10 lessons learned (and we're still learning) about achieving equitable postsecondary outcomes at scale

Graduation of South Brooklyn Community High School students in Brooklyn Heights, New York, June 25, 2008. Photo credit: Federico Rodriquez
Patrick Methvin
Blog Post

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the Meauxmentum Summit, a two-day conference for leaders from four Louisiana college systems representing all 28 of their public colleges and universities. Organized by the Louisiana Board of Regents, the gathering was designed for in-depth discussions with state government and institutional leaders about how they can work together to reach their statewide goal of having 60% of the state's adult population attain a postsecondary credential by 2030.

This was exciting because it’s not every day that you get to hear leaders across four college systems reflect on their progress to-date and work together to chart a path forward towards increasing economic mobility for all their state’s residents.

It reinforced for me something we’ve learned in our own work in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success strategy: whether it’s Tennessee’s “Drive to 55” or "Building a Talent Strong Texas" ” or California’s 70%, a compelling purpose and tangible targets are imperative to achieve equitable outcomes for students, families, and communities in an entire state. And when outcomes for students are equitable in states, we will have placed at least one piece in the puzzle for equitable student success nationwide.

Besides being back out in the field with our program officers and partners, which gives me enormous energy on its own, my time in Louisiana got me thinking. In so many ways, their approach reinforces much of what we know, because we’ve learned together, about what it takes to create equitable postsecondary access, completion, and value for students – and especially for Black, Latino, and Indigenous students, and students from low-income backgrounds, the focus of our national work.

I say ‘what we know’ and ‘learned together’ with acknowledgement that we are far from done. Our learning is ongoing, and as we learn, we adjust. But what I think we know so far, in addition to meaningful goals, about what is necessary for the changes we seek can be summarized in the following points:

  • A unifying framework for change is needed to connect the dots. Like the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s Ċangleṡka, the Seal of Excelencia, or the Guided Pathways framework for institutional transformation, a model for comprehensive change helps leaders and managers see discrete interventions that they may be working on, like developmental education reform or more intensive advising, within a broader vision for change for their institutions and, in turn, the contributions this will make across the system or the state. The Meauxmentum Framework presented by the Louisiana Board of Regents builds on pathways-type frameworks and offers a level of specificity that I think will be critical for the sustainability of the work within the state. 
  • Centering race and income is critical for equitable outcomes. Any framework that drives statewide and institutional change must be clear about the ultimate vision for the work. For us, that is a vision where students can achieve their educational goals and race, ethnicity, and income are no longer predictors of student success. We know that, after a decade of student success work focused on “low-income students” and sometimes “students of color” across the nation, we did not focus enough on racial equity in this work, and our results show it. For example, prior to the pandemic, graduation rates were trending upward, by roughly one percentage point gain each year, for almost a decade. However, we have still not shown how to ensure that those increases are equitable, regardless of race. Meauxmentum is very explicit about this, starting with the Governor and all the way through the Regents, state systems and institutions, and I know it will make the difference for Louisiana’s Black, Latino, and Indigenous students and students from low-income backgrounds, to focus explicitly on their success.
  • Aligned, multi-level leadership reduces fatigue. With a shared view of the goal and the approach in place, aligned leadership can help make sense of multiple efforts and reduce the “here we go again…” feeling that staff working at the initiative level often report. This requires leaders in institutions, and at multiple levels within institutions, along with cross-institutional organizers such as system heads and non-profit leaders, to be on the same page about what they’re trying to do and why. In Louisiana, institutional teams comprised of Presidents, Provosts, and leaders from academic and student affairs are working with statewide leaders Commissioner Kim Hunter Reed and Deputy Commissioner Tristan Denley to bring the statewide effort together. When leaders can stay the course, or leadership is handed off to someone who has been involved in the transformation effort, we’ve seen this increase the potential for sustained change over time.
  • Think in multi-year commitments to set realistic expectations. We know from our work with Completion by Design, the Frontier Set, and implementing guided pathways, that transformation does not happen for an institution overnight or even over the course of one year. Instead, transformation requires four to five-year commitments that turn into decades-long arcs that stay the course on improving outcomes for students and communities, often spanning leadership changes at an institution. Tracking early indicators that reflect realistic expectations and momentum and that predict completion, such as first-year retention and course credits completed, can show that the work is on the right track.
  • A learning mindset enables continuous improvement. Colleges and universities really making progress approach the changes in their institution with every insight at their disposal. They use disaggregated data to understand who college is working for and why; they use self-assessment of student experiences and college practices to understand where the next best opportunities are to improve; finally, they understand their learning approaches must involve leaders at every level – including students, faculty, administrators, and trustees. In all this, colleges that are successfully transforming take a continuous improvement approach; they realize that the work is, very likely, never going to be “done”.
  • Quality data and use of that data supports tangible progress. Colleges that have access to data for every student, every semester, that can disaggregate and intersect those data by student demographic, and that are regularly tracking outcomes for these students against the targets they have set, are the only colleges that know whether their efforts are making a difference for specific students. Through our investments we ask our partners to participate in the NSC Postsecondary Data Partnership because we don't see these insights available through current federally collected data sets, as well as share data with other experts, institutions, and researchers so that the field can learn along the way. The sharing aspect of quality data usage is important but requires trust and thoughtful agreements about data use.
  • Connections between institution leaders and with field experts can remove obstacles and build momentum. Similarly, our previous work with Completion by Design and statewide Guided Pathways colleges also showed us how important it is to keep colleges connected and working together towards collective goals. With access to each other, and access to reform experts in the state and beyond, college leaders are much more likely to learn, and share what they are learning with others, and this helps them remove obstacles and mitigate risks much more readily. For example, Meauxmentum raises up Louisiana-based college leaders along with national leaders such as Maxine Roberts from Strong Start to Finish or Nia Haydel from Complete College America to make sure colleges have access to relevant people and content when they need it, drawing on insights from across the country.
  • Aligned financial resources catapult institution progress. Statewide education agencies can accelerate college changes by making sure that actions are easy to take and help is easy to find. They can provide centralized project management or communications supports, offer technical assistance for data or technology-related interventions, find experts that can aid teams, and convene stakeholders so they can stay inspired and in sync. Forward-thinking policymakers at local, state, and federal levels also understand that funding needs to both consider and be responsive to the needs of institutions given historically inequitable funding, especially for Tribal Colleges and Universities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
  • Aligned policy adds fuel to the fire. When statewide policies allocate funding to transformation efforts, like the California legislature did for the state’s Guided Pathways movement, college leaders are emboldened to continue and accelerate their own push for change. Similarly, the Administration and Congress allocating $45 million this year for Postsecondary Student Success Program grants will help catalyze evidence-based interventions that foster college retention and completion among students close to graduation or who temporarily withdrew from school because of pandemic-related challenges, while a simplified FAFSA form on the way at the federal level will help accelerate smoother transitions for students.

What happens when all these pieces come together for the institutions participating in these multi-year efforts? This learning culminates in the working definition for ‘Institutional Transformation’ that we refer to in our work:

The realignment of an institution’s structures, culture, and business model to create a student experience that results in dramatic and equitable increases in outcomes and educational value.

Institutions transform by integrating evidence-based practices that create inclusive and coherent learning environments, and by leveraging a student-centered mission, catalytic leadership, strategic data use, and strategic finance in a robust continuous improvement process. 

What are you learning about transformation in colleges that leads to equitable student success? I’d love to hear and learn from you.