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OPINION: Higher Education needs to get comfortable with trial and error

Grand challenges facing society, like social mobility, sustainability, equity and the preservation of democracy, grow in complexity and urgency each day.

As engines of knowledge, discovery and innovation, colleges and universities were created to help us navigate troubled times like these.

But thousands of colleges pulling separately in their own direction won’t get us where we need to be.

We’ve seen that clearly when it comes to student success — and, ultimately, social and economic mobility. Too many institutions, in focusing on competition, rankings and prestige, have given short shrift to their role in growing the middle class and helping less advantaged Americans move up. 

Too many institutions, in focusing on competition, rankings and prestige, have given short shrift to their role in growing the middle class and helping less advantaged Americans move up. 

The good news is, we can break out of this competitive mode; a group of 11 public research universities is already showing how that’s done. Over the past seven years, through the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), those institutions have innovated together, scaled what works, held each other accountable and shared everything they’ve learned. This week, the UIA is releasing results and recommendations from our work thus far — lessons we believe can be applied at institutions across the country.

Related: These big universities put rivalries aside to raise graduation rates for low-income students

Our partner institutions have increased the number of total annual bachelor degrees awarded by 26 percent, and now graduate 36 percent more low-income students and 73 percent more students of color each year than when we started this work. That’s 73,000 additional graduates (above existing stretch goals) between 2014 and 2020, exceeding our 10-year goal of 68,000 in just six years. Additionally, our members are on track to double their founding goal and graduate 136,000 additional graduates by 2025.

Along the way, we’ve learned some hard-earned lessons. Here are five important ones from our report, linked here:

Too often, we mistake learning for failure. What works at one place doesn’t always transfer perfectly to another. And when that happens, critics skeptically cross their arms and pass judgement, missing an opportunity to learn why the idea didn’t transfer and how it could be adapted. 

Higher education has to get comfortable with trial and error. Colleges and universities are complex organizations, each with its own distinctive leadership, culture, practices and students — and good ideas taken from elsewhere will almost always need to be adapted.

When we see our work through a pass/fail mindset, we often miss the most significant learning, improvements and insights that could benefit higher education as a whole. With the UIA’s work, for example, we now understand what an idea looks like when applied in 11 different cultures, with 11 different student populations. Judging the results solely based on fidelity to the original model misses the point.

We must foster more cross-departmental collaboration. Internal collaboration is necessary to understand many of the challenges students face and to provide them with the support they need. When the UIA decided to test the concept of small grants for students close to graduation, the project couldn’t even get off the ground without connecting administrators and staff who didn’t regularly talk to one another. Enrollment, financial aid, bursar’s office, and student affairs staff all had to work closely together to identify the students most in need and to deploy the grants.

Having these collaborative teams and ways of working together in place proved incredibly valuable when the pandemic struck and institutions needed to quickly distribute the emergency aid provided by the CARES Act.

Selecting and empowering the right internal leaders makes all the difference. Decades into work on student success and completion, it’s now accepted that buy-in from the top is critical. What we’ve learned in the UIA is that college presidents also need to empower champions to lead the day-to-day work and drive real change.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to innovation is when no one has the authority to mandate changes and midlevel managers have to spend their time trying to convince peers and colleagues to move in a given direction. That challenge is circumvented when a senior leader — a senior vice president, for example — is charged with shepherding the work. Over the years, we’ve found that such champions are most successful when they have the president’s trust, know how to drive change on campus and are likeable. Without all three factors, the work too often stalls.

New work requires new hands. Many initiatives try to do big work with existing staff — but new work requires additional capacity. You can’t expect people to fit innovation in and around their already busy jobs. That’s why our fellows program has been critical to our success.

Fellows are embedded in each campus for one to three years with a sole focus: adapt, scale and shepherd UIA innovations. They fill in any gaps in existing structures and assemble and manage work that doesn’t have an obvious home. Their laser focus keeps the development of new approaches moving forward.

Lastly, leadership transitions are one of the biggest threats to student success. Over the past seven years, the UIA has experienced the transition of all but three of our university presidents and more than 25 liaisons. Early on, each transition killed momentum and set back the work, as we had to build buy-in and understanding of the work from scratch. No training manual can make up for knowledge hard won on a particular campus.

Now we operate with co-champions who jointly captain the work on each campus. If one champion leaves or transitions to a new role, the other can continue without missing a beat.

UIA institutions now graduate 36 percent more low-income students and 73 percent more students of color each year than when we started this work seven years ago. 

Taken together, our experiences over the past seven years show that real change is possible in higher education. They also show that to get where we need to go, institutions must develop a deeper understanding of what makes innovation work and scale. We’ve learned a lot about what works for students — now, we have to develop the capacity to spread it. 

Bridget Burns is the founding executive director of the University Innovation Alliance. She has advised university presidents, system chancellors and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. 

This story about the University Innovation Alliance was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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