Among the nation’s most influential foundations, the Indianapolis- based Lumina Foundation for Education has established itself as a leading supporter of higher education access programs and research. Seeking to make the foundation more active in shaping public policy, Lumina officials last year turned to Jamie Merisotis, a veteran policy and research organization leader, to lead the foundation as its newest president.
Known in higher education circles for his role as the former president and founder of the Washington-based Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), Merisotis became Lumina’s president this past January. His wife, Colleen O’Brien, the director of the Washington-based Pell Institute at the Council for Opportunity in Education, will soon join him in Indianapolis with their two young children. Although Merisotis, 44, did not seek the job, he’s pleased that he came under consideration for it and sees his appointment as a chance to build upon IHEP’s accomplishments and other higher education work he’s done.
“I think the great opportunity I have here is that my life’s work has been about the mission of the Lumina Foundation, which is increasing access and success beyond high school,” Merisotis says.
With assets valued at roughly $1.4 billion, Lumina is among the 50 largest private foundations in the United States. Its payout to grantees is $50 million annually. The foundation, initially called the USA Group Foundation based on its affiliation with the USA Group loan servicing company, became a major foundation in 2000, according to foundation officials.
Says John Mutz, the Lumina Foundation chair and a former lieutenant governor of Indiana, “We’re now moving to the phase in our work in which we want to be deeply involved in public policy. We’ve been involved in public policy in the past in terms of doing research, but now we’re going to be stepping into the public policy arena, probably at the state level to begin with and maybe later at the federal level. And Jamie has a lot of experience in that.”
A native of Manchester, Conn., Merisotis talks candidly about his own modest family background as one of four sons to working class parents of Greek origin. He credits his parents for instilling in him the desire and belief in higher education as an avenue for life success. With scholarships, Pell Grant funds, loans and part-time work as the basis of his college finances, Merisotis earned a bachelor’s from Bates College in Maine, and he gravitated to Washington where he found work as a policy researcher.
“I began my career somewhat by happenstance as a policy researcher at the College Board. I knew I wanted to work in the policy context after I graduated from college,” Merisotis says. “In that initial work at the College Board, I came to realize how powerful an effective higher education has not only on individuals but on us as a society … . I really committed myself very early out to this idea that increasing access to success really matters,” he adds.
Although he had not thought about leaving IHEP, which now has 20 employees and an annual budget of $5 million, Merisotis says the Lumina Foundation presidency offers intriguing possibilities.
“We’re very much on the front end of thinking how we can contribute to really innovative, out-ofthe- box new ideas, particularly policy ideas, that might help accelerate progress on increasing college access,” he says.
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