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Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: Emerging Ideas for Sparking Innovation, Equity in STEM, and Partnerships Between Colleges

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Happy Anniversary to The Edge, and to us.

This week marks three years since I began sending this newsletter. Every week I’ve included some mix of news, analysis, interviews, insights, dispatches, and — now and then — some gossip from my visits to campuses and conferences and my sit-downs with folks on the cutting edge of change in higher ed.

I’m just sorry we can’t all celebrate together with cake — or some ice cream from one of my much-missed detours to a campus creamery.

From the start, my colleagues and I envisioned this newsletter as a tool for continuing conversation: a way for me to convey to you what I pick up while out and about (with the perspective of my 30-plus years on the higher-ed beat) and a chance for you to reflect back your thinking on what I’ve written, so I can share that more broadly.

Even though for the last 16 months I’ve had no work travel — or face-to-face sit-downs with anyone — I’m especially grateful to all of you for keeping up your end of the bargain while we all observed #StayAtHome and #MaskUp, and then, for our health and others’, gratefully managed to #GetVaxxed.

The responses you’ve shared with me over the years (and especially since March 2020) have helped me highlight new resources for civic education, identify practices that shouldn’t come back once the pandemic winds down, and pass along key perspectives on spiking enrollment at some institutions known for their online offerings. We are all smarter for that.

And thankfully, we’re keeping up the conversation. I’ll share below additional responses to other topics I’ve covered recently — some related to the effects of Covid-19, some not. I expect that’s how things will go for the next few months, as we all pay attention to how higher ed is emerging from the pandemic, while also delving (back) into broader issues, including some that fascinate me, like alternative credentials, creative business models, new developments in student success, fresh approaches to serving older and nontraditional students, and a host of other emerging ideas aimed at improving equity. Got some new approaches on those fronts or others? Please be in touch. My email appears at the end of this (and every) newsletter.

Next week I’ll even be mixing it up — in person! — with some folks from the D.C. policy wonk scene. I’m not sure I remember how to get dressed or prepare for a real professional social event anymore, but I can assure you I’m ready to try. My pen and reporter’s notebook are already in my purse.

Follow-ups on equity in STEM, innovation without big prizes, and college-to-college partnerships.

Two responses to my newsletter on efforts to help underrepresented students pursue majors and careers in science and tech fields especially piqued my interest. One came from folks at the Caring Campus Initiative, which is now working with more than 60 colleges to ensure professional staff members understand — and put in place — practices that make students feel welcome. Another was from the head of the nonprofit Rewriting the Code, which helps college and early-career women in science and engineering build communities of support.

With all the attention being paid to inclusive and equitable teaching right now, it’s notable that a body of evidence is also emerging about the ways nonacademic staff members can contribute to students’ success. In fact, new research from the Community College Research Center shows that those efforts pay off in increasing students’ persistence. Among the practices highlighted: using “warm referrals” — including personal introductions — if a student needs help from another office, and following the “10-foot rule” by offering help or a friendly hello to any nearby student who might appear to need assistance.

Cultivating a welcoming environment is also one of the strategies recommended by Rewriting the Code. “The driving force for retention of women in computing majors at the college level is having a community of women who share a common passion,” the organization’s founder and president, Sue Harnett, wrote.

To counter the sometimes-cutthroat courses and stiff competition for internships, the nonprofit promotes national and international networks where its 11,500 members can find more collaborative environments. Those include groups designed to foster community among Black students (called Black Wings) and Latina students (called Latinas de RTC) from more than 300 colleges who might feel isolated on their own campuses. (Yeah, that isolation is a thing: According to Harnett, the average number of Black women receiving computer-science degrees each year is 2.6 per college. More than half of them are the sole Black woman in their cohort.) The nonprofit also asks its employer partners to provide mentorship and career-exploration opportunities to students just starting college, to inspire them to stick with engineering and computing majors, Harnett said. Even for colleges not affiliated with Rewriting the Code, that practice in particular seems easily replicable.

Responding to my newsletter about a buzzy contest for a $5-million prize that was never awarded, Doris Cheung, an academic technologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, shared a rather different, lower-key model for promoting innovation, which she described as “a very positive experience.” In 2016, the Boulder campus ran its own Innovation Grants contest, soliciting ideas throughout the institution. Sixty proposals came in, and four were funded with modest awards, including bonuses for the employees who pitched them. “The great thing about this initiative was that it encouraged risk-taking and innovation, but at a doable scale,” Cheung wrote, “and the administrators of the program helped keep the momentum and energy going.”

Contests like that aren’t unique to Boulder. But from Cheung’s telling, it sounds like the institution did a good job of organizing the competition, sustaining enthusiasm, and, most importantly, reporting back on successes and failures and funding successive rounds. Alas, some of that momentum seems to have faltered with the departure in February 2020 of the executive vice chancellor who started the program (it was Kelly Fox, now in a similar role at Georgia Tech) and the onset of Covid-19. Here’s to its revival — and to others like it elsewhere.

Since the announcement in March of $2.5-million Transformational Partnerships Fund grants, more than 40 colleges have inquired about the grants for possible mergers or other collaborations. That’s welcome news. The taboo around merger talks and other forms of sharing resources is unhealthy for higher ed. Three philanthropies financing these grants put their money behind promoting more discussion and action in this arena.

The grants are designed to give colleges a little cash to begin to explore partnership ideas. Most of the early talks will be confidential (sigh), but I’m excited to see what comes of this. In a recent blog post, one of the consultants overseeing the project noted that full-blown mergers aren’t the only approaches under consideration. “Many institutions are wisely — and quietly — looking for incremental improvements,” wrote John MacIntosh, managing partner at SeaChange Capital Partners.

He also emphasized the potential for some bigger moves. “The ethical issues are real,” he wrote. “Is it responsible to admit new students without high confidence that they can graduate on time and with adequate resources?”

Even as colleges’ economic and enrollment prospects appear to be brightening, his comments reflect the reality of the times: The financial hits many colleges took over the past year are not yet behind them.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks
The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.