certificates to give people the leg up they need in this economy.

In short, we believe Goal 2025 can be accomplished, but it will take all of us acting together with a great sense of urgency and a willingness to change the approaches that have not worked for us in the past.

TDN: Can you talk about the equity gap in college attainment? How can we be more honest about that inequity, and what can cities do to improve it?

The biggest challenge is to address the lack of fairness in the current system that slams the college door on so many low-income and students of color and to design pathways to college success that are accessible to the tens of millions of adults already in the workforce who need to come back. These are the talent pools that we must access if our country is to succeed. Since we already provide a four-year college degree to almost four out of five of the wealthiest 24-year-olds, we have pretty much tapped out that group.

I would suggest that the steps to accessing this talent that we desperately need to succeed as a country include good use of disaggregated data to identify the scope and nature of the challenge. After that, we must be willing to have courageous conversations about the ways which the system is unfair (e.g.., unfair allocation of resources of all types) and address those barriers. I do think as we have these conversations we must be willing to admit that in some cases we have been comfortable with these gaps because deep down some believe gaps exist because of who suffer from them are. As an American Studies major, it looks to me like the old Horatio Alger myth reborn: If "they" only worked hard enough, they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We must get beyond that myth and be willing to engage the voices of those being left out, understand the challenges from their perspective, look comprehensively at the systemic factors contributing to a lack of fairness, and work together to develop a shared agenda and plan of action for remodeling our system around a principle of opportunity. The consequences of not doing so are dire for our economy and our democracy. Even the child of the wealthiest family cannot escape the consequences of a society in which a sense of hope and opportunity have been lost by so many. A path to college success can provide that hope and that opportunity for a decent life.

Cities are the true laboratories for innovation where we will address these issues. At the end of the day, cities must work. They must have a workforce up to the talent demands of their employers. They must be safe and green and healthy. They depend on a vibrant civic infrastructure. These are all things an educated population helps make possible. I believe cities embrace the American tradition of pragmatism in a way that other levels of government seem to have abandoned to narrow ideological fighting. That problem-solving approach is what can lead to true collaboration for true impact is what Lumina is trying to support in our work with metropolitan regions.

TDN: Why tie college completion to a metropolitan strategy?

When they asked the bank robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, he famously replied, "Because that's where the money is!" So when we ask why Lumina is focusing on mobilizing metropolitan regions around Goal 2025, the similar answer is, "When you are trying to generate 23 million additional college credentials, you must go where the people are." In the U.S.., more than a third of our population lives in our top 20 metropolitan regions and two-thirds in our top 100 regions. The urbanization of America is continuing apace. If we do not come together across sectors, engage all of our people in understanding and addressing our education needs, and raise education levels in our urban centers, we are lost. The key term all. We are not 'fixing" people or doing things "to" people. We must engage one another in ways we have not done before and together remodel our collective home so that it serves the needs of all of our citizens.

TDN: Is three one thing - a single tested tactic - that a city should try to move the needle on college attainment? Lots of city leaders tell me they are focusing on working adults with some college and no degree, for instance - the "low-hanging fruit."

 Certainly returning adults should be a prime target for many cities. However, I think the key to success for any city is to do the hard work to identify what its one or two or three challenges are in moving the needle. That hard work includes the following:

A: Find credible champions to bring people together across multiple sectors (e.g., business and income groups in the city, local foundations)

B: Develop a sense of urgency (one mayor has called this a "survival strategy" for his city)

C: Commit to a data-driven solution and begin to develop that data system that can be used to identify problems and measure progress

D:Develop a shared agenda around three or four (not 20) key challenge areas that must be addressed initially;

E: identify where and how different partners are going to work to address the challenges;

F: Identify an organization that will drive the collaborative process on a daily basis - herd the cats, so to speak.

In this way each city can find the city can find the one, or two, or three things it must do to move the needle and will have gained commitment to the effort from its people along the way. Once that commitment is in place, the effective practices that have solved those challenges elsewhere can be identified and adapted.

Lumina, in fact, is committed to helping cities go through this process and provide the technical assistance to cities to implement these practices at scale. The exact nature of the adapted solutions will emerge over time through constant attention to data and what's working in a particular city.

TDN: What other advice do you have for cities competing for the Talent Dividend Prize?

 I believe the criteria, measurements, and "report cards" for the effort have been transparently defined. It is exciting to see the energy and momentum in so many cities that the prize has motivated.

However, in the long term, the real prize for every city will be the improvements in the education attainment being made through their collective work. In the long term, the economic payoff will dwarf the prize. So my only advice would be to know that the only way the improvements occur that make you competitive for the prize and more importantly, positioned for a bright future, is through the hard work of collaboration for true impact: collaboration grounded in a willingness to change and iterate solutions based on an almost religious commitment to the smart use of data.
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