In all of the obsession about the economy, the deficit and Washington gridlock, we sometimes lose perspective on the fundamentals.

One of those fundamentals, the imperative of higher education, got some welcome attention last week at the Maine Compact for Higher Education’s sixth annual symposium.

The symposium is a time to reflect on the big issues of higher education and the way they relate to Maine. I look forward to this event because it draws leaders in educational policy from across the country and across the state.

This year was no exception. The keynote address was given by Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, the nation’s largest private foundation committed solely to higher education. Lumina is a pre-eminent force for innovation in higher education.

The foundation has the audacious goal of ensuring that by 2025, 60 percent of Americans will have high quality post-secondary degrees — half again as many as currently have them.

Merisotis has a strong connection to Maine. He is a Bates College graduate and member of the Bates board of trustees. Lumina currently supports several forward-looking initiatives of the Maine compact, such as an early college program for high school seniors, a wonderfully successful program for adult learners called College Transitions, and the Maine Employers’ Initiative — aimed at strengthening Maine employers’ support of enhanced education for their employees.

Make no mistake, Merisotis is passionate about transforming higher education, and he has lots of good ideas about how to do it. He started from an important point: that America desperately needs more college-educated citizens.

Before Merisotis’ address, we had this underlined in spades by Maine’s guru of the link between jobs and education attainment, John Dorrer.

Dorrer, formerly at the Department of Labor, is now program director of Jobs for the Future, a Boston think tank. He presented as compelling a case as I have seen on the value of a post-secondary degree.

The heart of Merisotis’ comments were his ideas for improving productivity in higher education.

These are much-needed initiatives to address the extraordinary fact that college tuition and fees have increased by more than 400 percent since the early 1980s, faster even than health care costs.

First is the idea that higher education funding should be based on performance or outcomes — such as increasing the rather dismal national public college graduate rate.

Second is an approach to provide incentives to reward students for completing courses and programs on time — or even ahead of schedule. Merisotis gave an example here of a program Lumina is helping fund that offers students incentives to earn an associate’s degree in one year instead of two or three years, as is currently the case.

Third is an approach to try lower-cost models of instruction. Technology is a key to these approaches, and Merisotis cited a program at Western Governor’s University, an online school, as one of the more promising in this realm.

Finally, he suggested a focus on old-fashioned business efficiencies such as regional purchasing and consolidation of administrative functions. One would think such efficiency approaches would have been applied long ago, but it seems that college campuses have been immune from such efforts until quite recently.

All of this was refreshing and hopeful. To me it was just the kind of work that a foundation like Lumina ought to be supporting. Clearly, it will have no hope of getting to its 60 percent goal without some of these innovations taking hold in a big way.

Not everyone shared my enthusiasm for these ideas. I moderated a panel to discuss these ideas that included Rich Pattenaude, chancellor of the University of Maine System, John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, and Meredith Jones, president of the Maine Community Foundation.

While generally supportive of Lumina’s efforts, Pattenaude and Fitzsimmons expressed concerns about some of Merisotis’ proposals, particularly performance-based funding. In truth, much of the detail of making such a proposal actionable and constructive remains to be worked out.

Despite their reservations, both system leaders realize that significant changes will be needed if their respective systems are going to be able to respond to the goal of significantly increasing post-secondary achievement in Maine.

We all left the symposium with a better understanding of the magnitude of the task and of its importance to the future of the Maine economy. We also left with the reassurance that Lumina is in this for the long haul. We will need its ideas and support.

CORRECTION: Last week I placed Adm. Greg Johnson’s carrier on which he heard “Victory at Sea” in the Tonkin Gulf. The carrier in question was actually in the Mediterranean.

Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant located in Portland. He can be contacted at [email protected]