Dispatches from UIA, Pt. 1: "When Universities Collaborate, Students Win"

April 4, 2018

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

A team of 21 NCAN staff members and member representatives, including 12 focusing on starting or expanding college success programming, is at the University Innovation Alliance’s National Summit in Atlanta this week. This is the first of two posts recapping the conference’s events. Find the second here. 

“When universities collaborate, students win,” Gralon A. Johnson said. Johnson was the first person to utter that phrase Tuesday at the University Innovation Alliance’s (UIA) first National Summit, which is taking place in Atlanta this week, but he was certainly not the last. Johnson, a UIA fellow placed at Iowa State University, is the MC for the three-day conference that is bringing attendees together to talk about “stretching, shifting, and changing” colleges and universities to improve student completion. Teams of university personnel as well as 21 NCAN staff and member representatives (the largest team at the event) are here to share strengths, weaknesses, and strategies.

The NCAN team is here through the support of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which is funding work on the creation and expansion of student success strategies at 12 NCAN member programs. Representatives of other programs with established success programs join these grantees. 

The UIA is an initiative comprising 11 public research universities dedicated to finding new and scalable strategies and solutions for student success.

“The UIA isn’t something you join, it’s a commitment you make,” University of California at Riverside Chancellor Kim Wilson explained, adding that this commitment revolves around embracing failure and risk, trying new things, and bringing new energy to colleges and universities.

That energy is important, UIA Executive Director Bridget Burns said, because “higher education is failing students …. Most colleges are doing a terrible job and students are paying the price.”

The United States will be short 11 million college degrees by 2025, Burns explained, and we need to fix the culture, collaboration, and communication in higher education to remedy that. Burns noted that the current culture pits universities against each other, and “the ‘winner’ is the university that turns away the most students.” The UIA, for its part, wants to reward the “courage of vulnerability” that has universities not afraid to try new things -- and even to fail, if it means they learn new ways to serve students.

They're making progress: Together, the 11 institutions will produce an additional 68,000 degrees by 2022, at least half for students from low-income backgrounds. These institutions also realized a 29-percent increase in degrees awarded to Pell Grant recipients from 2014-2018.

The conference, which aims for a strong “unconference” vibe replete with snacks, rapid-fire presentations, and team time, featured a steady stream of speakers who took the stage, imparted some key insights during their 20 minutes, and made way for the next presenter.

Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University, another UIA institution and one noted for closing attainment gaps based on race, ethnicity, and income, offered his thoughts on institutional priorities:

  1. Every student we accept should graduate and there should be pathways of success for every student.
  2. Scale, scale, scale. “Boutique” programs, those that only make small changes or that serve small numbers of students (or both), have to go. 
  3. Speed, speed, speed. If you come up with a good idea (e.g., freshman learning communities), disseminate it quickly. 

Michael A. Crow, Arizona State University’s president, noted via a UIA video that “For decades we’ve competed and competed and not shared strategies,” but in person he chided attendees not to seek to replicate the bad postsecondary outcomes of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and advised that “we need to be designers, not managers, operators, and bureaucrats.”

If our system yields inequitable outcomes, it is because it is designed that way, Crow asserted, and that design failed the 45 million Americans over 25 who started college at some point but have no degree or certificate. “We cannot solve these problems individually,” Crow said. Instead we must adopt each other’s solutions as well as working collaboratively to develop new ones. 

The conference rolled on as Susana Rivera-Mills, vice provost for academic programs and learning innovation at Oregon State University, described the “Innovation Engagement Continuum,” which assesses the actions innovators should take with those engaging in their innovations. The steps along the continuum include denial, resistance, curiosity, engagement, and commitment, and show the progression of people’s initial reluctance to an innovation all the way through their embrace of it. The continuum looks something like this:

  • Denial: inform, communicate, motivate
  • Resistance: listen, understand, share data
  • Curiosity: facilitate and problem-solve
  • Engagement: reward, recognize, encourage
  • Commitment: celebrate

During “Team Time,” the NCAN contingent discussed some of our biggest challenges in the student success space. The list displays the broad range of questions that will be addressed by the work our members moving to engage in:

  • Developing a match and fit process for selecting institutions of higher education (IHEs)
  • Partnering with IHEs for completing shared goals
  • Keeping up student motivation to see the goal of success
  • Advising students remotely on a national level 
  • Promoting upward social mobility after college
  • Career/post-college planning for students
  • Increasing engagement for all students, regardless of how much they currently engage
  • Balancing being prescriptive versus being individualized for programming and advising
  • Adapting intrusive access programs to more remote success programs
  • Moving from high-touch programming to virtual programming while still keeping students engaged
  • Focusing on opportunity youth who aren't in school or working and building in them the confidence to ask for help
  • Shifting organizational culture toward success
  • Determining how program strategies might fit or shift based on IHEs’ own success strategies

The day ended with Tim Renick, Georgia State University’s senior vice president of student success and a national figure renowned for his work in using data to improve student outcomes, discussing how to learn from failure. He noted that there are three key steps: identifying failures, admitting them publicly, and then learning from them.

He offered two examples of GSU staff learning from their failures.

They noticed in the 2010-11 academic year that more than 1,000 students were dropping out for non-payment. The largest subgroup among those students was seniors, who sometimes run out of eligibility for Pell Grants or Georgia HOPE Scholarships, and there were hundreds of students who owed less than $1,500. Georgia State University created the Panther Retention Grant, which is GPA-blind and requires no student application. Based on the data, the GSU scholarship was awarded to eligible students with unpaid balances of $1,500 or less at the drop date. Since 2011, 78 percent of seniors receiving the grant have graduated, including 1,321 last academic year alone. GSU kept these additional students on the path to graduation at an average cost of $900. Renick noted that the grant skews toward students of color, first-generation, and low-income students.

Also, in 2015, GSU staff realized that 19 percent of confirmed freshmen -- 278 students -- were confirmed but never enrolled. They were mostly low-income and non-white, and within a year, these students never attended any college. GSU examined the obstacles facing these students and identified more than a dozen factors, including FAFSA completion and verification, immunization forms, placement exams, and course registeration. In 2016, after admitting students, GSU sent them a smartphone survey that linked to a portal that guided students through their next steps. Additionally, they implemented a 24/7 AI chat bot that answered 200,000 questions with an average response time of seven seconds. These changes resulted in a 22-percent increase in confirmed freshman enrollment, with 324 students attending in 2016.

Renick reiterated that institutions should not be afraid to admit their failures and change their practices accordingly: “Be honest and forthright about what we are not doing right.”

Visit NCAN’s blog Thursday and Friday as we continue to share insights from the UIA National Summit related to improving students’ postsecondary success.

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