A transformation moment

Institutional Transformation
Patrick Methvin
Blog Post

A transformation moment

For the last several years, we at the Gates Foundation have been using the term “institutional transformation” a lot when it comes to our work with colleges and universities. For us, transformation means fundamental change in an institution’s organization, operations, and culture, all geared toward dramatically increasing student success and eliminating race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of that success. That reflects our core beliefs that students must be at the center of all we do in higher education, that racial and socioeconomic equity must be our “north stars,” and that colleges and universities are essential actors for change.

Recently a colleague asked me, “When is institutional transformation really going to happen? How will we know we have reached a transformation moment?”

Those are excellent questions, and we have evidence that provides answers to both. I would argue that transformation is already happening and has been for some time. More than a decade ago, we launched Completion by Design, an initiative to boost student success at community colleges. Nine colleges across three states posted impressive gains over the course of the initiative, with all the institutions meeting their initial benchmarks for equitable student success (e.g. credit completion) three years ahead of schedule. This was followed by the Frontier Set, which expanded transformation to four-year colleges and universities and state university systems. A number of Frontier Set members are already posting substantial gains in student outcomes, including institutions as diverse as Sinclair Community College and Northern Arizona University.

In terms of knowing whether we have reached a “transformation moment,” I believe that the moment has come. Pressure is building for colleges and universities to rethink their academic and business models, accelerated by continuing enrollment declines. At the same time, public confidence in higher education and its ROI is wavering, paired with a recognition that more investment in our colleges and universities is needed – especially those serving Black, Latino, and Indigenous students and students from low-income backgrounds. Additionally, institutional leaders sense this moment, as a recent survey found that nearly three quarters (71%) of presidents say their institutions must fundamentally change their business models or other operations. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a summit hosted by Secretary of Education Cardona and the U.S. Department of Education, and the energy around redefining excellence in terms of inclusivity and mobility was palpable.

So it is up to us – all of us, including funders – to meet the moment. For our part, we are announcing today that we are committing $100 million over the next five years to expand and accelerate transformation at the nation’s colleges and universities, building on a decade of work and learning, including that of our Intermediaries for Scale. We are proud to support the work of six outstanding non-profit organizations to lead this work:

  • American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU): A Washington, D.C.-based higher education association of nearly 400 public colleges, universities, and systems whose members share a learning- and teaching-centered culture, a historic commitment to underserved student populations, and a dedication to research and creativity that advances their regions’ economic progress and cultural development.

  • American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC): AIHEC serves as the unifying voice of the Tribal Colleges and Universities as they strive to achieve excellence in Tribal higher education.

  • Complete College America (CCA): A national advocacy organization, representing an alliance of 48 states and postsecondary systems, working to dramatically increase college completion rates and close institutional performance gaps through data-driven policy and practice.

  • Excelencia in Education: A national organization that accelerates Latino student success in higher education to enhance our workforce, leadership, and economy.

  • Growing Inland Achievement (GIA): A regional K-16 education collaborative that works to achieve economic and educational equity in California’s Inland Empire region.

  • UNCF: A national membership organization dedicated to sustaining Historically Black Colleges and Universities while empowering the students and communities HBCUs serve.

Collectively, these organizations already reach nearly 900 institutions and more than half of all postsecondary students in the U.S. Over the next five years, these intermediaries will support at least 250 diverse colleges and universities in transformation planning and execution.

Our intermediary investments are built around four core activities. One is to increase awareness of promising and effective transformation strategies for equitable student success among campus leaders and communities. A second is to provide information to institutional decision-makers about their options for change. Third, intermediaries will offer guidance and resources for adopting, implementing, evaluating, and sustaining changes in policy and practice at scale. Finally, intermediaries are charged with making connections across colleges and universities and other supporting organizations to accelerate learning and sharing of promising practices for equitable transformation.

The transformation effort led by the intermediaries is the first of its kind at this scale in American higher education. For this reason, the foundation and the intermediaries are committed to carefully documenting progress and lessons from the work and making them widely accessible to engage even more colleges and universities in the transformation conversation.

If your institution is committed to continuing to evolve to meet the needs and aspirations of Black, Latino, and Indigenous students, and students from low-income backgrounds, I encourage you to connect with the intermediaries named here to learn more about their supports and services. Working together, we can meet this transformation moment.