I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed.

We’re doing some innovating of our own here at The Edge. Each week I will share my latest thinking on the people and ideas reshaping higher ed, alternating between my own reporting and my picks for thought-provoking and useful stories and resources from other organizations. I’ll also mix in some quick takes, noteworthy quotes, and stats that catch my eye, as well as occasional contributions from my colleagues.

This week I report lessons from looking back on the promises made at a 2014 White House summit on higher ed.

Those White House summits on “educational opportunity” left many missing links.

A White House summit is a great way to galvanize attention. But it’s not the best tool for carrying through a big idea like expanding educational opportunity.

That was the first lesson I took from a new, informal analysis of progress on commitments that were part of the Obama administration’s effort in 2014 to promote college access and success for underrepresented students. You remember that, right? Big to-dos at the White House in January and December of that year. Hundreds of colleges and higher-ed organizations falling all over themselves to be included. If you need a refresher, check out the summaries here and here.

A look back — seven years on — offers some interesting lessons and perspective on what was top of mind for college leaders at the time.

    The letdown I’m feeling isn’t because the pledges to improve graduation rates and other metrics by 2020 came up empty. In fact, the policy expert who oversaw the analysis, Terri Taylor from the Lumina Foundation, told me there “was actually a little more to celebrate” than she anticipated.

    Nonetheless, the analysis highlights how those Obama summits were a missed opportunity. To be sure, having just lived through four years of a president who openly disdained higher education, I don’t take for granted a White House that holds the sector to high expectations. But encouraging colleges to set high bars isn’t likely to work if there’s nothing to hold them accountable. Whether at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or in a nondescript college boardroom, goal-setting exercises are meaningless if they don’t involve mechanisms for tracking progress — ideally ones that are transparent about outcomes.

    I’m grateful to Taylor and her crew of Lumina interns for picking up where the White House left off and for sharing the findings with me. Their work came in response to my offhand plea last summer for some accounting of all those pledges.

    Of course, many findings come with caveats, and in this case, the analysis covers only the pledges from the second summit, said Taylor, Lumina’s strategy director for innovation and discovery. The interns looked only at public sources, like colleges’ websites and annual reports, to gauge progress, and didn’t directly contact institutions or organizations or conduct a more rigorous analysis to estimate the impact of the summit. Because of those limitations, Taylor has allowed me to share findings from the analysis but asked me not to publish it in its entirety.

    Still, it’s the only analysis I know of. So what did it reveal?

    Well for starters, just a few summit participants had publicly reported their progress. And even they tended to use different language or metrics to describe their goals for access and attainment over time. That made it difficult to track their efforts. Some colleges, at the Department of Education’s urging, had developed their goals collectively in state, regional, or local consortia. But while those collaborations were “laudable,” as Taylor put it, the consortia often lacked an online presence where their progress could be discerned.

    None of that is to say the summits didn’t have value. They do appear to have spurred action, even if it was hard to quantify, said Taylor. “Access and attainment remain high priorities for most, if not all, of the participants.” But while the White House can “get people’s attention,” she added (especially when new administrations come in), “it’s not a very good longitudinal-tracking organization” — especially for a sector whose basic unit of measure is a six-year graduation rate.

    So what about the goals?

    Because the analysis wasn’t comprehensive, I hesitate to devote too much space to highlighting wins and misses, but sharing some of that seems useful:

    • The University Innovation Alliance was singled out for a highly detailed analysis of its commitment to increase the number of graduates by 68,000, which it exceeded in six years. (Recently the UIA reported updated figures showing that its 11 founding members have now produced a total of 97,000 degrees over their baseline and are on track to double their initial goal by 2025. Notably, the proportion of their graduates from low-income families is rising faster than the increase in graduates over all.)
    • The California State University system, which pledged to have 34,951 more graduates by 2020 and 100,792 by 2025 (both oddly specific goals, numerically speaking) didn’t have readily available data on that goal. But it has published data showing that its graduation rates have increased since 2015.
    • The 12-member Louisiana Community and Technical College System didn’t hit its goal of producing 20,000 more graduates by 2020, but was “very transparent” in reporting on that shortfall, while also noting some successes on other 2020 goals. (Only about half of the pledges made by two-year institutions were trackable using publicly available data, the Lumina team found.)

    The foundation didn’t exempt itself or fellow education philanthropies from scrutiny. Its White House pledge centered on a $700,000 grant program aimed at making seven so-called completion colleges easier to navigate for military veterans and other adult students. At the time, that effort fell under a grant-making category meant to increase the “productivity” of colleges. Taylor told me that Lumina no longer uses that term, although the foundation still considers those goals in its grant-making. I realized I haven’t heard the term much myself lately, either.

    That wasn’t the only time-capsule moment the analysis revealed. Another: Attention to equity “was present but not as central as it would be today,” Taylor said. The same goes for adult students.

    Many of the ambitions for increasing college completion eight years ago were based on encouraging students toward self-directed academic programs — recall that 2014 was also when competency-based education was first gaining steam — while today many institutions are promoting a more focused, guided-pathways approach.

    All of which got me wondering: What goals that institutions are setting today will still feel important and relevant seven or 10 years from now? When we look back, will current commitments seem faddish or enduring? And in light of our societal challenges, what goals should colleges be setting? I’d love to hear from you on any of those questions. Please send me your thoughts. My email is below.

    Quote of the week.

    “One of several alarming deficiencies exposed by the Covid pandemic is the extent of our scientific illiteracy. What should have been a new Sputnik moment instead convinced a sizable number of folks that vaccines will make them sterile, magnetic, or satanic.” —Ron Charles, book critic for The Washington Post, in his “Book Club” weekly newsletter, introducing books recently honored for science writing.

    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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