Innovating for Opportunity: Sharing Solutions for Student Success

By    //    Volume 23,  Number 3   //    May/June 2015

America’s success in an increasingly competitive world economy depends upon our ability to solve two major problems. The first is a growing lack of an educated workforce. The United States is facing a shortage of 16 million college graduates within the next decade. The distribution of students attending college from different economic backgrounds is also badly skewed: High-income students are seven times more likely to get a college degree than low-income students. Second, although individual institutions are developing innovative programs to deal with this challenge, they are often competitive with one another. Thus, too often, good ideas have limited impact. Solving those problems motivated 11 public research universities to form the University Innovation Alliance, committed to making high-quality college degrees accessible to a diverse body of students.

The members of the Alliance are: Arizona State University, Georgia State University, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Oregon State University, Purdue University, the University of California at Riverside, the University of Central Florida, the University of Kansas, and the University of Texas at Austin.

At AGB’s recent Foundation Leadership Forum, Sally Clausen, former executive director of AGB’s Ingram Center for Public Higher Education Governance and a previous president of the University of Louisiana System and commissioner of higher education in Louisiana, interviewed three presidents who are leaders in the Alliance. They are Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University and vice chair of the Alliance; Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University and chair of the Alliance; and John Hitt, president of the University of Central Florida.

Sally Clausen: Michael, as chair of the University Innovation Alliance, please tell me a little more about it and what you are trying to accomplish.

Michael Crow: Educational attainment— students enrolling in college and earning their degrees—will remain the leading driver if the United States is to continue to evolve economically and socially over the next 100 years. Higher education will also have to be more accessible for people from all socioeconomic backgrounds across our entire society.

Public research universities already have such goals as a part of their mission. But while college-going rates are very high among people from affluent backgrounds, our nation’s college attainment rate in the lower quartile of family incomes is just under 10 percent.

That’s why our 11 public universities, each chartered and evolving in its own way, came together to pick up the mantle. We asked ourselves: Rather than argue only for more resources, more campuses, or more capital investment, could we take the institutions that we have and get more out of them? Could we produce more graduates by improving what we currently do? Could we graduate, in particular, more students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds? Could we decrease costs per graduate for both families and taxpayers?

Last and most important, could we set aside our differences and competitive tendencies and innovate together? Could Arizona State University (ASU) adapt some of the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) innovations? Could Georgia State University (GSU) adapt some of Arizona State’s innovations, and so on? Could all of us in the Alliance join with each other and innovate together?

The universities in the Alliance have signed up to accomplish four things: produce more graduates, produce greater diversity among graduates, produce graduates at a higher rate, and produce graduates at a lower cost. You do that by enhancing throughput, by going to scale. So, we’ve asked ourselves, can we learn to innovate and adapt together to move forward at scale? That’s our goal.

John Hitt: Michael’s right. We do a wonderful job of educating the kids from the top quartile of family income. If you’re fortunate enough to be a child of that group, by the time you’re 24, you’ve got a better than 80 percent chance of having a baccalaureate degree. But, as he said, if you were born into a family from that lowest quartile of family income, your chance of having a baccalaureate degree by age 24 is less than 10 percent. We need to address this issue now. Our society can’t sustain the growing performance gap in American higher education. And even if it could, I would hope it would not. As a result, we need institutional and foundation boards to start thinking about their colleges and universities in a different way.

Universities tend to exist in silos and operate in a competitive environment. We all like to pound our chests and brag about academic and athletic accomplishments. Who has the brightest, the best, the fastest? The strongest students, faculty, researchers, athletes? This kind of competition discourages collaboration. But, we in the Alliance have joined together in unprecedented fashion to share and disseminate our innovations with a goal of graduating thousands of additional students in the next decade, at least half of whom will be from lowerincome families.

Clausen: President Becker, governors and legislatures are asking public universities to take significant cuts in state appropriations. If your institution is going to be educating more students from poor backgrounds, is it going to cost you more? Or are you going to save money in the long run?

Mark Becker: The reality is we all went through the Great Recession and saw our budgets slashed substantially. We all had to figure out how to move forward. In the case of Georgia State, we decided to go beyond the mandated cuts by trimming some areas deeper so that we could make investments in other areas. Student success—increasing our retention and graduation rates— was one of our highest priorities.

So at the same time that we took tens of millions of dollars out of the budget, we made substantial investments in people and technology. As a result, we now graduate more than 1,700 more students per year than a few years ago because we’re keeping more of them in college and making sure they graduate. (See box below.)

In fact, we’re actually receiving much more tuition revenue than ever before. While our state funding is substantially less, our budget is larger than it was before the recession because enrollment has increased as a result of retaining students who previously would have dropped out.

But we’re basically having to make tough choices; we’re deciding what we’re not doing as much as what we are going to do. We have to set and live by our priorities.

Crow: The thing that we’ve learned about resources is that it is the individualization of the educational experience that is cost-effective, that helps us drive down our cost per degree and the cost for the state and the student’s family of that degree. That individualization captures what the student knows, helps that student with what he or she doesn’t know, and then educates that student on a personalized path. And it turns out that at scale, that personalization of the educational experience does not have to be expensive.

Clausen: Many people say that the students that you’re taking in now are harder to help—not because they’re not smart or capable, but because they’ve come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Becker: That’s the key to the Alliance. Again, we have to develop programs at scale. The investments we make cannot be in what we call “boutique programs.” You can’t set up a program for left-handed javelin throwers from the East Coast. You’re only going to have a handful of such students.

At Georgia State, we establish pilot programs with a small number of students, say 50 or 100, and we evaluate those pilots to see what programs are the most promising. Those that demonstrate a high likelihood of truly moving the needle are then taken to scale for all of our undergraduate students. The goal of the Alliance is similar: to take what we’ve learned works best at each of our institutions, share it, and see if it translates at scale in a cost-effective way.

As Michael said, the goal is to decrease the cost of an education. That doesn’t necessarily mean cutting annual tuition. For example, in our case, we’ve documented that the time to degree has been reduced as a result of our programs, so the actual cost of that degree is lower for the student.

Crow: I disagree with the notion that the students who are enrolling in public research universities are more difficult to educate or less prepared. It’s just that when a public university admits students from a broad cross-section of our society, those students come with a wide range of different types of intelligence. Not levels of intelligence, but types of intelligence.

One of the things that we’re working to figure out together is, “How do we innovate to personalize and individualize education?” We’ve seen our four-year graduation rate double through the use of active learning platforms, which is something we’ve been doing a lot of. We’ve seen our student retention rates take off like a rocket, the more that we have individualized the educational experience.

So now we’re working on innovations about student retention, adaptive learning, and student counseling. (See box, below.) We’re trying to meet the fundamental goal of what a public university is designed to do: to embrace the totality of talent in society, not just the narrower band of talent that has been welcomed in the past.

Hitt: We’ve been talking since the ’60s about what we ought to be able to do in higher education—like adapting our educational offerings to the individual learner. For many years, decades even, we had the ideas, but we didn’t have the computing power or the technology to broadly scale those ideas.

Now it looks like we’re actually going to be able to deliver on the promises that we made using such tools and strategies as individualized adaptive learning, predictive analytics, targeted advising, and strategic financial interventions. Maybe not everyone will benefit, but a great many more people will than have in the past.

In fact, we’ve got a chance for a revolution here. We’ve talked about the costs of higher education. But the greatest cost really turns out to be the students who start but never finish.

Becker: Nationally, retention and graduation rates have gone nowhere. What this Alliance is about is getting real results: seeing retention and graduation rates actually go up, particularly for low-income students.

Clausen: Talk a little bit about what a student might be experiencing.

Crow: In the last 10 years or so at Arizona State, we increased the diversity of our student body while more than doubling the number of graduates—from just under 9,000 graduates a year to a hair under 20,000 graduates. The key to that has been a deep commitment to the student and his or her success, and a reinvigoration of the basic duty of a public university: to help these kids to achieve their dreams and move forward.

If you have such public duty, how do you do it with limited or even shrinking resources? You begin to alter your culture to make it more student-centric. You start thinking about how to use every tool, every mechanism, every asset—everything you can—to focus on each student’s success.

In the past, our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) gateway courses have had 50 percent non-success rates: a D, F, or withdraw. We’ve reduced the non-success in those classes to 10 percent. What’s more, we’re no longer able to predict success in those classes based on a person’s family income or high school. I could not have said that four years ago.

In the history of our country, we’ve had four waves in higher education: 1) the original colonial colleges, 2) the regional public colleges, 3) the land-grant collegesand universities, and 4) the research universities. And now we have the fifth wave: a whole new kind of scalable, engaged, technologically enhanced, and creative set of universities that are able to work together on a national scale.

The past is the past, the future is the future, and they’re not the same. In the past, if you started taking off as a research university, the model would be to stop admitting students who have B averages and only take students with A averages. You would become more and more exclusive. And then your reputation and status would increase because the coin of the realm in higher education has been exclusivity.

But the coin of the realm should instead be the success, on a broad scale, of students from across the wide spectrum of family backgrounds. And we in higher education have to figure out how to do that.

Becker: In a sense, our approach involves rejecting what those of us who are baby boomers were told when we were freshmen: “Look to your left. Look to your right. In four years, one of you won’t be here.”

Crow: The notion of the university as a weed-out institution.

Becker: Yes, and that’s just wrong. If we admit a student, he or she should graduate.

Crow: The fact that half the people who have gone to college in the United States have never graduated should be the responsibility of the universities themselves. It’s our duty to be more innovative than we have been.

Hitt: We need to challenge our institutions to operate for the benefit of students and the larger society, not for our own comfort, aggrandizement, or prestige. If we work together to share and diffuse information, if we scale what we learn, everyone can graduate. That ought to be the goal.

Clausen: That’s empowering for students to hear.

Becker: It’s empowering for everybody. Like all universities, we have a strategic plan. And the first goal is to establish a national model that demonstrates that students from all backgrounds can be successful at higher rates than in the past. Our foundation board has rallied around that. Our faculty members have rallied around that. Our students have rallied around that. People are proud to be part of our student success effort, because we are showing that we can alter the culture or current trajectory that has our country headed in the wrong direction when it comes to realizing the potential of all Americans.

Crow: It used to be all about, “How do you keep up with the Joneses? How do you get your institution to catch up with some other university that’s moving forward on some railroad track to the future?” That should not be the objective. The objective should be to build unique, responsible, interactive, scalable public universities to do what society needs and then hold ourselves accountable for it.

Clausen: What kind of timeline are you thinking about as the Alliance moves forward? And how will you encourage other institutions to consider doing something similar? How do you break the mold of individual presidents competing against each other?

Becker: The first effort we are undertaking is a predictive analytics project building on work that has been foundational to Arizona State and Georgia State. We are trying to determine how best to translate the sucessful predictive analytics efforts at ASU and GSU to our partners, so that we all can learn the essential ingredients for success. The problems that we are tackling are incredibly complex and generally not amendable one-size-fits-all solutions. It’s going to take us a couple of years to see just how we can do this. We’ll identify another project next year and continue to add them as we go along.

We need a good three to five years to get the proof of the concept of the Alliance down—to show that we can take what each institution has done individually that’s been excellent and disseminate and propagate it across the country. We’re starting with 11 institutions because that’s manageable. In about five years, we may have the opportunity to go bigger. But if we’re really successful, we won’t need to exist in 10 years.

Crow: The 11 universities working together in the Alliance think of it like an innovation cluster, where we’re learning from each other. All of our staffs in various areas of our universities are learning and working together. And then the hope is that other universities will take on the role of observers or affiliates of the cluster. Each step of the way, we’re going to be sharing what we’ve learned—what worked and what didn’t work.

Clausen: What specific questions should our board members be asking about all this?

Crow: The number one question that I always hope someone will ask is, “Given what you’re trying to do, how can I help you?” We often need help in making the case—more ownership of what our universities are trying to do. That ownership, that voice of support, often comes forth from the people who are committed to the university through something like an institutional or foundation board.

Hitt: I love trustees who will take the time to listen to reports about subjects like graduation rates. I appreciate those who want to know: “Who are our students? Where do they come from? Why do they join us? Why do they stay? Why do they leave? Where do they go when they leave?” If you can answer questions like that about your institution, you will have valuable information. I understand that general topic is not nearly as sexy as the latest research lab or the athletics program. But if you get inside the university and start asking questions, those questions can yield quite productive answers.

Clausen: What advice would you give to people who are getting excited about the possibility that, yes indeed, all students can learn, and it’s we in higher education who have to make some adjustments?

Becker: At Georgia State, we’ve eliminated all the disparities based on race, ethnicity, and income in graduation rates. Our low-income students with Pell Grants graduate at the same rate as the sons and daughters whose mothers and fathers are corporate leaders. We’ve done very little that we created originally. We’ve copied from different folks, different places, and different programs. We “stole” some things from Arizona State before we knew Michael.

The key to our success with increasing graduation rates is that we did it with commitment. We didn’t do it a little bit; we went to scale. For example, the higher education literature has long reported that freshman learning communities are particularly effective for helping students from first-generation families and low-income families because they create attachment, a community in which those students receive academic support. Now, because we know such programs work, we don’t just offer them—we require them of all freshmen. We’re committed to that program, and we’ve made it a part of what we do year in and year out.

Crow: We’re all here for the same reason. We love our country. We want to see people have the same opportunity that we had. We want our colleges and universities to be successful. But if I have any advice, it is that we’ve got to get out of the business of thinking that somehow it’s all about status through exclusivity or prestige—through hiring the smartest physics faculty member in the world or whomever.

It’s almost funny sometimes to listen to universities say the same things about themselves as others say. They always say, “We’re the best.” We’ve got to break this obsession with replicating each other, with somehow thinking that we’re accountable for something other than providing fantastic college educations to the public regardless of family income or family circumstance.

Everything else is a means to that end. The end is the educated, empowered, master- learner graduate of our institution. That’s what we should be held accountable for.

Hitt: Let me just say to foundation, institutional, and system board members: Stories are what move us. Learn the story. Tell it frequently. Take pride in it. Spread the word. That makes an enormous difference in the ability of your institution and its leadership team, including the president, to get the job done. Learn the story and share it with others.

Becker: We all have the story of one amazing student or one amazing professor. But you also have to look at the data because otherwise we become a victim of the tyranny of low expectations. It can’t just be the story of the one incredible kid who came out of poverty and now is studying medicine at Harvard University. It has to be about all the students who are coming from low-income backgrounds.

Almost all the progress that we see nationally in college completion has come from the top half of the economic distribution. If this country is going to have a successful economic future, we have to broaden the base of not only who participates, but also who succeeds. You have to pay attention to the data and stop accepting that low graduation rates for those students are the norm. It is not the state of nature.

Crow: If you look at what’s happened in the elite private universities, they only admit A+ students. I’m surprised that anyone has ever dropped out of any of them.

What we’ve now come to is this notion that somehow, those affluent students are the smart kids. No. Those are the kids who did well in high school and that largely came from wealthy families. That doesn’t mean smart. Smart kids are all over the place.

It used to be in the United States that these students were admitted to all the public research universities. Now, it’s only a handful of the public research universities. A few admit only A students. That’s fine. We want to learn from them, and they want to learn from us because they want to produce more. But it means that we’ve gotten to the point where we’re now basically saying that the B student who took all the hard courses in high school and worked hard to move forward, or the kid who went to community college after serving as a veteran, is somehow less capable.

The point is that we’ve decided that somehow the only good colleges and universities in the country are going to be those that are unbelievably selective. Well, it turns out that’s not our assignment. Our assignment is to find talent everywhere and to advance it.

As an early adopter of predictive analytics, Arizona State University (ASU) launched its eAdvisor system for the 2007–08 entering class. This program guides undergraduates toward majors related to their strengths and interests and also notifies advisors of students who are not staying on track. The combined advising costs savings and instructional cost savings per year at ASU add up to $13.8 million.

While eAdvisor has increased the graduation rate and decreased the cost for the student population at large, it has been particularly effective in improving the success of lower-income students. The four-year graduation rate for resident students coming from families making less than $50,000 per year increased by 15 percent between the class of 2010 and the class of 2013.

To put that in context, lower-income students who matriculated to the university in 2009 graduated at nearly the same rates as students whose families made more than $80,000 annually in the 2006 cohort. The 2009 cohort as a whole experienced a graduation rate that was 12 percent higher than those predating the implementation of eAdvisor.

Georgia State University, in using both predictive analysis and proactive advising interventions, has been able to improve retention rates and reduce the time it takes students to graduate. These policies have also lessened costs for both students and taxpayers, with five-year predictions estimating total savings of $75 million. Over that same period, Georgia State anticipates seeing 3,400 more students graduating than previously expected.

In addition to being both a money- and time-saving initiative, the university’s use of predictive analytics identifies students who are struggling in the classroom at the earliest sign of trouble, allowing students to stay on track academically. Algorithms guide students toward a major that best matches their strengths and abilities, based on over a decade’s worth of student data. Were Georgia State’s model to be adopted by all American public universities yielding comparable results, colleges could retain 335,000 additional students per year. Students and taxpayers combined would see savings of $3.6 billion.