Remarks (as delivered) by Dan Greenstein at the Oregon Community College Association Annual Conference
Thurs., Nov. 2, 2017
Good morning, and thank you for asking me to such a beautiful place. I’ve been on the road for the better part of the past month, and this is definitely one of the most scenic places I’ve visited.
Like many of you, I’ve spent nearly all of my career in higher education. And over the past year, I’ve come to see our enterprise from a new vantage point – that of college parent. And, because my son lives with and is friends with a number of first-generation students, I’ve become quite popular as a source of information and advice.
This experience has given me new perspective on the subject of opportunity for education after high school. For my son and me – and I suspect, many in this room – going to college was a given. But for so many, including a good number of the students that you serve, it is not. And what has really given me pause in thinking about the state of opportunity in our enterprise is the degree to which it depends on race and income. In 2017.
Higher education is supposed to be the great equalizer, but it is increasingly becoming a reproducer of privilege. A high-income student is five times more likely to have a degree by 24 than a low-income student. Gaps in educational attainment by race/ethnicity have not budged in two decades and in some cases have widened. And in some of our urban and rural centers there are virtual education deserts – places where affordable, high-quality higher education opportunities are not even accessible.
This represents both an economic and moral failure. And it is the source of growing frustration for Americans. A recent survey found that only one in four people thinks our higher education system is fine the way it is. And there has been a startling uptick in the percentage of people who think that colleges and universities are part of the nation’s problems rather than solutions.
This opportunity gap, which is turning aspiration into frustration, threatens the vitality of our economy and our communities. As a nation, we face a shortfall of up to 11 million individuals with post-high school credentials by 2025 unless we aggressively expand access and success for today’s college students. We’re talking growth on the order of five percent per year – every year – in the number of completions. How many of your campuses are poised to meet that kind of goal?
And of course we know that education is highly correlated with overall quality of life – greater economic security, lower risk of unemployment, better health outcomes, more participation in our schools and communities. So the opportunity gap is not just an educational issue, it is a societal issue—one that urgently demands our attention.
All of you in this room are on the front lines of the push to bridge higher education’s opportunity gap and to address the growing frustration that it appears to be causing. Despite our national obsession with the most elite institutions, it is at our community colleges and our comprehensive universities where those efforts will rise or fall. And you face that task with serious resource constraints and the mandate to serve all students, regardless of their academic and/or financial challenges. Given all of that, I applaud you for your commitment, your persistence, and your responsiveness.
And even with all of the challenges that lie ahead, I believe that there is real cause for optimism in our enterprise. Over the past decade, there have been tremendous gains in knowledge about where and how to make changes in policy and practice that lead to better outcomes for our students. And there are a growing number of colleges – including, I suspect, many in this room – that are applying that knowledge and sharing it with their peers. The critical task ahead is to accelerate the adoption of what works, to move more quickly from pilot to scale. But more on that in a moment.
Last month, we at the foundation and a number of our partners celebrated the conclusion of Completion By Design, a multi-year initiative involving nine community colleges across three states. The colleges formed cross-campus and cross-institutional teams to unpack the most significant hurdles to student success and develop strategies for overcoming them. The emphasis on breaking down silos and taking a more holistic approach to student success really tested the campuses, as they will tell you, but it was a critical factor in the results they were able to achieve.
In recent weeks, I’ve also spent time on the campuses of several members of the University Innovation Alliance. The Alliance is a coalition of 11 public research universities – including Oregon State University – that are committed to increasing degree completion for underrepresented student groups by stimulating and scaling innovation and NOT by limiting access.
The story behind both of these efforts is not about a silver bullet or a secret sauce, but about a journey. A journey that starts with the research about today’s college students and how they interact with our higher education system. Some of that research challenges longstanding assumptions and traditions about going to college, including and especially that students need, expect, and deserve maximum flexibility to chart their course to a credential. The work of the Community College Research Center and others have pointed out that the “cafeteria” approach to college was leaving too many students bewildered and frustrated, not liberated.
That opened the door to one of the first – and arguably most critical – steps in the Completion by Design journey, which was the development of a loss-momentum framework designed to identify the points on the path to a credential where students are most likely to lose momentum and respond to them with actions to help them regain that momentum. The elements of the framework also helped to hone the initial priorities of the University Innovation Alliance. The framework – rebranded in recent years as a pathways movement – covers the entire student journey, broken into four key stages.
The first part of the pathway is connection. Get on the path. We all know that many students take themselves out of the higher education game before they even get to college. So at this stage, the work focuses on helping students seamlessly transition from high school into college, including opportunities for college work in high school, like dual enrollment and Advanced Placement. It also includes helping students navigate the application and aid processes, where low-income and first-generation students especially struggle. Miami-Dade College recognized this and developed a plan that places a pre-college advisor in every public high school in Dade County.
The next stage is entry. You know better than anyone that for many of today’s college students, the first weeks and months can mean the difference between reaching their goals and falling short. And you probably also know the sad reality that only about one in five community college students that end up in a remedial class have a degree after three years.
Here we have seen some of the most significant work, both inside and outside Completion By Design, to better assess students’ readiness for college-level work and to address their skill needs in a more timely and effective way. For example, the North Carolina community colleges now use multiple measures to place students, and they do it systemwide. And in the area of remediation, I am very encouraged to see that campuses and systems in nearly half the states have adopted design principles that will help more students succeed through the use of co-requisite approaches.
Next comes progress. Stay on the path. A hard look at the data showed that a surprising number of students disappear after clearing the gatekeeper hurdle and accumulating more than half the credits they need for a credential. Yes, some of these students got what they were seeking without a credential. But many did not, and often for reasons that colleges can address.
In staying on the path, we’re seeing the emergence of promising new digital learning tools that can adapt content to students’ knowledge and learning styles, allowing them to master more content and to do it in less time. Evaluations of initial experiments show that when adaptive courseware is implemented well, students can master content in half the time and pass rates increase by as much as one-third – with reduced costs for institutions. This has particular promise when applied to gatekeeper courses, which I hope we can soon rename gateway courses.
We’re also seeing technology-enabled and intrusive advising that helps students avoid costly mistakes in course registration and program mapping. Lorain Community College in Ohio has made significant strides in this area, including the development of tools to gauge important non-cognitive factors like student motivation.
Progress also includes targeted student services such as emergency or retention grant programs that can help students deal with unplanned expenses and keep them from having to choose between fixing the car and staying in college. Through its Panther Retention Grant, Georgia State University has been able to assist thousands of students, significantly boosting retention with a fairly modest financial investment.
And finally, of course, completion. And for many community college students, that includes successful transfer to a baccalaureate program, which sadly remains an elusive goal for many students. I was saddened but not entirely surprised to review the results of a 10-state transfer study we funded, which found that the average transfer student loses 13 credits. That’s a semester.
Guilford Tech in North Carolina came to that realization and took action. The college launched a credit mapping process that led to the creation of several new certificates and the eventual restructuring of all its technical programs, all with an eye toward maintaining options for students wishing to go on with their education.
In both Completion By Design and the University Innovation Alliance, the results have been significant and encouraging. For CBD, the graduation/transfer rate for participating colleges increased an average of eight percentage points over a six-year period, compared with a national average of just one percentage point. In terms of credentials awarded, CBD colleges posted a gain of 30 percentage points over that period. And they met performance targets on key momentum measures – passage of gateway math and English, credit completion in first term and first year – three years early.
The UIA also has made significant strides in a short period of time. In its first three years, the Alliance has posted a 25 percent increase in the number of low-income graduates from its institutions. This places the Alliance on a course to exceed its target of 68,000 additional low-income graduates by 2025 by nearly 40 percent.
To be clear, the stories of CBD and the UIA are not all rainbows and sunshine. In both efforts, some campuses are progressing much faster than others. There are still areas – like retention for the CBD colleges – where all campuses have yet to move the needle. And as we know, change efforts are inherently fragile, always vulnerable to leadership changes and external forces that create distractions and sap momentum. That said, these institutions, which represent a real cross-section of our enterprise, show that true change is possible – and in our lifetimes.
So what is it going to take to see more of that kind of change at more of our colleges and universities, to mount a truly national push to bridge the opportunity gap? I described some of the innovations and interventions that show great promise, but as CBD and UIA institutions will tell you, they don’t appear out of nowhere and they don’t implement themselves. As I reflect on the learning and the lessons of both of these initiatives, four themes stand out. Let me run through them quickly and then draw out specific lessons for those of you present in the room.
First, focus on access AND success. In the push to improve persistence and completion rates, we absolutely must take care to ensure that we are not pursuing those goals by becoming more selective. One of the things that is notable about the work of Completion By Design and the University Innovation Alliance is the commitment to increase success rates and close graduation gaps by race and income without limiting access. That’s a pretty strong statement to make, particularly for the UIA, as research universities have historically been celebrated for exclusivity rather than inclusion.
Second, take a hard look in the mirror, and then take action. My friend and colleague Kati Haycock says it best: “Show me an institution that has really improved its student outcomes, and I guarantee you that data is part of their story.”
That is certainly true at Georgia State, where a look at thousands of pieces of information yielded clues about where students were hitting roadblocks. One key response was to strengthen its advising efforts, which is especially important for first-generation students. And for those who argue that beefing up student services is just too expensive, I offer this: GSU has found that each percentage point increase in retention nets several million dollars in tuition revenue from the students who stick around.
Third, “small” things can make a big difference. In both CBD and UIA, institutional exploration of the data also revealed that students get tripped up on seeming minor things like registering for courses, resulting in wasted credits and aid dollars that led to dropout for many. Another barrier that has surfaced is the relatively small but unplanned personal expenses that create a gap in students’ ability to pay tuition and thus stay enrolled. Those revelations have paved the way for the advising dashboards and emergency aid programs that I mentioned earlier.
Fourth, consistent and persistent leadership is key. Perhaps the least discussed part of the story at institutions like Sinclair Community College and the University of Central Florida is the time and effort it has taken them to get where they are today. The drive to improve student outcomes for those institutions started years before CBD and UIA even existed, and campus leaders and staff will tell you that not everything they’ve tried has worked as planned. Staying the course can be difficult in a world where the average tenure of a college president is about four years and where term-limited policymakers are demanding immediate results. As with data, I have yet to see a high-performing or high-potential institution that has not been involved in a sustained effort to improve their performance. There are no overnight success stories.
Finally, I want to leave you with concrete actions – six things that you can do when you return to work.
Look, I’m an historian by training and an optimist by nature. As an historian, I believe that higher education is fast approaching an inflection point, a moment of choice. We will either make the hard decisions necessary to remain a bridge to opportunity, or we will duck those decisions and become a reproducer of privilege and more unfortunately, segregation.
As an optimist, I believe that we have the people and the know-how to rebuild and strengthen that bridge to opportunity. So I ask you to join me in getting to work.
Thank you for everything you do.
Dan Greenstein is director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.