Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

The need for institutional transformation – fundamental change in culture, organizational structure, and business models and operations to address evolving student needs – existed well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A growing number of colleges and universities were already hard at work to create cohesive and inclusive learning environments by emphasizing leadership, evidence-driven practice, and a commitment to continuous improvement.

The pandemic and recent incidents of racial injustice have laid bare the inequities that lie at the heart of our nation’s higher education system. Our colleges and universities aspire to be “the great equalizer,” creating more equitable opportunities for all Americans – especially low-income and first-generation students and students of color – to achieve their dreams. But for too many, aspiration does not match reality.

The foundation’s commitment to institutional transformation continues, with more urgency and greater focus. The Postsecondary Success strategy has adopted four priorities within its existing commitments to innovation, transformation, data and information, and policy advocacy. Each and all of these priorities have an explicit emphasis on equity, focusing the change we and our partners seek on eliminating race and income as predictors of student success, and calling out policies and practices that have contributed to persistent inequities.

Our work will evolve and adapt to the changing needs of today’s students and the institutions that serve them. But our commitment to transformation toward a more student-centered, value-focused, and just system of higher education will not.

Foundation Priorities

One of the most urgent elements of this support is emergency aid for students – grants to address unplanned expenses that can derail a student’s journey. Experience in the field offers insight on how to design and deploy emergency aid programs, including streamlining application processes, delivery to students, and setting clear and equitable decision criteria.

Goal:

Strengthen and scale student emergency aid mechanisms to promote efficient, equitable distribution of aid funds.

Background:

In recent years, a growing number of colleges and universities have created and/or expanded emergency aid programs for their students to help improve retention and completion rates, particularly for low-income and first-generation students and students of color. COVID-19 is placing unprecedented pressure on these programs and is exposing the challenges faced by institutions that have less-developed programs.

Investments in this area focus on equipping more colleges and universities to quickly allocate emergency aid funds to students with the most need, using a combination of tools, knowledge, and training.

Tools and Resources:

Edquity, a leading provider of tools for colleges and universities administering emergency aid programs, will expand access to its platform to up to 100 additional institutions over the next 18 months and provide technical assistance for customizing and using its tools.

Guidance for Student Affairs and Aid Professionals:

National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), the leading organization for student aid professionals, will expand its professional development offerings, particularly on guidance related to distribution of federal CARES Act funds for students.

NASPA, the national organization representing student affairs professionals at colleges and universities, will provide training and technical assistance to its members to ensure efficient and equitable distribution of emergency aid funds, including the use of platforms such as Edquity.

Evidence:

The Hope Center, which has led the way in documenting basic student needs, will conduct much-needed research to build knowledge about how institutions are deploying their emergency aid programs – and the results they are getting for students.

For more on partner efforts on Holistic Student Support, visit the Advising Success Network.

Goals:

  • Expand support for faculty in reshaping and strengthening course and program offerings, focusing on introductory and developmental courses.
  • Increase knowledge about the teaching and learning opportunities and barriers facing students and faculty to inform changes in policy and practice.

Background:

Colleges and universities continue to expand and refine their delivery of online and hybrid (combined online and in-person) courses and programs, aided by research and tools on what works. COVID-19 has placed greater urgency on sharing and using this knowledge, with the rapid shift to new instructional models against the backdrop of resource challenges for faculty and continuing digital disparities for low-income and first-generation students and students of color.

Investments in this area focus on a combination of direct and indirect instructional design and delivery support for faculty and gathering actionable information to address the most urgent student and faculty challenges in an expanded online/hybrid environment.

Technical Assistance and Resources:

Every Learner Everywhere (ELE), which leads the foundation’s Digital Learning Network, has developed a faculty-focused playbook that addresses immediate and more advanced needs related to online course design and delivery. ELE will also be expanding their technical assistance offerings to colleges and universities.

The Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas will deliver a virtual professional development series for math faculty at up to 200 institutions to enhance math instruction in a fully online environment.

Tyton Partners will build on existing resources for evaluating digital courseware products, connecting colleges and universities with those resources and with high-quality courseware providers.

Knowledge and Insight:

Digital Promise Global is conducting nationwide surveys of faculty and students to assess sentiment, needs and challenges related to online learning, focusing on low-income students.

Policy Recommendations:

New America is partnering with the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) to convene an expert task force to develop recommendations for policymakers to address oversight, compliance, and consumer protection issues related to expanding online and hybrid program delivery.

For more on partner efforts on Quality Teaching and Learning, visit Every Learner Everywhere.

Goal:

Increase adoption of credit articulation and transfer frameworks that result in reduced attrition and time-to-degree for students attending more than one institution.

Background:

Students who transfer across colleges and universities too often face higher hurdles on their way to a certificate or degree – this is especially true for low-income and first-generation students and students of color. Inconsistent information, complex and confusing policies, and seemingly arbitrary credit rejection leave many spending time and money they don’t have, and for some, it is the end of their college journey. Research shows that the average transfer student loses the equivalent of a semester’s worth of work in the transfer process.

COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate these challenges as millions of students are forced to re-evaluate their educational plans.

Investments in this area will focus on a combination of immediate and longer-term strategies to improve credit mobility and transparency at the campus, system, and state levels.

Resources and Policy Recommendations:

The Aspen Institute will lead a multi-partner effort to assess the current state of credit mobility policies and practices, develop and disseminate recommendations for improving those policies and practices, and engage with high transfer volume campuses and systems.

Goals:

  • Improve and expand modeling and scenario-building to help institutions and states assess impact and develop possible responses.
  • Expand support for displaced students and severely impacted institutions.

Background:

The postsecondary landscape was facing disruption before the onset of COVID-19, with leading observers and experts predicting varying levels of institutional contraction, consolidation, and even closure as a result of demographic shifts and financial pressures stemming from the Great Recession.

The pandemic and its effects are likely to accelerate and magnify those forces, placing a growing number of colleges and universities and the students they serve in a precarious position. Many institutions and systems will be facing fundamental questions about capacity, business model, and mission; answers to those questions will impact educational access for millions of students.

Investments in this area will focus on creating and disseminating evidence-driven planning and modeling tools to inform key decisions by campuses, systems, and states; and identifying opportunities for tapping the capacity and experience of “national scale” colleges and universities to aid vulnerable institutions and students.

Tools and Resources:

Sorenson Impact Center at the University of Utah is leading a project to use the latest data science tools to provide real time modeling and analysis of demographic changes, student shifts, and their potential impact on access and success, particularly for low-income and first-generation students and students of color.

State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), working with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), is developing an interactive modeling tool for state higher education agencies to use in developing fiscal scenarios and their impact on institutional capacity to serve students.

Institutional and Student Support:

Institutions that currently operate at national scale and have experience with student displacement, such as Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Arizona State University, will work to identify opportunities for sharing knowledge, tools, and services to aid students displaced by the pandemic and its effects and colleges and universities facing significant challenges in an online/hybrid environment.

General Resources