Fostering Change in Higher Education

Institutions Need Room to Experiment—and Fail—in Order to Succeed

By Bridget Burns    //    Volume 31,  Number 6   //    November/December 2023

  • Institutions can learn from failure. Boards can help promote a culture where experimentation, risk, and failure can lead to success.
  • To improve success rates for first-generation college-goers, students of color, and those from low-income families, institutions should examine services throughout campus and adapt to the needs of students. Be sure the “user experience” your students have is transparent and intuitive.
  • Leaving school with debt and no degree is an investment without any return. The result is both a personal disappointment and a national problem that is eroding trust in higher education.
  • Trustees should expect institutions to look beyond their own boundaries and reward them for it. Look for expressions like “we are scaling this proven idea from another institution that already had success.”
  • To transform an institution takes many years. Trustees must be in it for the long haul and prioritize stability—both in the CEO position and across the broader leadership team. Personnel transitions can set back innovation by semesters or even years.

To navigate the path forward, higher education institutions need to play offense. To do so will take a long view. And that’s where trustees play a critical role.

To navigate the path forward, higher education institutions need to play offense. To do so will take a long view. And that’s where trustees play a critical role.

When Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) rolled out its College for America a decade ago, it planned to crack the code on the $10,000 bachelor’s degree for tens of thousands of working adults. Its enrollment never achieved those heights, and it has since closed shop. But in those same ten years, SNHU learned a tremendous amount about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to serving adult students in new ways—and it expanded into one of the country’s few mega-universities with 175,000 enrollments today.1

Why? SNHU learned from its failures, and it kept experimenting. And over time, that formula has helped it thrive.

Those same interwoven threads run through many of modern higher education’s greatest success stories: experimentation, failure, tenacity, and growth. Georgia State University—which has dramatically increased success rates for first-generation college-goers, students of color, and those from low-income families—has tried many things that failed to make a difference.

“Student success is not finding something that turns a switch from 35 percent graduation rates to 100 percent,” said Tim Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State, during a University Innovation Alliance (UIA) podcast. “What we’re doing on a day-to-day basis is trying lots of different things, some of which may be successful, others of which will be entire failures.”

But what you hear about is Georgia State’s wild success with using text messages and AI chatbots to better support students. You don’t hear about their failed cold calling attempts and events for students and parents during the summer melt of 2015, in which 19 percent of students who confirmed they were attending the university didn’t show up to classes in the fall.

This too, is a common thread—one that is deeply embedded in the fabric of most American colleges and universities. We hide our individual failures, the ones that others could learn from, even as our collective failures mount.

Out of every ten students who begin a degree, four don’t complete it.2 Those students are far more likely to be Black, Latino, and low-income. And completion rates today are only modestly better than they were decades ago. In the 1970s, six out of every 100 low-income students earned a bachelor’s degree. Fifty years later, that rate has only inched up to 12 out of 100. But for high-income populations notably, the attainment rate has more than doubled.

Furthermore, the student debt crisis making headlines is largely a crisis of students leaving school with debt and no degree—an investment without any return. The result is both a personal disappointment and a national problem. As completion rates languish and debt burdens grow, more than half of Americans in a recent Wall Street Journal survey reported that college simply isn’t worth it, indicating eroding trust in the single best path to social mobility and out of poverty. This loss of trust is a threat to our collective future.

Higher education also is facing increased competition from non-degree providers and demographic changes that are likely to result in a student composition that looks very different from that of the past. Unfortunately, much of the conversation about how to respond to these challenges has focused on managing enrollment trends. But managing decline is an inadequate response; at best, this is just playing defense.

Colleges and universities need to be bolder, pursuing innovations that transform institutions—and, indeed, the whole sector—to meet the needs of an evolving student population. To navigate the path forward, higher education institutions need to play offense. To do so will take a long view. And that’s where trustees play a critical role.

Set the Tone

Rising to today’s challenges will not be easy. It will require colleges and universities to make student success among diverse populations their North Star. It will require them to fail along the way, and to be open about that. And it will require colleges to less jealously guard their successes. The task of remaking higher education is enormous and urgent—the next decade will be critical—and it would be foolish to think that universities could accomplish the necessary change without missteps or by going it alone.

Trustees, while not involved in the daily management of the university, set the tone. And they can orient their institutions toward innovation and toward taking the long view. The work colleges do now can pay dividends for generations, but only if they learn to fight their competitive instincts, get comfortable with the idea of short-term failure, and stick with the hard work. But whatever trustees do, they shouldn’t fake failure tolerance. Leading institutions and their governing boards need to systematically embed an understanding that failure is the greatest teacher. Trustees must actively demonstrate their desire to take risks and gain insight from things that didn’t go as planned.

Redesign for Today’s Students

There are a significant number of barriers to college completion and student success, but at the most fundamental level, higher education’s struggle comes down to poor design—or at least, design that is poorly suited to today’s students. As it is often said, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”3

We designed it this way. The reason universities have difficulty graduating students is because they were designed to make graduation difficult. For hundreds of years, universities were proud to be enclaves of learning and research for a very small percentage of the population. Faculty were at the center of the institution because they contributed the intellectual capital necessary for the university to grow in reputation and size. Systems and structures arose to weed out students deemed incapable, not to encourage wider attendance and completion. The values system of the old model still exists and fails to serve students of today.

The approaches of yesterday do not work for today’s students. (Arguably, they didn’t work for those of yesteryear either.) Students whose families don’t have a college-going background or who don’t look like the typical college professor are easily put off by this attitude. So too are adults who increasingly need to reskill to move up in the workforce, but who oftentimes already have full-time jobs and family commitments.

Both are groups colleges are going to have to do a better job of serving if they want to thrive. The traditional 18–22 year-old population is shrinking.4 And for the first time in U.S. history, low-income students are the majority in public K–12 schools,5 which suggests future first-time students will be more likely to be economically disadvantaged and the first generation in their families to attend college.6 Redesign should specifically target the needs of students of color and low-income and first-generation students—those who are least likely to have a robust support network outside the university.

Such changes are likely to improve the experience and outcomes for all students. The students of today are the most sensitive to bad design of any prior generation, and user experience will be the ultimate decision-making criteria for students in the future. Today’s young adults have grown up in a world in which nearly every consumer-facing product is designed with the user experience in mind. And even those of us well beyond 30 have become accustomed to better user interfaces. From Uber to Doordash to Netflix and even banks, services today are designed to be navigated easily and provide results tailor-made for consumers. Even if you only care about enrollment numbers and aren’t worried about student outcomes, know that the most effective offense for your institution is to ensure a seamless and student-centered design. In the future it will be easy for students to understand which campuses provide the most user-friendly experience for students of their specific profile, and that will be how they make enrollment decisions.

Think like Amazon

Compare the user experience of those well-known companies to the experience of the typical college student. Most arrive on campus with high expectations that the university will direct them to good outcomes. Yet they soon discover how difficult it is to receive adequate direction. No one steps forward to answer such questions: When do you meet with an academic advisor? How do you reconcile a financial aid hold? How do you know—before it’s too late—if you’re on track or off track for graduation? Administrators with decades of experience in university processes may think the path is clear, but complex structures and coded language create barriers for students and make them feel unwelcome.

For students whose parents have college experience and can provide guidance, this may merely be a frustrating experience. But for those who are the first in their family, it can completely derail them.

Even when students do make it through the gauntlet, those at large universities typically have to inform the administration that they’re nearing graduation (or think they are). At that point, the university confirms whether the student’s credits meet all the criteria for graduation and whether any other barriers—such as an unpaid library fee from three years ago—stand in the way. If there’s a problem, the student must work to resolve it. When all the barriers are cleared, students are often asked to pay another administrative fee to actually graduate. There is nothing user-friendly or customer-oriented about this process.

Favor Collaboration Over Competition

The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. Institutions could, instead, center students in the design of their systems and processes.

And the existence of isomorphism—a high level of similarity in structure—across higher education institutions suggests that they wrestle with the same problems, and solutions that work in one institution can be modified or adapted to work in another.

To do that, of course, universities will have to collaborate rather than compete.

This is a place where trustees could play a significant role. Rather than forcing specific institutional decisions, trustees should expect that institutions look beyond their own boundaries and reward them for it. Look out for expressions like “we came up with the solution,” and instead encourage “we are scaling this proven idea from another institution that already had success.”

As it stands today, universities compete for students, for higher placements in rankings, for research dollars, for public funding, for philanthropy—you name it. Improvement is viewed as a zero-sum endeavor: If we innovate effectively, we’ll attract more students and revenue and “win;” if our competitors innovate faster, that sets us back. As a result, presidents and administrators have little incentive to share innovative practices they may be pursuing.

They have even less incentive to talk about attempts at innovation that haven’t worked out, for fear that any failure will be used against them, viewed as a waste of resources and lack of competence, rather than an effort that provides valuable lessons for future endeavors.

What idea-sharing does occur in our sector focuses on conferences, white papers, and the serendipity of innovative people moving between institutions. Purposeful collaboration between people doing similar jobs at different institutions is limited, and a tendency exists to avoid pursuing good ideas imported from other campuses for fear that the credit for success may have to go elsewhere. This kind of intellectual protectionism is toxic to collaboration and the collective thinking needed to address our challenges.

As a result, most universities—when they attempt to innovate—tinker in silos. Although this approach serves no one well, it is particularly problematic for public institutions, which have a responsibility to serve the economic and social interests of their state, region, nation, and world.

“I’m under no illusion that competition among colleges is just going to go away, but if we want to transform higher education for the better, we’ve got to compete on the things that matter—student-focused metrics like outcomes and social mobility rather than self-serving ones like wealth and exclusivity,” Kim A. Wilcox, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, recently said. “That’s healthy competition because it’s focused on a higher mission and isn’t a zero-sum game.”

Changing the competitive mindset takes courage and the support of institutional leaders, and trustees play a particularly valuable role. With support from above, administrators will be more likely to pursue bolder innovation and seek collaboration outside the university from colleagues at other universities with like-minded leadership. Acknowledging common failures across institutions will help build the community that makes common success possible. So too will overcoming the idea that all good ideas must originate at your own institution. Universities should aim for fewer epiphany solutions and more scaling or borrowing of solutions, building upon the wisdom of others.

This concept is more than theoretical. For the past decade, a group of public research universities has worked together under the banner of the University Innovation Alliance to develop, scale, and transfer innovations with promising potential to improve student success rates by redesigning university processes from a student perspective. Member universities have developed new methods to innovate together, hold each other accountable with their data, and hold down their costs.

New challenges, such as a pandemic, constantly emerge. But UIA members have developed habits that allow them to keep making progress toward enrollment and completion goals, particularly for students of color and low-income and first-generation students.

As a result, UIA institutions have graduated 118,500 additional students beyond their expectations at the outset of this work in 2014. With nearly half a million undergraduate students enrolled across the Alliance, our annual graduates of color have increased 93 percent, and annual low-income graduates have increased by 50 percent.7

Make Failure Part of Doing Business

Reticence about sharing credit for success goes hand-in-hand with a fear of failure, which kills innovation. University leaders are often afraid to try new things. And when they do try out unproven ideas or projects, they are loath to admit when they don’t work out. That means they never examine and review, much less share, why a project or an idea failed. This leaves individual institutions and the entire higher education system to repeat the same mistakes.

We know intellectually that failure is critical to learning and growth—but we don’t act on that conviction. Why?

Missteps, especially at public institutions, are often highly scrutinized by the media, politicians, and the public. No university seeks to be accused of wasting taxpayer dollars. And presidents and their leadership teams are rewarded for incremental gains in enrollment, funding, and reputation. A down year or two can be disastrous. Even with government and foundation funds that are intended for innovation, universities are rewarded for projects that have a quick impact, even if it’s only marginal.

In other words, universities aren’t incentivized to take risks, and they’re often punished harshly when they try but fail. Instead, universities need a safety net for failure. And trustees can provide that.

Internally, trustees can make clear that failure is not just acceptable but expected, and encourage open discussion of failed initiatives to uncover valuable lessons and avoid repeat mistakes. Externally, trustees can provide valuable air cover with legislators, funders, alumni, and others who may be prone (or perhaps incentivized) to pounce on failures as evidence that the university is off course. Explaining that the university’s aim is to attempt bigger, bolder solutions to better meet its mission of serving students can help build support for the iteration that innovation demands.

Ideas should be informed by student input and seek to solve actual problems students are confronting—but not every solution has to be fully vetted before moving forward. If you as a board member only hear about university successes, your “Spidey sense” should tingle that perhaps you aren’t actually getting the full picture, and if nothing else, this is an indication that your institution is not pursuing innovation vigorously enough. An institution without failures is one that’s too complacent and comfortable, not pushing boundaries, or trying new things.

“We’re working to build a new university type for the future, and that can’t be done quickly or by sticking to known paths. It requires both risk and resolve,” said Michael M. Crow, the long-time president of Arizona State University, in a recent interview. “ASU is a leader, not because we always get it right, but because we learn from both our wins and our missteps—and we keep pushing forward with our bigger mission always in mind: making a world-class education a reality for far more students.”

An exemplary case of confidence-inspiring failure unfolded at Michigan State University (MSU). During a UIA convening, MSU’s team adeptly applied process mapping to examine the student experience, seeking insights to enhance outcomes efficiently.8 Collaborating with all stakeholders in student success, they meticulously mapped the journey from admission to three months into enrollment, unearthing numerous areas for immediate improvement and actionable strategies.

The MSU team made two vital discoveries. They recognized that each incoming student received an overwhelming 450 emails from an MSU email account within the 90-day window. Second, they unearthed 50 distinct types of account holds, some unknown to the institution, hindering students’ registration progress. These “failures” proved transformative for MSU, highlighting the need for a communication protocol and prompting corrective measures. This pivotal exercise inspired other UIA campuses to follow suit, mapping major transitions, transfers, graduations, and other student experiences. As a result, MSU’s trustees can take pride in the institution’s commitment and creativity. The willingness to proactively identify and address challenges in the student journey reflects their unwavering dedication to delivering an exceptional academic experience.

Build Leadership for the Long Haul

To transform an institution takes work over many years. Trustees must be in it for the long haul, and they should hire and reward leaders with that in mind. It’s essential that they prioritize stability—both in the CEO position and across the broader leadership team. Personnel transitions can set back innovation by semesters or even years.

The typical university president, however, has been in their job for less than six years—which is barely enough time to ramp up significant new initiatives. And most presidents don’t think they’ll be in the role in another five years.

In contrast, universities that have demonstrated leadership in innovation have typically been led by the same president for many years. Examples of current and past innovation leaders include University of Central Florida’s John Hitt (26 years), Arizona State’s Michael Crow (21 years), Georgia State’s Mark Becker (12 years), and University of Maryland Baltimore County’s (UMBC) Freeman Hrabowski (30 years). Through deep and sustained relationships with their universities, as well as support from boards that saw value in their endeavors, these leaders reoriented their institutions to focus on student success in ways that have earned national acclaim.

This not only applies to public colleges. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College for more than 16 years told me, “A supportive board that is willing to take risks and back their leaders, even when those risks or experiments don’t pan out is what cultivates a spirit of innovation. We’ve tried things that haven’t worked, but my board has stood by as we continue to innovate on the behalf of our students.”

The most important factor in whether a president stays for the long haul and makes real change happen is the relationship with their board. A collegial relationship with trusted advisors united around a shared commitment to the institution goes a long way toward making a presidency one that a person refuses to leave, while a hostile relationship with a board is the fastest path to end a presidency and force them to look elsewhere.

Of course, leadership transitions are necessary from time to time. Ideally, planning for a transition starts long before a presidency or other key role is open. UMBC and the University System of Maryland, for example, started seriously discussing and planning for Hrabowski’s transition long before it happened. The goal was to find a leader who would put their own mark on the presidency, but who also would lead with the compassion, innovation, and commitment to diversity and equity that were hallmarks of Hrabowski’s leadership and had become core to the university’s culture.

The search was deliberate, and in August 2022, Valerie Sheares Ashby became just the sixth president of the young university.

“The challenges and opportunities our institution has today aren’t the same ones we had ten or even three years ago, so our strategy and investments are of course evolving,” Sheares Ashby recently said. “But our core commitments are, and must be, steadfast. In our case, that means everything we do is animated by the belief that you can’t have excellence in higher education without equity and inclusion.”

To ensure transitions that keep innovation on track, boards should be talking to their presidents about succession planning and building a bench. Not every promising leader can become president, but having a bench of leaders from which to draw when a president or other senior leader exits will increase the likelihood of maintaining momentum on innovative practices until they reach the point where they are embedded in the university culture.

And when it’s time for a search, the process should focus on identifying promising leaders who have demonstrated their capacity for innovation and are willing to commit to their new post for a while. Many talented administrators are capable of leading an institution and see it as the natural progression of their career—but they aren’t excited about the transformation work required. Boards should think twice about hiring those candidates.

The Bet We Have to Make

The typically slow pace of change within university administration has led many to believe that universities cannot change—that they’re too cumbersome and bureaucratic to be responsive to students’ needs. Yet they made enormous changes to how they taught and operated almost overnight when the pandemic hit.

When colleges and universities were forced to innovate, they did—and quickly. Competition and fear of failure went out the window because they had to.

Trustees can help create that same sense of cover now. They can help leaders see that, just as with the pandemic, there is no choice but to act. Changing attitudes about higher education and shifting demographics have made the status quo no longer viable. Institutions can try stop-gaps to manage that decline—doubling down on competition for a limited pool—or they can take the long view. They can do the hard work of transforming how they serve students and the country.

That may come with short-term risk, but in the long run it’s the only bet worth making.

Bridget Burns, EdD, is the founding chief executive officer of the University Innovation Alliance.


1. Susan D’Agostino, “More Traditional-Age Students Enroll at Fully Online Universities,” Inside Higher Ed, October 13, 2022,

2. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Completing College: National and State Reports with Six- and Eight-Year Completion Rates Dashboards,” November 29, 2022,

3. IHI Multimedia Team, “Like Magic? (‘Every System Is Perfectly Designed…’),” Institute for Healthcare Improvement, August 21, 2015,

4. Kevin Carey, “The Incredible Shrinking Future of College,” Vox, November 14, 2022,

5. Kent McGuire, “A Majority of Public School Students Live in Low-Income Families,” Philanthropy News Digest, January 26, 2015,

6. Dick Startz, “First-Generation College Students Face Unique Challenges,” Brookings Institution, April 25, 2022,

7. University Innovation Alliance, University Innovation Alliance 2022 Annual Report,

8. Bridget Burns and Alex Aljets, “Using Process Mapping to Redesign the Student Experience,” Educause Review, March 26, 2018,


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