The State of Higher Education Part 1:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 159 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. Courtney Brown

Table of Contents

Cover Photo for Changing Higher Education Podcast 159 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. Courtney Brown |The State of Higher Education Part 1 the Lumina Report
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

13 June · Episode 159

The State of Higher Education Part 1

25 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

Insightful discussion on The State of Higher Education report with one of the leading architects, Dr. Courtney Brown of the Lumina Foundation


Higher ed leaders can learn what 6,000 current students, 3,000 people who stopped out, and 3,000 more who never enrolled in a U.S. college or university say their barriers have been to finishing their education over three years. The results come from a study by the Lumina Foundation called “The State of Higher Education: Breaking down the barriers to student enrollment and retention” in partnership with Gallup.

In the first of a two-part podcast episode, Dr. Drumm McNaughton talks with one of The State of Higher Education’s leading architects, VP of Impact and Planning Dr. Courtney Brown of the Lumina Foundation, an independent private foundation that increased the number of states with attainment goals from one in 2008 to 48 today. It has also played a significant role in boosting the percentage of people in the U.S. with post-secondary credentials from 38% to 84% during the same period.

Dr. Brown discusses how “The State of Higher Education” was conducted, what questions were asked, and why students wanted to stop out in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Other discussion topics include how to access Lumina Foundation’s attainment tool and the Foundation’s three concentrations.

Podcast Highlights

  • The Lumina Foundation partnered with Gallup for The State of Higher Education and conducted the research in Fall 2020, 2021, and 2022. Early in the pandemic, participants were either unsure if they wanted to stay enrolled or still thinking about enrolling, but health and COVID concerns were at the forefront. People still valued post-secondary education and wanted to come back. In 2020, health concerns were the top reason for students thinking of stopping out.

  • In 2021, a large percentage of students said they were still thinking about stopping out, but the top reason was emotional stress. That number almost doubled from the year before. Reasons for the emotional stress included working full time, worrying about their family, and struggling to make ends meet. In the fall of 2022, a high percentage of students still considered stopping out because of emotional stress.

  • The Lumina Foundation, which ensures more people of color have opportunities not just to pursue but successfully complete a high-quality credential, releases an annual online tool called Stronger Nation, which breaks down where every state is regarding attainment by race and ethnicity. Since 2008, the Lumina Foundation has increased the number of states with an attainment goal from one to 48.

  • The Lumina Foundation has three different concentration areas: getting more people to enroll in post-secondary education, keeping them enrolled, and ensuring they complete a post-secondary credential that is high-quality, employment-aligned, and not dead ends.


About Our Podcast Guest – Dr. Courtney Brown

Courtney Brown, Ph.D., is vice president of impact and planning for Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making learning opportunities beyond high school available to all. As the chief data and research officer, Brown oversees the Foundation’s strategic planning, learning, impact, and effectiveness efforts. She also leads Lumina’s international engagement.

She joined the foundation in 2011 with a strong background in performance measurement, research, and evaluation. Before 2011, Brown was a senior research associate at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University. There, she led studies and evaluations focused on education and post-high school programs within the United States and across Europe.

Brown is a frequent speaker and panelist in the United States and other countries regarding postsecondary strategy, student success, data-driven decision-making, and evidence-based practices. She has developed and shared manuals, working papers, articles, and books on undergraduate research, performance measurement, randomized control trials, and other evaluation methods. She has also conducted webinars and workshops on evaluation, performance measurement, and success in education beyond high school.

Dr. Courtney Brown on LinkedIn →


About the Host

Dr. Drumm McNaughton, the host of Changing Higher Ed®, is a consultant to higher ed institutions in governance, accreditation, strategy and change, and mergers.


Go to Part 2 of this 2-part series on The State of Higher Education →


Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 159 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. Courtney Brown

The State of Higher Education Part 1


Welcome to Changing Higher Ed, a podcast dedicated to helping higher education leaders improve their institutions, with your host, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, CEO of the Change Leader, a consultancy that helps higher ed leaders holistically transform their institutions. Learn more at And now, here’s your host, Drumm McNaughton.


Drumm McNaughton 

Thank you, David.


Our guest today is Dr. Courtney Brown, vice president of impact and planning for Lumina Foundation, an independent private foundation located in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. As Lumina’s chief data and research officer, Courtney oversees the Foundation’s strategic planning, learning, impact, and effectiveness efforts. She also leads Lumina’s international engagement.


Courtney is an expert in post-secondary strategy, student success, data-driven decision-making, and evidence-based practices. She joins us today to talk about Lumina’s most recent study on the State of Higher Education for 2023, Breaking Down the Barriers to Student Enrollment and Retention. Courtney, welcome to the program.


Courtney Brown  01:25

Thank you. I’m so happy to be with you.


Drumm McNaughton  01:27

I’m looking forward to our conversation. This is going to be a great one. But before we get into it, you’re with Lumina Foundation, which has done some incredible things in higher ed. Tell us about your background and how you came to Lumina.


Courtney Brown  01:44

Yes, sure. I have been at Lumina for about 12 years, which seems like just a minute ago. I came to Lumina from a university. I was a research faculty member, evaluating programs and performing research. I had done a lot of work with the Department of Education on its performance measurement system and helped the Department create a measurement system for its gap reports or annual reports for its grantees.


About the same time Lumina began, the Department launched this new goal, which I’ll talk about in a minute. They were looking toward metrics and what kind of metrics they and the nation could hold themselves accountable to. Given my background in that and my interest in exploring a new opportunity, it was the perfect marriage. So I came in and worked on creating this performance metric system for Lumina. And you can see much of that in our Stronger Nation report and the other things we can talk about throughout our time together.


Drumm McNaughton  02:50

That’s fabulous. I’m guessing the work you did with the Department was back during the Bush and Obama administrations?


Courtney Brown  02:59

Yes. Pre-Obama times? Yes.


Drumm McNaughton  03:03

That was interesting because it was the first real focus on accountability, metrics, and education.


Courtney Brown  03:12

Yes. A lot of it was about the Department’s programs. So how do you know somebody’s being successful? What outputs and outcomes should organizations look for? And also understanding if the grantees are making any progress. That’s what we are trying to capture.


Drumm McNaughton  03:28

And Lumina has done a fabulous job with that since you joined and even before. Please give us a little background about Lumina because some of our listeners may not know what Lumina is.


Courtney Brown  03:40

Yes, absolutely. Lumina was formed in about 2000. We’re a private foundation. Our headquarters are in Indianapolis, but we are a national foundation. Our current CEO Jamie Merisotis joined in 2008 and set a goal for the nation. And that goal is that by 2025, 60% of people in the United States will have a post-secondary credential. So we focus all our efforts on achieving that goal.


When Lumina set that goal in 2008, the nation was at about 38%. That’s 38% of adults ages 25 to 64 who hold a high-quality credential. In our most recent data from 2021, we’re close to 84%. So the nation has made tremendous progress over that time, and Lumina was a part of helping set that agenda.


Drumm McNaughton  04:38

That’s fabulous. I didn’t realize it was as high as it is. What are some of the levers that you push at Lumina that got us past 60%?


Courtney Brown  04:49

We focus on a couple of things. First of all, we have a foundation in racial equity. We want to ensure that more people of color—especially Blacks, Latinos, Hispanics, and Native Americans—have opportunities to not just pursue but successfully complete a high-quality credential.


Every year we put out an online tool called Stronger Nation that’s accessible to anyone. You can google “Stronger Nation Lumina Foundation,” and you’ll see it. It shares where every state is with regard to attainment, and it breaks that down by race and ethnicity. When you look at that data, you can see a troubling trend. While everyone has been increasing since 2008, there are still gaps that exist between Asians and Whites on one hand and Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans on the other.


What we’re trying to do is break down systemic barriers that minority, low-income, and other students are facing so that they have these opportunities to successfully complete their degrees. One of the first things we did was work to make sure that every state in the nation had its own goal that made the most sense for them. When we set that national goal in 2008, only Hawaii had an attainment goal. As of today, 48 states have attainment goals that they are working towards.


Drumm McNaughton  06:17

Wow. 48 states. That’s amazing. I won’t ask you who the two states are that don’t have them.


Courtney Brown  06:21

Yeah. Okay. I’ll tell you offline.


Drumm McNaughton  06:25

You work with government officials, universities, colleges, and more to help increase this attainment rate?


Courtney Brown  06:36

That right. We work with policymakers, systems, institutions, and intermediaries to help change the system. We don’t do boutique or small programs. We don’t offer small scholarships or anything like that. We want to ensure we are making sustainable change that’s going to have a positive impact on everyone.


Drumm McNaughton  06:57

That’s fascinating. Give me an example of one of the programs that you do.


Courtney Brown  07:02

There are so many. Currently, we are working on ensuring we have three different concentration areas. The first focuses on participation and getting more people to enroll in post-secondary education or short-term credentials like certificates, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees.


But participation is not enough. To be successful, you have to stay enrolled and persist. So our second concentration area, student success, ensures students stay enrolled and complete a post-secondary credential.


Our third concentration area is employment-aligned credentials. We recognize that people want to get a credential because they need a job on the other end, and quality credentials lead to further education and employment. So we make sure there are no dead-end credentials and that they have value in the marketplace. To that end, we put a lot of effort into making sure institutions and organizations are providing high-quality credentials to protect students so they have something that’s opening the door to further employment.


Drumm McNaughton  08:18

That makes a lot of sense. I just had a guest on the program, Matt Frank, who works for Salesforce but has become an expert on credentials. Our conversation was interesting because we discussed that there are well over a million credentials out there. And one of the challenges is if they are relevant. Who’s accrediting them? There isn’t anybody other than maybe the AMA [the American Medical Association] saying, “We approve this credential.” It’s kind of like the Wild West with credentials. Is Lumina moving into that type of accreditation of credentials?


Courtney Brown  08:59

That’s a great question. When we set the goal in 2008, we said that by 2025, 60% would hold a high-quality post-high school credential. That includes certificates, certifications, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and beyond. When we set the goal, though, we could only count degrees. But since that time, we have found nationally representative data that says Lumina can measure certificate and certification attainment also, which you can see in our Stronger Nation report.


So to answer your question, yes. We are absolutely in that space. But we make sure that they are high-value certificates and certifications. By that, I mean they are not dead-end credentials, as I said. They can lead to further education. We talk a lot about stacking nowadays, and post-secondary education can stack credentials onto other credentials, as well as lead to employment. That’s why our focus on employment-aligned credentials is so important. We want to make sure no one is spending lots of money on a credential that won’t lead them anywhere. We want to protect the student.


Drumm McNaughton  10:06

Some of the complaints I hear from graduates is that their degrees aren’t leading them anywhere.


Courtney Brown  10:15

There’s definitely a narrative out there in the media that people don’t value higher education or their credentials are not leading them anywhere. I’m not going to say that all of them are good. There are many credentials that are not high quality. So a lot of the work we do makes sure that there are high-quality credentials that do lead to employment. But the data we see from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce says that these credentials lead to incredible income more than those without a credential. So there is an incredible value in having these credentials.


Drumm McNaughton  11:00

It makes sense to me. But you’re right. There is that narrative out there, especially if you’re a history major or something along those lines, especially if you’re not a STEM graduate. We all know that’s not true. But that’s the perception that’s out there. And the way things are going right now with the media, if it gets printed, we know it has to be the truth, right?


Courtney Brown  11:25



Drumm McNaughton  11:27

So that’s a good background for what we’re going to talk about on this podcast. The next one is “The State of Higher Ed.” Now, Courtney, let’s talk about what’s happening in higher education. You have the studies. But before we get into those, let’s set the stage. Higher ed has a few challenges, doesn’t it?


Courtney Brown  11:50

Higher ed does have a few challenges. As I said, we’ve made tremendous progress over the last 15 years with regard to attainment. It’s absolutely increased. But we’re not where we need to be. The system isn’t serving today’s students.


Drumm McNaughton  12:06

That’s an interesting statement—not serving today’s students. Is that from a generational perspective? Is that because of the situation we’re in? Is it all of the above? Is it more than that?


Courtney Brown  12:17

It’s all of the above. If you were to ask most people who were college students, they would say that at 19 years old, they graduated from high school, went on to college, lived somewhere on campus for four years, graduated, and then got a job. Unfortunately, that could not be further from the truth.


Today’s students are older. They’re more racially diverse. They’re facing multiple barriers. You might be surprised to know that almost 40% of today’s college students are over 25 years old. Almost half of today’s college students are first-generation college-goers. They didn’t have parents or family members who went to college. Also, 42% of college students are students of color. Even more surprising to many people is that 64% of college students work, and 40% of them work full time. So they’re working full time and going to class.


Drumm McNaughton  13:19

That doesn’t seem sustainable to me.


Courtney Brown  13:23

Well, it’s hard. Let me add one more thing. There’s plenty more, but I’ll stick with one. A quarter of college students have children or other dependents. So they’re older, working full time, and have dependents. They’re facing financial hardship all at the same time while they’re trying to go to school. So we have all of that happening. And then we got hit by a pandemic.


Drumm McNaughton  13:48



Courtney Brown  13:51

Surprise! All of these things have come together to create this moment. We’d already been seeing enrollment decline for the last decades, probably across the board, and then the pandemic hit. It just exacerbated everything, creating that incredibly steep decline. We saw it clearly with the community colleges at first. But now, four-year institutions are experiencing a slow decline, and they’re not coming back from that. They stabilized at the bottom. They’re not hemorrhaging as much, but they are still losing students. It might look like a small percentage, but together, it’s a lot of students.


So when you were thinking about who today’s students are and the current situation we’re under, it is problematic that we’re not going to be able to have the talent we need as a country unless we address this head-on.


Drumm McNaughton  14:43

I read something recently that enrollment has finally increased to above pre-Recession levels. Since the pandemic, we’ve lost well over a million, if not 1.2 or 1.3 million students. And the enrollment is still down significantly.


Courtney Brown  15:04

Yes. We are not back to pre-pandemic levels. What’s happened is that we’ve just stabilized at the bottom.


Drumm McNaughton  15:10

But we are starting to see some recovery with community colleges.


Courtney Brown  15:15

But for four years, not so much. They are stabilizing. So that’s good. And many four-year institutions have yet to see this problem. Many elite institutions didn’t have a problem and won’t have a problem. But the four-year and two-year colleges where the majority of students in the United States go are experiencing an enrollment crisis. They are having issues getting those first-time enrollments and getting people to persist.


The National Student Clearinghouse released a report last month that 40 million people in the U.S. enrolled in a two- or four-year institution and, for whatever reason, stopped out along the way. That’s an insane number. That’s about 25% of 25- to 64-year-olds. That’s a lot of people.


Drumm McNaughton  16:36

If you’re an enrollment manager, director, or VP at a university, those should be people you are targeting to bring back, am I right?


Courtney Brown  16:47

Absolutely. The Clearinghouse’s most recent report looked at students who had a couple of credits already under their belt and said these are students who will more likely come back and complete. I think most of them are more likely to come back and complete a two-year credential. They’re getting older and need to obtain a credential faster that’s going to provide value in the marketplace. But there are still a third of those students who are coming back and completing bachelor’s degrees.


So both two- and four-year institutions need to begin thinking about these more than 40 million people. Unfortunately, we know that number is even higher, given the 1.5 million you mentioned. So those numbers have just added to that 40 million. I think that data is from 2021.


Drumm McNaughton  17:41

Playing directly into your statement about not serving today’s students, these students have different needs. As you said, they work full-time and are caregivers for children or elderly parents. They have health and job concerns. There’s a community college I’m aware of in Hawaii that received a significant grant about six years ago and put in childcare facilities on campus. At the time, I was thinking, “This is crazy.” It wasn’t. It was brilliant.


Courtney Brown  18:23

Absolutely. Food pantries, childcare, transportation, and all these types of programs and services are a tremendous help to students today.


Drumm McNaughton  18:32

Focusing on today’s students again, online education is a way to help, is it not?


Courtney Brown  18:44

Absolutely. But online education alone is not sufficient. It has to be good online education. We learned early on during the pandemic when everybody was racing to put everything online that that wasn’t working for some people. Isolation was especially hard for many. It’s important to think of ways to better engage with students, like coming up with blended models where there’s some synchronous and asynchronous learning. But they must also connect with students so they have a sense of belonging, which is so important to students.


Drumm McNaughton  19:13

That feeling of belonging also has some mental health aspects to it as well.


Courtney Brown  19:19

100% Yes.


Drumm McNaughton  19:21

That’s a good segue into talking about your latest reports. This is the third one you’ve done. Just by reading the executive summary, I can see you partnered with Gallup to conduct this third consecutive administration study to systemically understand the experiences of currently enrolled students and the attributes and beliefs about higher education among unenrolled adults, including those with previous post-secondary experience.


Courtney Brown  19:54

Yes. We started this study in the fall of 2020 during the heat of the pandemic when everyone was trying to guess what would happen with students and enrollment. We know from history that during recessions, enrollment goes up, right? The jobs disappear, and enrollment goes up. So people were saying, “Well, maybe this is like a recession? Enrollment is going to skyrocket.” Others were saying it could plummet. Nobody really knew. But everyone was writing about it.


So we said, “Well, maybe we should ask students what they’re planning on doing or ask people who have never enrolled?” That’s exactly what we did in the fall of 2020. We reached out to the three populations you talked about—those who are currently enrolled, some of the 40 million who had stopped out, and people who had never enrolled and/or never touched higher ed. We asked, “What’s going on? Are you thinking about enrolling? If not, what’s holding you back? Are you going to stay enrolled?”


Early in the pandemic, we learned that a lot of people were unsure if they wanted to stay enrolled. Or they were still thinking about enrolling, but health concerns were at the forefront. They were too worried about COVID and their families getting sick. They had to work to help support their families and whatnot. That wasn’t surprising. But we still saw that people valued post-secondary education. They still wanted to come back.


So we did that in the fall of 2020. In the fall of 2021, we decided to do it again. We had a vaccine now and wanted to see what changed, if anything. Surprisingly, we still saw a large percentage of students who said they were thinking about stopping out. For those students, one of the questions we asked was why. In 2020, the number-one reason was health concerns. In 2021, the number-one reason was emotional stress. It almost doubled. It was unreal. You don’t normally see that in survey research. Some of it was because of the stressors we were talking about. They are working full-time. They’re worried about their family. They are struggling to make ends meet.


Then did it again in the fall of 2022, and there was still this high percentage of students across the board who were considering stopping out because of emotional stress. We learned other things, too. We can get into some of these findings, like what are the people who have never enrolled saying and what are the barriers enrolled students are facing.


Drumm McNaughton  22:34

I was pretty amazed with who you interviewed. You had a very good cross-section. Obviously, your expertise as a researcher came through on this one. You interviewed over 6,000 students who are currently enrolled, more than 3,000 who stopped out, and 3,000-plus who never enrolled. It was a really good balance, and you were able to ask tough questions to the students.


Courtney Brown  23:06

Absolutely.  This year, we also followed up with qualitative data. So if you look at our report, you’ll see some quotes and some of the richer information that tell a better story.


Drumm McNaughton  23:27

For those of you who are listening, we’ll have those links with the show notes. So tell us a little bit about the demographics of your study.


Courtney Brown  23:38

So beyond what you just shared, we also wanted to make sure we had a good cross-section of regions in the US, as well as race and ethnicity. We wanted to speak to the Black student experience, the Latino student experience, and show different barriers that people may be facing based on age, race, and gender, etc. We focused on what the people who had stopped out, never enrolled, or were current students were facing. And then, we disaggregated by sector, along with two-year and four-year certifications.


Drumm McNaughton  24:22

That’s great. Join us next week for the conclusion of our talk with Dr. Courtney Brown to hear the results of the study and what higher ed leaders can do to enroll the 40 million students who have stopped out of higher ed.



Changing Higher Ed is a production of the Change Leader, a consultancy committed to transforming higher ed institutions. Find more information about this topic and show notes on this episode at If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the show. We would also value your honest rating and review. Email any questions, comments, or recommendations for topics or guests to Changing Higher Ed is produced and hosted by Dr. Drumm McNaughton. Post-production is by David L. White.




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