Learning in action

Dan Greenstein

As an academic, I have always been fascinated and thrilled by the process of learning. As a parent, I experience great joy in watching my two children undertake their own learning journeys. And in my nearly six years at the foundation, my interest in learning has taken on new meaning and urgency. It has become clear to me that the change we seek to boost success for today’s college students absolutely depends on our ability and willingness to learn from our gains and setbacks and adapt our strategies.

So what are we learning in our higher education work at the foundation, and how will that shape our efforts moving forward? I’ve spent some time reflecting on this over the past several weeks as part of an annual stock-taking process, and can share a few insights that will guide our thinking and work in 2018 and beyond:

The demand for evidence-backed solutions to boost college access and success is real – and growing. For all of the talk about the inability and resistance to change in our enterprise, colleges and universities are increasingly seeking changes in policy and practice that will help them better serve their students. This interest is being driven by a convergence of forces, including:

  • Escalating financial pressures. The recent decision by Moody’s Investors Service to shift its fiscal outlook for higher education from “stable” to “negative” is one of several signs of possible trouble ahead, especially for less selective institutions.
  • Softening or declining enrollment. While this is certainly not the case everywhere, the overall enrollment slowdown adds to existing revenue pressures.
  • Rising scrutiny from the public and policymakers. New America found in 2017 that only one-quarter of those surveyed felt that higher education is “fine the way it is.” This is fueling an emerging debate about higher education’s value – and values.

Looking ahead, our efforts will focus on continuing to build demand for change at the campus, system, and state levels, as well as raising awareness among leaders outside of higher education about why developing and implementing strategies to boost access and success is so important at this point in time.

The supply of innovative solutions to boost student success is also growing – and improving. The field is beginning to coalesce around a number of student success solutions, such as redesigned developmental education, digital learning tools, and technology-enabled advising, that are aimed at some of the most prevalent and persistent sources of attrition for our students. Enrollment in online courses and programs continues to grow, as does the number of colleges and universities that are revamping their developmental education programs and adopting integrated planning and advising systems.

At the same time, the field is advancing in its understanding of what good looks like for these solutions, as well as which solutions work for which students. For example, campuses and systems in nearly half the states have signed on to core principles for redesigning developmental education that are grounded in research about effective supports for students. Additionally, the foundation’s Next Generation Courseware Challenge (NGC) has helped to establish a new industry standard for quality in courseware that can be applied to virtually every high-enrollment general education course.

Moving forward, the task will be to continue to deepen our knowledge about the effectiveness of these interventions, and to broaden field consensus about quality standards. More importantly, we will work with our partners and providers to promote widespread adoption and application of those standards.

Connecting supply and demand for solutions looms as the critical challenge. While the growth in both supply and demand is encouraging, we face some hard realities when it comes to implementing and scaling solutions. One is that the provider market in areas such as courseware is still in its infancy, which presents both cost and competitiveness challenges. Another is disparities in institutional capacity, with larger institutions often interested in growing their own solutions and smaller institutions struggling to afford solutions currently available in the field. A third is the siloed nature of our enterprise (and even our strategy at the foundation), where discrete but interrelated solutions (such as courseware and advising) are being developed and implemented in isolation.

We see this through our work in digital learning, where the NGC winners have struggled to gain a strong foothold in the market, but are beginning to make headway through strategic partnerships. It is also apparent in our work with our Frontier Set of institutions seeking to fundamentally change their academic and business models, where we and our partners have encountered gaps in access to technical expertise to support implementation of new approaches, as well as the need to better connect implementation efforts as part of a comprehensive change strategy.

This knowledge will help to sharpen and focus our work and investments in two critical respects. First, we will take a targeted approach to scale, identifying and working with colleges and universities that serve a critical mass of our target populations (low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults) and have the capacity and will to implement and integrate solutions. Second, we will work internally and with our key partners to develop and deploy tools, resources, and technical assistance to institutions that are pursuing change on multiple fronts (i.e. courseware, advising, developmental education reform) to ensure that the pieces fit together at the end of the day.

The unfolding debate about higher education’s value could aid – or frustrate – our efforts. While the vast majority of Americans still believe that education after high school is important for our economy and our communities, there is also mounting frustration and concern about cost and return on investment. Additionally, and perhaps of more concern, there is a growing sense that colleges and universities are more concerned about their image and bottom line than about helping their students succeed and get jobs. This is setting the stage for a debate about higher education’s direction that could provide needed momentum and urgency for scaling student success solutions, but could just as easily get caught up in the culture wars and take the focus away from today’s college students and their needs.

As such, we will maintain a relentless focus on raising the voices of our students and the change that is needed to help more of them achieve their educational goals. And we will also continue to push for a redefinition of prestige in higher education, one that is based on inclusivity and social mobility rather than exclusivity and price.  Finally, we will be a persistent advocate for closing equity gaps in higher education, until race, income, and zip code no longer determine a student’s chance for success.

There is clearly much more that we – all of us – still have to learn about increasing educational opportunity and success for a growing and changing nation. But it’s important to reflect candidly on what we already have learned, and then take action. Our students – including my children and yours – are counting on us to do just that.