“Connecting the Dots” on What Works for Today’s College Students

Change is hard — ask anyone who has tried to keep up a New Year’s resolution this month. For example, a resolution to “get fit” doesn’t just require hitting the gym more often, but also setting clear goals, adjusting your diet, among other habits and routines. And change is even harder when trying to do it alone, which is why many have better luck when they have a “workout buddy” or trainer to support them and keep them accountable. The reality that change is hard is true for personal changes and professional changes. It’s also true for organizations and institutions.

Over nearly two decades of working in education to improve outcomes for students, our foundation has proudly worked with non-profits, community groups, K-12 schools and districts, as well as colleges and universities across the country. We’ve seen first-hand the challenges our partners face in breaking out of the status quo to make meaningful, lasting change that better serves their students. We’ve also seen the incredible progress they can make with right support and in collaboration with their peers.

We believe that as a philanthropy, we can make a unique impact by supporting networks of schools, colleges, and universities so they can share what works with each other in order to get better, faster. Earlier this year, we announced investments in networks of K-12 schools that apply this approach to middle and high schools, connecting groups of schools through intermediary organizations.

Today, our Postsecondary Success Team is excited to announce a new Request for Proposals (RFP) that is designed to identify organizations that can help a select number of colleges and universities through a journey of transformation over a multi-year period. Yes, transformation. That may sound like a grandiose term, but it’s an appropriate one to describe what many institutions are already doing — revamping their academic policies, operations, and practices to be more responsive to the needs of their students and communities.

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A Miami Dade College student meets with her advisor

Over the past ten years, innovations in higher ed like technology-enabled advising, high-quality online learning, and redesigned remedial education have demonstrated their ability to increase the odds of students — and in particular first-generation students, low-income students, and working adults — earning a degree or certificate. But to help more students reach the finish line, while also closing gaps by race and income, it’s time for colleges and universities to build on that momentum and start “connecting the dots” — organizing themselves to put multiple effective approaches in place in a coherent way.

That’s easier said than done, as it’s not simply a matter of adding new initiatives one-by-one. Rather, colleges and universities need to think through how to sequence changes, how to manage the new and ongoing costs, how to build a culture that fosters authentic collaboration across academic and student services and that leverages existing data, all while providing the kind of professional development that faculty and staff deserve as they work to bring integrated approaches to life.

Let me give you an example. Miami Dade College (MDC) in Florida has been a long-term partner of the foundation’s through initiatives like Completion by Design and the Frontier Set, and we’ve learned a great deal from them as they’ve evolved over the years. I had the pleasure of spending time with MDC leaders last year and heard about their transformation process directly.

As a big community college serving large numbers of first-generation, adult, and part-time students, MDC understands the need to consistently go back to their data and continuously improve their approaches based on what is and isn’t working for their students. MDC’s ongoing transformation has remained rooted in three main areas of focus: a shared vision for student success, clear goals and accountability, and data-driven decision-making.

Over the years, the solutions they’ve put in place have taken different shapes, ranging from technology-driven changes (like focusing on digital learning and IT infrastructure) to organizational capacities (investing in things like stronger advising programs and research and data).

As MDC has evolved, they’ve had to build the muscles necessary to truly transform. New teams were formed to tackle new challenges, and a core of team members have worked across teams to help build a common language, methodology, and culture around transformation. They’ve also focused on broad participation from faculty, staff, and administrators, which has helped incorporate their insights and experience into the process.

Over the course of several years of this campus-wide transformation, MDC has benefitted from being part of collaborative initiatives with other community colleges, so they can compare notes with their peers, learn from best practices, and not have to reinvent the wheel. They have also benefitted from the ongoing technical assistance and expertise of an intermediary organization, the Aspen Institute. This third-party perspective and support has helped turn insights into action and sustain change over time.

MDC’s hard work and collaboration has paid off for their students. Over the past 10 years, Miami Dade has increased the number of students completing a program by 52 percent. Their work is ongoing, but MDC is a great example of what an institution can do if they have the will to change, the opportunity to connect with schools with similar goals, and the right resources and supports to truly transform.

That’s where our RFP for intermediaries comes in. You can read more about the RFP here, but we believe that if we can connect more colleges and universities with each other and with organizations that are committed to closing racial and income attainment gaps, and that have the experience to guide partners through continuous, data-driven learning and campus-level changes in policy and practice, we can collectively push higher ed to be more responsive to the needs of today’s students.

We owe students in this country the opportunity to pursue their dreams and an education after high school that will help them get a good job. To do that, higher ed needs to focus on continuously improving its approaches, so students are met with clear paths to success instead of barriers. That’s a resolution we should all be able to get behind, this year and beyond.

President, U.S. Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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