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.

Learning from seven years of student-success experiments at 11 universities.

If you saw thenewsrelease from the University Innovation Alliance this month, you know the news: Together the 11 institutions in the UIA have already exceeded their goal, announced by President Barack Obama at the White House in 2014, of producing 68,000 additional graduates by 2025, half of them from low-income backgrounds. Having collectively hit 73,000 additional graduates last year, they’re now gunning for double the initial goal by 2023.

Far more interesting to me are the nuances behind that number. For starters, who led the pack, who trailed, and what we can learn from those successes and missteps. I’ll highlight here some perspectives on those questions from a chancellor of a member institution who’s been there from the get-go and from the group’s executive director, who also shared with me some data points that haven’t been published elsewhere.

First, though, a sense of what’s next for the UIA. It’s going (more) public with a goal it quietly adopted in late 2019: closing disparities in educational outcomes based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and family income and history of college-going. This is key. Producing more graduates by opening the top of the funnel is a big deal, especially in a national higher-ed environment where selectivity is still often equated with excellence. Showing other institutions the culture change it takes to close the gaps would be an even more notable achievement.

I only wish the group were publicly setting numerical markers, or attaching some dates to this new goal, to make its progress easier to track.

On the numbers: In its announcement, the alliance said 55 percent of the additional graduates were low-income students and 60 percent were from underrepresented-minority groups. But from the publicly released data, it’s hard to tell how much of the increase came from just admitting more of those students — I know that’s no small “just” — or (also) from closing achievement gaps. And how many of the 11 were chiefly responsible for the gains?

Bridget Burns, the group’s executive director, told me that releasing aggregate data reflects the purpose not to “shame” members, but to foster collaboration. “They joined a collective effort,” she said, “and they share a collective goal.”

What Burns shared with me, however, offers some hints. One chart, with institutions’ names redacted, shows disparity gaps in graduation rates for low-income students that range from less than two percentage points at one institution to as high as 9.5 percentage points at another (or potentially higher at a couple where that stat is omitted). Clearly, some institutions have a ways to go.

Another chart compares aggregate graduation data from 2012-13, the year before the alliance began its work, with 2019-20, the latest year available. Those two snapshots show a notable gain in the proportion of graduates from underrepresented-minority groups (to 27 percent from 19 percent), but only a small increase in the proportion who were from low-income backgrounds (to 30 percent from 28 percent). The overall number of graduates increased by 26 percent.

When the UIA first came on the scene, Kim Wilcox, chancellor of the University of California at Riverside, told me that successes at one institution wouldn’t necessarily translate easily, and that even the failures would be educational for the group’s members.

This week, when I asked Wilcox what he makes of the uneven progress, he doubled down on that idea. “All of those differences allow us to explore issues,” he said. If all the institutions had improved at the same rate, “we wouldn’t have learned near as much.” Spin notwithstanding, there’s probably something to that.

As for the lessons: After seven years, UIA has a lot to share. It provided some takeaways in this paper, which, among other points, notes how member institutions’ experiments in administering completion grants prepared them for distributing Covid-19 relief funds.

I also recommend a characteristically frank opinion piece by Burns in The Hechinger Report that describes how the group responded when leadership changes at many of its member institutions killed momentum on projects. It now identifies two top-level co-champions for the work on each campus, Burns wrote, so if one moves on, “the other can continue without missing a beat.”

To my disappointment, many UIA projects aren’t formally and publicly evaluated by third parties, but its work on advising has been. The alliance also uses proprietary third-party evaluation to create public-facing documents like this playbook on administering completion grants and another, expected this summer, on supporting students’ transition from college to career. Four doctoral fellows’ research on UIA projects will also be published soon.

When funding allows, Burns told me, the alliance does try to produce public analyses, but she believes other forms of dissemination can be more effective: Blog posts, streaming conference sessions, the Innovating Together podcast reflect that. To get people to pay attention, she said, “anecdotes and stories are much more interesting.”

A few more points that struck me from my conversations with Burns and with Wilcox:

  • Context definitely matters. “You really can’t just cut and paste an intervention from one campus to another” is how Burns put it. Case in point: During a project testing new approaches to advising, one institution realized it would encounter less resistance if it called outreach to students “coaching” rather than “advising” because, as Burns explained, “at that campus, faculty are advisers, and it’s part of their identity.”
  • Who heads up the efforts matters a lot, too. Those leaders need to be trusted by both their college presidents and their colleagues on campus. Otherwise, Burns said, it can be hard to tell if a new idea didn’t fly because the approach was flawed or just because “people didn’t want to come to that meeting” with the person in charge. And as Wilcox noted, the departure of a couple of presidents actually led to more progress at their institutions. Sometimes successors, he said, are “more committed than the originals.” (Sorry — he wouldn’t name names.)
  • Personal connections make a big difference. To be sure, higher ed has more than enough associations where college leaders can schmooze with colleagues. But Wilcox said being in the UIA gives member presidents — not to mention registrars, financial-aid directors, and other campus officials — specific reasons to interact with one another, fostering closer ties and more sharing of ideas (not to mention plenty of moments for Burns’s Twitter selfies). Those relationships, along with the opportunity for institutions like Riverside to have an additional “calibration set” beyond the UC system, pay off in improved outcomes.

Since 2014, the UIA has received nearly $26 million in philanthropic support (more than $11 million of that from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and an additional $8.9 million from a federal grant. This month it announced two new members: North Carolina A&T State University, the country’s largest public HBCU, and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Looking to the future, I asked Wilcox what’s most vital to tackling educational disparities. He named three things: developing more connections with K-12 systems, to ease students’ academic and social transitions from high school to college; creating welcoming campus environments; and providing the financial aid that many (more) students will need.

Looking to the past, I couldn’t help but think back to that 2014 White House Opportunity Summit — and the hundreds of pledges colleges and other educational organizations made that day to improve higher-ed access and success. I don’t really have the space to examine each of them, but if anyone else is game to try to systematically measure what resulted from those pledges, I’ll happily share it in a future newsletter.

Join me and four panelists on Thursday for a virtual forum on preparing students for the new economy.

As college students enter the work force, the professional landscape looks very different than it did even a few years ago. How can colleges prepare their new graduates, and what role should higher ed play in the post-Covid economy? In a virtual event this week, I’ll be talking about the skills, experiences, and credentials students will need to navigate the new (or latest) normal. I’ll be joined by Edward Montgomery, president of Western Michigan University; Janes Oates, president of WorkingNation; Natasha Stough, Americas campus recruiting leader at EY; and Luz Velazquez, a 2021 graduate of Binghamton University. Register here to watch and pose questions live at 2 p.m., Eastern time, on Thursday, or view later on demand.

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.

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