Deputy Director for Higher Education
The New America Foundation
Amy Laitinen is deputy director for Higher Education at the New America Foundation, focusing on federal policies to increase quality and transparency in higher education. She previously worked as a policy advisor to the undersecretary and assistant secretary for vocational and adult education at the U.S. Department of Education and served as a policy advisor to the White House on community college issues.
A product of public higher education, Ms. Laitinen holds an associate degree from Miami-Dade Community College, a bachelor’s degree from New College of Florida, and a master’s degree in public policy from the University of California at Berkeley.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently named Laitinen as one top ten innovators of 2013 for her work on competency-based education.
Q&A with Amy Laitinen
What do you believe we can do for working learners and to advance the nation’s movement toward competency-based education?
One of the key challenges in terms of scaling competency-based education is that efforts are incredibly fragmented. We have multiple people in multiple sectors focusing on specific pieces, but not working together. Until these pieces come together, it’s hard to imagine how we will create a national learning economy. The ACT Foundation focuses on the population—working learners—and not just a particular sector, which means we can play a key role in filling in the gaps and bringing disparate perspectives and efforts together.
What kind of changes are needed in order to support working learners?
I think people understand the value of credentials, but as college is getting increasingly expensive, record numbers of individuals are asking, “Is college worth it? What is the point of education?” At the same time, people are learning outside of the classroom/educational institutions but are not getting any credit for it. We need to change this.
So, are you talking about changing how we define “learning”?
We talk a lot about learning but we don’t actually look at learning, and at what people know and can do. A student could spend $50,000 getting an undergraduate degree in something completely unrelated to law and apply to be a paralegal, while someone who has worked in a law firm may have a ton of real-world knowledge and know-how that a paralegal would need, but if her firm requires her to have a degree, she’s out of luck. We need to put greater emphasis on the outcomes of learning, not modality or location.
How do we make this work differently from other foundations and organizations?
One of the most exciting things to me about the Foundation is the “treasure trove” of real-time data we have. We can use the data to figure out what skills matter and what are the key learning indicators and economic trends. Few organizations have this edge, so our research will stand out.
Why were you eager to join the ACT Foundation Board?
I see this as a great opportunity to show that “education” should be broadly defined, and should be about learning regardless of where and when it happens. I am also excited by the idea of bringing disparate groups together around learning. A key focus of the Foundation is to increase equity, transparency, and outcomes in education and workforce systems, which allows us to be much more entrepreneurial in finding good leverage points to fill the gaps and connect the dots where needed.
If we could answer one really big question, what would it be?
What are the common competencies across industries and disciplines? There are commonalities among all of the economic sectors—and we have good examples like in manufacturing—but we need to be bold in articulating the commonalities so we can recreate a learning taxonomy.
What does success look like?
Longer term, I think we can be the go-to place for those who want to learn about learning. I want to see us build a community of entrepreneurs that could include traditional models and institutions, but also those who want to break out of the mold. There are a lot of people trying to innovate in this space but are disconnected or misinformed. The ACT Foundation can help cut through this confusion.