Innovation in College & Career Preparation

Removing Internal Barriers to Higher Education Innovation

Lorenzo Esters, USA FundsBy Lorenzo L. Esters, Senior Program Director, USA Funds

In recent years, there has been much discussion about reinventing public higher education institutions to better serve students, particularly low-income and at-risk students, many of whom are students of color.

Yet there is an entrenched culture on many public university campuses that resists this type of change. Historically, these institutions were designed to serve students who came directly from high school to college. Moreover, the majority of public higher education institutions today operate on the premise that “if you build it, they will come,” the idea that students must fit what institutions think they should be in order to be successful.

But the changing demographics of the college-going population and pressures from government appropriators and employers are shaking up the ivy tower. Today’s student population is older, more economically and ethnically diverse, and in many cases has previous work experience. Lawmakers increasingly are tying higher education appropriations to outcomes – college completion rates – rather than inputs. Employers continue to express general dissatisfaction with the job readiness of the college graduates they interview.

As part of USA Funds’ focus on Completion With a Purpose℠, we pursue an Innovation in College and Career Preparation strategy — to question the status quo and challenge the statement “this is how we have always done things around here” at the institutional level as doing the same old things will yield the same old results. By promoting Innovation in College and Career Preparation USA Funds® has the following two primary goals:

  • Help more students to complete their academic programs.
  • Enhance career readiness for students.

uia-logoThrough our investments in this area, we are learning much about promising ways to drive innovation at the institutional level.  I recently attended a meeting of the 11 public research universities that participate in the University Innovation Alliance. This coalition of public universities is working to increase the graduation rates, especially of low-income and first-generation college students. USA Funds is one of the six original funders supporting this alliance, which is working to identify, scale and disseminate to other postsecondary institutions promising innovations to enhance student success.

During a working session among the campus teams, attendees were asked, when you think about real innovation you have seen or experienced at your institution, what are the elements that made it successful?  Below is a snapshot of individual responses:

  • Ensuring there are sufficient, dedicated resources to support the innovation effort.
  • Having individuals with passion, who are provided dedicated assignments and resources to the innovation initiative.
  • Supporting broad inclusion and involvement of key stakeholders; making space for those interested in being a part of the innovation.
  • Ensuring there is sufficient information sharing and transparency.
  • Providing strong, decisive leadership who communicates where the institution is trying to go at every occasion possible.
  • Delivering senior level support that provides flexibility in implementation. This is critical even when things do not work as expected.

In another session, the campus teams were asked, what are the cultural forces for or against innovation on college campuses?  Some of the responses included:

  • Having informed faculty members and staff.
  • Ensuring all stakeholders are able to “see” themselves in the new initiative.
  • Promoting a campus belief that the institution can do better.
  • Understanding the context of the need for change
  • Having the freedom to fail or take risks; ensuring there is trust in an institutional “safety net.”
  • Developing the appropriate awards systems, performance management.
  • Having senior leaders honestly and openly discuss what is not working.

These types of discussions are a critical step in changing a campus culture that often resists innovation.   In the past year, the UIA institutions have held several intimate convenings for sharing student success innovation with more than 300 people from among the participating institutions. As a result, the alliance has successfully scaled multiple projects and has already seen significant behavior shifts on the campuses. Moreover, participating colleges and universities have hired UIA Fellows, formed student success teams on all 11 campuses, won a First in the World award, and have received national media attention for their efforts.

Because UIA is interested in sharing what works, it has welcomed the interest from more than 40 other campuses requesting observer status (to learn from their work), and recently won a First in the World award at $8.9 million to advance significant research in the field. USA Funds also recently invested in the UIA for one additional year to support the consortium’s core operations.  Over the next year, we expect to learn more about the promising practices coming out of this initiative to close gaps in college success between low-income students and other learners.

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