Three emerging bright spots in our US Program work that have me inspired in 2024

Lunessa and student at UMass Dartmouth
Lunessa, OneGoal alum and student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, shares her story about her college journey. Image source: OneGoal

At the start of a new year, colleagues, funders, and others often ask me where I see bright spots in our work to ensure equitable academic and economic outcomes for everyone, especially for Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds – who often lack access to the best practices and supports that we know drive student success.

I don’t have to look far to find examples, and I’m inspired by what we’re learning from our partners and seeing in the field. There are many I could choose from, but in looking at our U.S. Program work, three themes come to mind where bright spots are emerging: embracing how new technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), can be leveraged to improve student experiences in math; spurring the higher education system to deliver and more clearly demonstrate the value of a college education; and ensuring equitable access to pathways programs that help K-12 students transition successfully to credentials and careers.

AI is already beginning to drive changes in every sector of our lives, but I’m particularly interested in how AI can help teachers and school districts improve instructional practices and increase student engagement. We’re starting to see more of this across our K-12 partnerships, including one example that stands out to me: TeachFX.

TeachFX is an AI-powered tool that helps promote more meaningful and equitable classroom dialogue by giving teachers actionable analysis. With this tool, teachers can audio-record their lessons and receive digestible info on things like the ratio of how much the teacher is talking compared to students, which questions are getting students engaged, and other insights that allow teachers to reflect with data on the classroom experience they are creating.

Educators who use TeachFX see a meaningful difference in student participation: English learners speak nearly twice as much, students with disabilities speak twice as much, Latino students speak more than twice as much, and Black students speak almost three times as much after teachers receive this type of data.

These early findings could have significant implications for instructional delivery, including in math, where academic achievement gaps by race, ethnicity, and income have persisted for decades, and we are committed to working with partners to make math more engaging and motivating for all students. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve made improving instruction through high-quality digital instructional materials a core focus of our K-12 strategy.

Another area where bright spots are emerging is the work to ensure that students attain a 2- or 4-year college degree of value. This is so important because surveys show that students and families are losing faith in the value of a college education, and they want more transparency about what a credential is going to provide, given the time and expense that go into earning one.

The percentage of young adults who believe a college degree is significant has declined from 74% to 41% over the last decade, and half of American parents now prefer that their children not enroll in a four-year college – up from single-digit percentages. The risk and uncertainty of college value changes as a function of who you are, what you major in, where you go to college, whether you complete a degree, and what it costs. This, coupled with what we hear from high school graduates who choose not to attend college, highlights the growing need for postsecondary institutions to demonstrate value.

Our work through the Postsecondary Value Commission and Transformation Intermediaries is helping provide institutions with the tools to improve value, including adopting student-centered policies and practices. The good news is that we’re seeing bright spots at the institutional and state levels.

For example, Northern Arizona University (NAU), under the leadership of President José Luis Cruz Rivera, has made equitable value part of its new charter and taken steps to accelerate its ability to deliver on that commitment. They launched a pilot program in 2023 that makes the institution tuition-free for students with the greatest financial need, and they evolved the university’s core course requirements for admissions to increase access to 50,000 Arizona students who might not be able to access those courses in high school. The university also reimagined student support services to ensure that all students can be successful with a focus on tailored student supports aimed at closing gaps in retention and completion across student populations. NAU’s supports include ensuring students’ economic, physical, and mental well-being and providing them with leadership development and career preparation.

At the state level, Texas has emerged as a national exemplar in changing how community colleges are funded with the passage of recent legislation establishing an outcomes-based formula that rewards community colleges for awarding degrees, certificates, and other credentials of value. The law also measures the relevancy of credentials awarded, incentivizes successful credit transfers between 2-year and 4-year institutions, and encourages colleges to work with high schools to offer 15-credit dual enrollment pathways – where students earn high school and college credit from the same course – at no cost to students from low-income backgrounds.  

Getting students on a clear path to a degree that leads to in-demand jobs early is one of the best ways to improve postsecondary value. Making well-structured pathways available to all students could be a game changer in building momentum toward that goal. When education pathways programs connect the dots between education and the workforce, students get a clear sense of the steps they need to take to secure good jobs in their communities and save time and money along the way.

The student supports that accompany these programs, such as mentoring and tailored advising, are as critical as the programs themselves. But as impactful as these supports have proven to be, many students still don’t have equitable access to them.

The American School Counseling Association estimates the average ratio of students to counselors in public high schools at 408 to 1, almost double their recommendation of 250 –to 1, and although 82% of public high schools offer dual enrollment coursework, four of five school districts have racial equity gaps in access to those programs.

Read more about Lunessa’s story and the role mentorship and resilience played in her college journey. Image source: OneGoal

The good news (and third bright spot) is that our partner, OneGoal, is working to change this by providing a student advising ratio of 25 to 1 and supporting students from their junior year through their first year of college. OneGoal is working with 23 school districts, serving over 13,000 students – 90% of them people of color – in six states. The postsecondary enrollment rate of students participating in this program is 86%, and we’re working with OneGoal to expand their offerings to more states and school districts.

We’re also seeing exemplars through our Accelerate ED initiative, one being the 13th Year Pathway to Career Success in Dayton, Ohio. This program provides students with clear avenues toward in-demand jobs in health care, information technology, and manufacturing. High school students receive early college and career advising and supportive services and participate in work-based learning.

It’s bright spots like these in education pathways and those we’re seeing in the move toward demonstrating and increasing college value and exploring AI's supportive role in education that continue to inspire me.

Through these partnerships and the work of other funders, policymakers, and advocates, I remain passionate and hopeful about our commitment to shape a future where everyone navigating our education systems and job markets has the knowledge and skills they need to live healthy and productive lives and thrive in communities where they are valued.