(un)Conventional Wisdom: Yes, We CAN

Dan Greenstein

Like so many, I got into higher education because I wanted to make a difference, to change the world for the better. Over the years, that has come to include working to change the enterprise from the inside and, now, the outside. Working with institutions here in the U.S. and in the U.K., I have seen change efforts – successful and unsuccessful – from many angles. That experience compels me to take on another piece of conventional wisdom:

#5: Higher education can’t change quickly.

It is a well-worn, if not cliché, sentiment, but one that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy on too many of our campuses. I’ve come away from more conversations than I care to count where institutional leaders and faculty are inspired by stories of colleges and universities that are making great strides to close equity gaps but tell me, “That can’t happen here.” Yes, higher education is a cautious and deliberative enterprise by nature, but we cannot – and must not – allow deliberation to become an excuse for inaction. There is simply too much at stake.

That’s why I’m encouraged to see examples of colleges and universities working together to quickly and significantly improve outcomes for their students. Completion By Design (CBD) represents one such effort. Over the past six years, nine community colleges in three states engaged in a process of creating cross-campus teams to use data to diagnose loss points for their students and work across campuses to design solutions to those challenges. This includes providing more aggressive advising for students, as well as helping students create maps that reduce the likelihood of wasted time and credits.

And while the participating colleges will tell you that they still have much to do when it comes to improving student progress and outcomes, they have made impressive gains in just six years. All nine have met or exceeded targets on all five leading indicators for completion ahead of schedule, and they have boosted their completion rates eight percentage points over six years, versus one percentage point for the higher ed sector overall during the same period.

I’m also interested in the work of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a coalition of 11 public research universities that are committed to boosting completion rates for low-income students without limiting access by raising admissions standards. In a sector where rankings drive priorities and institutions are celebrated more for exclusion than inclusion, this commitment is both notable and necessary.

Today, the Alliance is on track to exceed its goal of 68,000 additional graduates by 2025. By deploying and scaling strategies and tools such as predictive analytics to provide real-time support and guidance to at-risk students, Alliance members are projected to beat their target by nearly 30,000 graduates.

Building on those efforts, the foundation earlier this year launched an expanded group of high-performing and high-potential campuses and systems (including some from CBD and UIA) that have set aggressive targets and timelines for increasing completion and closing equity gaps in completion. To meet those goals, members of this group are committed to making fundamental changes in their academic and business models, and to share insights so that effective policies and practices can be adapted and scaled quickly. Frontier Set members believe, as do we, that there are neither resources nor time to keep reinventing the wheel if we are serious about closing equity gaps and meeting workforce needs.

I want to be clear – change is not without its challenges and setbacks. The colleges and universities participating in all of these efforts will be the first to tell you that some experiments fail. That sometimes performance declines before it improves, testing the resolve of key stakeholders. That disruption can create discord, and that leadership changes can slow and even reverse momentum.

All that said, these initiatives show that there is a reward for taking risks, and that inertia is not inevitable. But the work of change requires steady leadership, a commitment to following the data wherever they lead, and a willingness to buck conventional wisdom and prevailing incentive systems. These institutions are at the front of what I believe is becoming a movement, but many more of their peers will have to join them if we are really going to change the narrative in higher education.