Innovation in College & Career Preparation

Collaboration Fuels Higher Education Innovation

Allison Griffin, USA FundsBy Alison Griffin, Senior Vice President, External and Government Relations, USA Funds

There’s strength in numbers, and nowhere is that more evident than in the world of higher education innovation.

I recently had the honor of taking part in a panel discussion, hosted by New America, about the progress of the University Innovation Alliance. The alliance is a group of 11 institutions that are using innovative practices to serve more students, and more effectively.

uia-logoThese next-generation universities are tackling some of the biggest issues facing today’s campuses, using approaches like predictive analytics and intensive advising. Their goal: to improve outcomes for all students, regardless of background.

The UIA is showing that, by working together and bringing solutions to scale, higher education institutions can make a real difference for their students and their communities.

USA Funds® is one of six private organizations funding the work of UIA. The UIA participating schools’ clear commitment to collaboration is one reason its initiatives are such a good fit for USA Funds’ support.

USA Funds’ guiding principle is Completion With a Purpose®: enhancing postsecondary education completion rates while also helping graduates more successfully launch into rewarding careers. One way we advance Completion With a Purpose is by partnering with groups of institutions whose focused leaders — working together — are transforming the way we prepare students for careers and life in ways that individual action can’t.

It’s through collaboration, like that shown in the work of the UIA, that institutions have the greatest capacity to tap into the pipeline of students most at risk of not receiving postsecondary degrees.

New America Panel
Taking part in the panel discussion “Defining Next Generation Universities” were, from left: David Leonhardt of The New York Times, Hilary Pennington of Ford Foundation, Tina Gridiron of Lumina Foundation, Alison Griffin of USA Funds, and Kevin Carey of New America.

Working as a team, institutions can learn from each other even as they’re developing and implementing innovative approaches to higher education. And then, once their efforts yield results, the reach of a group of institutions is greater than that of a single university to share the ideas and outcomes with others.

UIA member Georgia State University, for example, has found that a data-driven, personalized advising system helps to close achievement gaps for at-risk students. And Arizona State University, also a member of the alliance, is another example of success in data-driven student advising; the institution has implemented an electronic program that closely monitors and alerts students of their academic progress.

In these cases — and in other UIA success stories — an entire group of institutions then works together to implement similar programs on their own campuses and spread the word to others.

This collaborative approach to higher education innovation hasn’t been the norm, but endeavors like UIA point to a new era of enhancing student outcomes. The old protect-and-defend mentality is beginning to give way to efforts that tap into the collective strength of universities, to better address access and completion challenges for students from all walks of life.

It’s a change in mindset that already is paying dividends in helping to ensure the economic mobility of students and communities universities serve.

Innovation in College & Career Preparation

Bold, Intentional and Focused: Early Lessons From MSI College Value

Lorenzo Esters, USA FundsBy Lorenzo Esters, Vice President, Philanthropy, USA Funds

If you had $325,000 and three years to improve the success of students and the value of a college education, what would you do?

USA Funds® posed that question to a group of minority-serving institutions through a competitive grant process, selecting seven of the schools for the award based on their responses. The MSI Measuring College Value initiative aims to help institutions more effectively use data to help students stay on track to completion and successfully navigate into rewarding careers.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of joining project consultants Randy Swing and Yael Kidron in meeting with teams from each of the institutions. We’ve considered their answers to that all-important question as they begin their work on improving college and career success for students.

Lorenzo Esters addresses the board of Wiley College, recipient of a USA Funds Measuring College Value Grant, during a recent visit there.
Lorenzo Esters addresses the board of Wiley College, recipient of a USA Funds Measuring College Value Grant, during a recent visit there.

Here’s one lesson we quickly learned: Higher education professionals value every student with whom they work. The hope for 100 percent success for all students drives many dedicated educators every day. As one individual put it, “I’m proud to say that I have never given up on any student.”

But there are times that require triage and choices to ensure the best outcome for the most individuals.

Saving all students

One of the difficult decisions the seven grantee institutions face is foundational to any college or university wishing to improve student success: Do you focus on the students who are most at risk, or focus on students who are closest to being successful and most immediately able to benefit from support? There are valid reasons to pursue either option.

It was clear that all seven schools wanted to “save” all students. One philosophy is that “a rising tide raises all boats,” meaning that bringing up the lowest-achieving students will benefit everyone. Since peer-to-peer relationships have a huge impact, it is reasonable to expect that success, motivation and pride can sweep through an entire organization when the least likely to succeed beat the odds that are against them.

The catch is that helping the most at-risk student often requires intense focus and considerable resources — and yet carries significant potential of still being too little to change the outcome.

Alternatively, many management experts suggest that the fastest way to “move the needle” on organizational achievement is to focus on the areas of “near-success,” where removing small barriers boosts individuals over the success line.

Using fewer resources to move students to success is rewarding — but taking this route comes at the cost of knowing that it leaves the most at-risk students behind.

Targeting the assistance

Another observation from our visits with the seven grantees was the challenge of narrowing the scope of any targeted intervention. All students are different. And different populations require different interventions and support systems.

For example, focusing on all first-time students may be too broad of a focus. But a decision to focus specifically on first-time-in-college, first-generation, low-income students may yield findings and interventions that boost the success of that particular population of students. An institution then could choose another population on which to focus. The college or university could develop interventions based on what it learns through data related to that population.

The decision about how to best use limited resources is the kind of choice that tests institutional mission and resolve. The right choice is the one that fits an institution’s culture and mores, and it must come from within the institution.

Experience, however, suggests that there is one wrong approach to using data to promote college and career success: failing to be intentional and strategic. Action that isn’t intentional and strategic risks the desired outcomes by spreading resources too thinly. Using data and professional knowledge in decision making begins with being intentional about your target issue and target cohort of students.

The takeaway: In advancing college completion and career readiness, be bold, be intentional, and be focused.

Enhancing college value

The seven minority-serving institutions in this program are well-positioned to set the standard for enhancing college value.

Over the next few months, they will finalize their action plans by establishing the populations of students on which they’ll focus, and the steps to take to improve college value. In the subsequent two years of the initiative, they will work with faculty, staff, students and employers to implement practices and policies and revise curricula in an effort to enhance the career readiness of students.

Key Education Transitions

Collaborating to End the Plight of African-American Males

Michael TwymanBy Michael Twyman, Executive Director, OpportunIndy

The plight of many African-American young men today is a crisis of major proportions. By focusing on four key areas, OpportunIndy is facilitating work to end the crisis in Indianapolis.

Daunting statistics
A report released at the 2015 Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Males (ICSSBM) Annual Conference noted statistics about African-American males that are daunting and alarming:

  • In 2020 the vast majority of jobs will require some kind of postsecondary credential. Black males face some of the greatest challenges to earning a high school diploma and completing postsecondary opportunities, however. Black males are more likely to not be in the labor force than they are to earn a postsecondary credential.
  • Too few black children, particularly males, are reading at grade level by third grade. Studies show that low rates of reading proficiency among third-graders increase students’ chances of dropping out of high school. And for black males, not graduating from high school is directly related to higher rates of incarceration.
  • Low education attainment rates among black males not only reduce labor rate participation, but also reduce the chances that they will develop and maintain core family structures and two-parent homes.

The Children’s Policy and Law Initiative (CPLI) of Indiana has noted that one in nine students in the state in 2012-2013 were suspended from school. Young black men are 3-4 times more likely to be suspended from school than their white counterparts for the same infractions.

According to a five-year estimate released by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2015, nearly 22 percent — 119,075 people — age 18-24 in Indiana were without a high school diploma or GED. Again, African-American young men were disproportionately represented in the figures.

And, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than high school graduates. Nationally, 68 percent of all males in prison do not have a high school diploma. The majority of teens in the juvenile justice system are there as a result of nonviolent crimes such as truancy or disruptive classroom behavior.

And for many, being in the juvenile justice system begins the path toward a less productive life. More than two-thirds of these incarcerated teens ultimately drop out of high school; the vast majority of these individuals are young men of color.

Collaborative action
In 2015 President Obama and the White House My Brother’s Keeper initiative helped bring attention to these systemic issues and called on communities across the country to commit to producing better outcomes for our most vulnerable young people.

Indianapolis accepted the challenge. We already had gotten out of the gate by launching the Your Life Matters Task Force in 2014 to study and assess conditions locally, followed by a report that included specific strategy recommendations on how to create and expand more opportunities for these young men to be successful.

4 Areas of Focus OpportunIndy

And now OpportunIndy is engaging diverse community stakeholders in the ongoing work to address issues facing Indianapolis’ young black men — and the city overall.

OpportunIndy uses a collective impact model. We act as a facilitator and convener to bring partners like USA Funds® and their resources to the table for action and impact. We work toward the following goals:

  • All African-American men will graduate from high school on time and enter the workforce with an industry certification, military training, and/or postsecondary education by age 24.
  • All African-American men up to age 24 are prepared for success in the workforce and are gainfully employed in career-track work after completion of education.
  • All African-American young men age 14-24 are safe and healthy.
  • All African-American young men age 14-24 are free from arrest, detainment and incarceration.

In addition to our involvement in the My Brother’s Keeper effort, OpportunIndy is helping to create education and employment pathways for young men of color through the establishment of an Opportunity Zone. This effort focuses on young black men age 14-24 who are at risk of not completing high school, are underemployed, and/or are involved in the justice system.

By working together we can promote the policies and practices that provide young African-American men with more options — and therefore better opportunities to live their best lives.

View the video below to learn more about how OpportunIndy is working to make Indianapolis a stronger and more vibrant community for everyone.

OpportunIndy video

Innovation in College & Career Preparation

Purpose First Means College and Career Success Later

Lorenzo Esters, USA FundsBy Lorenzo Esters, Vice President, Philanthropy, USA Funds

Ask students why they pursue a college education, and their answers often focus on finances and future employment opportunities.

In fact, issues related to jobs and future earnings command the top three spots in the list of reasons students gave for attending college in a 2015 College Decisions Survey by the New America Education Policy Program.

Yet many colleges and universities still operate on a model that does not expose students to career choices until their third or fourth year of study. A new initiative from Complete College America aims to change that.

College America Purpose First kickoff meeting.
College students discuss their aspirations and challenges during the recent Complete College America Purpose First kickoff meeting.

In its Purpose First project, supported by a $1 million USA Funds® grant, Complete College America is developing strategies, tools and practices for colleges to use to help their students develop a strong sense of career purpose — and act on it. The hope is that students will:

  • Better navigate complex academic choices.
  • Stay on track for completion.
  • Find good first jobs.
  • Successfully navigate a rewarding career.

I recently asked Dhanfu Elston, vice president of alliance state relations for CCA, to share more about Purpose First.

Dhanfu Elston, vice president of alliance state relations for CCA
Dhanfu Elston

What challenge does Purpose First seek to address?

Elston: Too few college students enter campuses with the critical information needed to make an informed choice about a potential major and career pathway. Much of this information is readily available. But only a limited number of institutions have designed a guided pathway that includes purpose-driven strategies connecting students’ skills, values and interests to long-term career and financial aspirations.

We recognize that career exploration and navigation happen on a learning continuum for many students. Unfortunately, it’s all too common to hear students say that they wish they’d been informed about a career earlier, or that having career information at the beginning of college would have reshaped how they approached college.

The opportunity to work with college leaders and national experts on designing Purpose First is energizing, as we seek to improve our campus systems to benefit the many students and families who view college as the path to a desired career.

What are the key areas on which this project focuses, and why?

Elston: In the early phase of the Purpose First project, through insights learned from national organizations, we have identified multiple gaps and opportunities related to onboarding students and assisting them in choosing a major:

  • Students infrequently receive career interest and assessment counseling. In the instances that they do receive this important information, it lacks connection to their educational planning process.
  • Students need real-time, national and regional labor market data that highlight required degree levels and credentials, associated skills, expected salaries, and future demand.
  • Students can benefit from access to information on wage and non-wage investment returns for a variety of occupational fields.
  • When provided with training and tools, academic advisers can help students better understand and connect their educational and career goals.

Complete College America has identified three broad, interrelated areas that serve as the focus for Purpose First:

  • Integrating career assessment and counseling — early and continuously — into academic advising.
  • Incorporating economic and noneconomic return-on-investment calculators into the advising process.
  • Providing real-time labor market information accessible to students through a learning management portal.

Five CCA Alliance members in Hawaii, Texas, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Virginia have selected multiple institutions that will be demonstration sites for the implementation of Purpose First.

On which practices will CCA focus to ensure that more students choose a career as they enter college?

Elston: The demonstration network of states and institutions will work closely over 24 months to develop and test a set of strategies, tools and practices that other colleges can deploy to help their students develop and act on a strong sense of career purpose. We will place specific focus on college admissions, new student assistance, and academic advising.

What does CCA hope to accomplish by the end of the project, and what are the measures of success?

Elston: We hope to see more students participating in an assessment of their values, skills and interests before they enroll and register for classes. Additionally, we expect that the majority of students at the demonstration institutions will have access to an economic and noneconomic ROI calculator, incorporated into the advising process.

Using the CCA national data metrics, we expect to see more students enrolled in a major or meta-major within their first year and increased credit accumulation within an associated program of study.

The Purpose First project allows CCA to enhance our mission of significantly increasing the numbers of Americans with quality certificates or college degrees through our work with an Alliance of 41 states, territories and consortia. We’ll disseminate through the CCA network a final Purpose First report and training guide of findings related to implementing purpose-driven strategies, for future scaling efforts in states and institutions across the country.

Innovation in College & Career Preparation

Wanted: Education Ideas to Support a Rapidly Changing Economy

Allison Griffin, USA FundsBy Alison Griffin, Senior Vice President, External and Government Relations, USA Funds

As they begin their careers, recent graduates are likely to have four job changes in less than 10 years — and approximately 50 percent of employment opportunities that exist today will disappear by 2030.

With these significant shifts in our workforce, designing an adaptive postsecondary system that supports lifelong learning has become critical to our nation’s future economic prosperity.

The people and unmet needs behind these changes inspire an opportunity for design. As innovation across the postsecondary system gathers steam, through colleges and universities, as well as emerging providers of education, it is a pivotal moment for progress.

How might we prepare students — of all ages — for active civic engagement, real-world employment, and career success in an ever-transforming economic ecosystem?

USA Funds® is sponsoring a new initiative tackling that very question.

The Future of Higher Education Challenge, from OpenIDEO, is exploring ideas that cut across cultures, income levels and sectors. The effort envisions a system that supports innovative models and empowers a broad set of learners.

Future of Higher Education Challenge participants will work together to design new ways in which to better support learners to evolve with the needs of tomorrow.

And OpenIDEO needs your ideas to make that happen.

Future of Higher Education Challenge
OpenIDEO is seeking higher education ideas to help students adapt to a changing economy.

An open innovation platform, OpenIDEO partners with leading organizations to drive collaboration, innovation and impact around the world’s toughest problems. It addresses each issue with a Challenge, a three-to-five month collaborative process modeled on IDEO’s design thinking methodology. The approach focuses attention on the topic and creates a space for community members to contribute and build off each other.

The Challenge process
To address the issue of higher education in a changing economy, OpenIDEO is calling the global community to action, looking for ideas that:

  • Get creative in thinking about the various modes for offering postsecondary learning.
  • Rethink the way education can remain relevant throughout a learner’s lifetime.
  • Consider accessibility across a broad and diverse spectrum of learners.
  • Use data to reimagine and inform the student reality.

In the Research phase of the Future of Higher Education Challenge, currently underway, OpenIDEO is looking for your stories and reflections, emotions, perspectives and other personal contributions related to education after high school and throughout one’s lifetime. Once the Research phase is complete, the Challenge will progress through phases that will narrow the field to “Top Ideas.”


The Future of Higher Education Challenge will rely on design research methods like interviewing, storytelling and empathy exercises that allow OpenIDEO to delve into the experiences of others. Building on this research, the initiative will bring to life the question, “How might we prepare students for active civic engagement, real-world employment, and career success in a rapidly changing economy?”

USA Funds is sponsoring the Challenge in support of our focus on Completion With a Purpose® — building a more purposeful path for students to and through college and on to rewarding careers and fulfilling lives. Joining us as partners and sponsors in the OpenIDEO Future of Higher Education Challenge are:

We hope that the Challenge will create impact and yield tangible solutions that the sponsors and partners can support or integrate into our work long after the Challenge ends. Facilitating this effort is support that includes:

  • Entrepreneurship boot camp for those submitting one or more of the Top Ideas, and scholarships to other teaching boot camps, from Level Education from Northeastern University.
  • An invitation to join Georgia Tech’s summit of industry leaders in innovation in higher education.

Top Idea selections will have the opportunity to discuss and refine their innovations with sector experts — and to be a voice in an industry-leading conversation.

What’s next
The initial Research phase in the Future of Higher Education Challenge is underway. I hope you’ll get involved, share insights, and help start the conversation. Start here.

Innovation in College & Career Preparation

Leaders in Higher Education Innovation Offer Wish List for New President

Lorenzo Esters, USA FundsBy Lorenzo L. Esters, Vice President, Philanthropy, USA Funds

As our nation prepares to welcome a new president to the White House, we face one of the most important times in the history of higher education.

Educational attainment levels have risen for all Americans in the past 20 years. But whites attain bachelor’s degrees at nearly twice the rate of African-Americans — and at almost 3 times the rate of Latinos. Only about 43 percent of all young people between the ages of 25-34 hold a postsecondary degree.

Additionally, despite our nation’s increases in degree attainment in recent years, only 20 percent of U.S. college graduates have the skills in computation, critical thinking, problem solving and logical reasoning that today’s jobs require. Even more disturbing is the education-to-employment pipeline. The graphic below tells the story:



We continue to face inequity in our higher education system. While half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25, just one in 10 from low-income families does. And one in five students from families with a median income of $250,000 receives merit aid, compared with one in 10 students from families with a median income of $30,000.

With these realities facing our nation, in the days leading up to the Nov. 8 election, I asked some of my colleagues: What would they suggest to the next president of the United States about innovation in higher education?

Following are their suggestions:

“Reducing the cost of college, accelerating pathways to a degree, eliminating the skills gap between a degree and the dynamic requirements of the workforce, and eliminating reliance on debt to pay are all possible with a renewed focus on higher education. Innovation, investment and accountability should all be required of both the nation and its institution of postsecondary education.”
—    Charles Ambrose, President, University of Central Missouri

“Momentum matters. Consider advancing policies that ensure a strong start toward timely completion. As part of clear, guided pathways, institutions must design systems that teach students to make purposeful and informed major choices through access to career and labor market data, personal skills assessment, and support from advisers.”
—    Dhanfu Elston, Vice President for Alliance State Relations, Complete College America

“Equality of opportunity is a guiding value of our country, but ‘equality’ is determined by external circumstances beyond the control of many. True progress depends on our ability to examine and understand how the paradox of equality hinders our ability to address and eliminate inequities in our society.”
—    Tia McNair, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Student Success, Association of American Colleges & Universities

“While much progress has been made to broaden access to higher education, the ultimate measure of our success is not just the number of students we help attend college, but the number we help graduate. Federal policy must support public universities as they work to ensure students stay on track and finish their degree in a timely fashion with little or no debt.”
—    Peter McPherson, President, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities

“Our success as an economy, as a society and as a democracy depends on how successful we are in increasing significantly the number of low-income, first-generation and students of color who earn a college degree. I’d ask that the new president do three things: Fund financial incentives for colleges that produce greater numbers of these students; sponsor a national award program for campuses educating this set of students, with an annual recognition at the White House; and create a National Center for Student Success, where ideas, policies, programs and practices could be collected, studied and disseminated.”
—    George Mehaffy, Vice President for Academic Affairs, American Association of State Colleges and Universities

“A college degree or credential is key to financial security and success, yet too many students who start college don’t finish. Policies and practices advocating for proactive student supports, such as college coaching and first-year programming, can help ensure students are prepared to successfully complete college and earn a degree.”
—    Emily Sellers, Director of Outreach and Engagement, Indiana Commission for Higher Education

“Higher education institutions are facing complex issues and challenges that call for an enhanced focus and core knowledge to support student success outcomes and college value. Among the important policy considerations for the new president are: expansion of efforts to help higher education promote curricular and program reform to better align the skills and knowledge gap that exists between what students are taught and the competencies businesses need; creation of new opportunities for universities to partner with business and industry, especially through the creation of internships; and support for programs to increase the identification of talented and diverse leadership for higher education institutions.”
—    Mary Evans Sias, Director, Millennium Leadership Initiative, American Association of State Colleges and Universities

“College affordability and accessibility are constrained by the antiquated ideas of who, how and, most importantly, when today’s students are seeking and participating in postsecondary education. We need to move toward a just-in-time process of making financial aid, courses and support services available on a student’s timeline, rather than an institutional or governmental calendar.”
—    Brian Sponsler, Vice President, Policy, and Director, Postsecondary and Workforce Development Institute, Education Commission of the States

Innovation in College & Career Preparation

Student-Veteran Success Begins With These Three Steps

James CraigBy James Craig, Associate Teaching Professor and Chair, Department of Military and Veteran Studies, University of Missouri St. Louis

College is tough. College for student-veterans is tougher.

That’s because, in addition to the typical challenges that all students face as they navigate the path to earning their college degrees, student-veterans also are coping with transitioning back to civilian life.

And to make matters worse, the many valuable educational and tactical experiences that student-veterans gain while serving their country often don’t translate to credit toward a college degree.

Multi-State Collaborative on Military CreditMy institution, the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL), and the Multi-State Collaborative on Military Credit (MCMC) are working to remove the obstacles to student-veteran success.

As a veteran myself, I’m proud to be part of a university whose administration recognizes the importance of facilitating student-veterans’ higher education success. I’m equally proud to co-chair an MCMC work group examining articulation of academic credit with colleagues from the Midwest. With the help of funders like USA Funds®, this 13-state collaborative through the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) is working to translate into college credentials the competencies that veterans have acquired through military training and experience.

Today, as we pause to honor veterans for their service, I challenge all institutions to commit to streamlining student-veterans’ paths to success in college and career. It’s a tall order, given that many postsecondary schools currently don’t measure college credit in a way that acknowledges veterans’ prior educational experiences.

UMSL Veterans Mural
“Overlapping Identities,” a mural by Mike Wattle, a Navy veteran and 2015 University of Missouri St. Louis graduate, hangs outside the UMSL Veterans Center.

But if we can recognize the prior learning of student-veterans — and award college credit for it — then we’ll be putting veterans on a shorter path to earning the degrees to transition to the next chapter in their lives. And by making it clear to veterans that their military experience is valued on campus, we’ll be encouraging a sense of connection that helps students thrive, persist and graduate.

What can institutions do now to find ways to recognize military educational experience? And how can we help ensure that student-veterans have the best chance to succeed in higher education? Here are three ways to start:

1.    Be open to ideas. A number of postsecondary schools have implemented outstanding programs and practices for assessing the prior learning of student-veterans. Reach out for help from other schools and from organizations like MCMC. The Valuing Military Learning guide from MCMC includes helpful instruction, program profiles, student testimonials, and links to resources. What works on another campus might not be an exact fit for your school, but you may be able to adjust that institution’s practices to meet your needs.

2.    Understand your veterans. Don’t assume that you know who your institution’s student-veterans are and the obstacles they face just because you read the latest magazine or blog. Head to your own school’s institutional research office to learn how old your veterans are, what they’re majoring in, and their graduation rates. When we took some time with the institutional research office at UMSL, we learned that, of our student-veterans who were dropping out, more than half were doing so in the first two semesters. So we began assigning faculty mentors to our student-veterans as soon as they arrived, and we soon saw first-year retention rates go up by 25 percent.

3.    Go beyond student services. Many institutions provide student services for veterans. Remember that education is at the core of the student experience. At UMSL we have an entire department devoted to the academic success of student-veterans and the study of the veteran experience. But even if your institution doesn’t have such a department, you can have faculty who are veterans who volunteer their time or are funded in some way to work with student-veterans.

By matching military experiences with college credit, and then assisting our student-veterans throughout their educational experience, we’ll be providing the smoother path to college and career that our veterans deserve.