Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

By Jeffrey J. Selingo

This article is part of a series profiling the next generation of higher education innovators and leaders.

The diverse and complex challenges facing higher education today require leaders to look outside of their institutions for new solutions and innovations, yet most are “heads down” in their jobs, just trying to keep up with daily demands. When they do look up and search for solutions elsewhere, they are likely to call their counterparts at other institutions for advice or hunt for ideas at conferences.

“Everyone is looking for answers, but they don’t know where to go to find them,” said Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance. “So they fall back to what’s comfortable and easy without ever knowing if they’re even following the right strategy.”

Bridget BurnsBurns discovered that this haphazard approach to innovation was common among higher-education institutions while on a fellowship with the American Council on Education in 2013-14. She was based at Arizona State University, where she worked under its president, Michael Crow, considered one of the most innovative presidents in higher education. From there, she traveled to dozens of campuses asking leaders how their peers or nearby schools were tackling critical issues, whether it was recruiting first-generation and minority students, overhauling financial aid to retain low-income students, or boosting graduation rates.

“For the most part, they didn’t know,” Burns said. “The lack of knowledge about the field of higher education from the insiders in the field was shocking.”

In 2014, Burns set out to improve the dissemination of innovative ideas throughout higher education. During the previous year, several university presidents, led by Crow, had been talking about how to graduate more low-income, first-generation students. Their discussions culminated in the founding of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a consortium of 11 public universities, including ASU, Georgia State University, Michigan State University, that in total enroll some 400,000 students. Burns became its founding executive director.

From the beginning, the Alliance wasn’t designed to be yet another academic consortia or association. For one, it was started by presidents who had a stake in its success. With 11 members already serving large numbers of first-generation, low-income students, the Alliance was deliberately kept small and without overlap in membership between institutions within a state. While several large foundations contributed to the Alliance’s expenses, each university had to provide matching dollars and dedicate administrators to have skin in the game and help propel its work forward.

Perhaps most unusual in the formation of the Alliance was its commitment to cooperation. Higher education institutions compete on multiple fronts—for students, faculty members, and research dollars. Such competition often discourages the sharing of ideas and resources between institutions. Historically, universities have developed their own strategies and tools in order to gain a competitive advantage over their peers. But in its founding document, the Alliance rejected the idea that competition among universities must exclude cooperation.

“People outside of higher education don’t realize how big of a deal it is that the institutions within the UIA are cooperating to the extent they are,” said Candace Thille of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, who has worked with the Alliance. “The UIA was established on this premise that competition among institutions was not serving each of them individually. That was quite a hurdle to overcome for each of those institutions.”


Thille considers Burns an integral part of UIA’s early success. In March, the Alliance announced that it was on track to beat its initial commitment of graduating an additional 68,000 students over the next decade, by some 40,000 new students, partly with improved advising.

For her part, Burns maintains a frenetic pace, traveling the country spreading the message of the UIA on panels and in talks at conferences and visiting campuses. Her commitment to the Alliance is deeply personal. Unlike many university leaders and higher-education policymakers, Burns has lived the life of the students she is now trying to assist.

Burns grew up in rural Montana and attended a community college in Idaho, where she received a Pell Grant. “I assume that if they were going to let me take out loans to pay for my education, surely adults would be watching to help keep me on track,” Burns recalled. “When I did graduate, it was with a lot of excess credits and the loans to pay for them.”

By chance, she ended up applying and getting accepted to Oregon State University. The experience of a big state research university changed her life. She got involved with competitive debate, was elected student body president, and then appointed to the State Board of Higher Education. Graduate school followed and work as a policy advisor with the Oregon university system and its chancellor, where she got an early glimpse of what she would come to discover on her ACE fellowship a few years later: “That there was too little testing and scaling of good ideas, and no one wanted to share them,” Burns said.

The UIA has aimed to change the barriers to innovation Burns witnessed in Oregon and on her ACE fellowship. Its tightly knit group of 11 universities allows the Alliance to better pinpoint good ideas quickly. “Eleven heads are better than one,” Burns said. When the group finds a strategy or tool that is showing success at one of its universities, it works to apply that solution across all the UIA campuses.

“They’re sharing their failures, too,” said Thille. “So campus leaders know what to avoid.”

And once the UIA finds successful strategies and models, the idea is to spread what they have learned to higher education in general, not just the member institutions. “We’re not a club; it’s a cause,” said Burns. “We’re trying to start a movement.”


That movement started in 2014 with the use of predictive analytics—the idea that the massive amount of historical data colleges collect on students can help detect those who need help the most. When the Alliance was formed, three campuses were actively using predictive analytics, none more so than Georgia State. By mining student data on performance and financial aid, Georgia State had dramatically improved its outcomes. Hispanic students there, for instance, graduate at three times the rate they did a decade ago, while African American and white students graduate at twice that rate.

By the end of 2015, nine campuses in the UIA had started using predictive analytics, up from just three. Now in 2016, supported by a U.S. Department of Education First in the World grant, the Alliance is conducting a randomized controlled trial using 10,000 students to measure the effectiveness of advising programs based on data analytics.

To encourage other universities in the Alliance to adopt ideas and tools for colleagues, Burns helped develop an infrastructure that is meant to sustain innovative practices over the long run. In higher education, too many good ideas and projects fail because they have only one champion, who might move on to other ideas or leave the institution for another job. “On campuses there are people who deliver on change, and they are usually totally overburdened because everyone knows that person delivers,” Burns said. “When I was at ASU, I saw how they succeeded in incubating and sustaining good ideas because Crow hired a stable of smart people he was able to throw projects to.”

With the Alliance, Burns wanted to build a similar stable. Each campus has a liaison to the UIA who already advises the president, such as the chief of staff. But in addition, each university has a full-time Innovation Fellow, an early-career academic whose sole focus is to support their institutions in scaling proven innovations and communicating their outcomes.

“The structure brings energy and value,” Burns said. Too many associations and consortia in higher education expect campus leaders to come to them for ideas, usually through meetings at conference hotels. By contrast, UIA campus teams travel to member institutions for meetings throughout the year, where they not only hear about each other’s work in short talks (not hour-long keynotes or panels, Burns noted). The teams spend most of their time “doing the messy work” of how to apply the innovations back on their home campuses, she added.

Another difference in how the UIA develops innovative ideas compared to most of higher education comes in its approach to problem solving, which leans heavily on the “design thinking” process used in the corporate world. Design thinking has often been used to design new products, but it can also be used to reshape the processes that people use in their work.

In addition to outperforming the UIA’s goals for new graduates, six member universities—Ohio State, Central Florida, Arizona State, Iowa State, Oregon State, and Purdue—have each boosted the number of low-income graduates by more than 19 percent since 2014.

That success has other campuses asking to join the UIA. More than 30 campuses have signed up to be observers, but Burns doesn’t envision the Alliance growing anytime soon, if ever. The UIA is currently planning a national convening for any campus interested in engaging in similar work, slated to occur in the fall of 2017.

“We want other alliances to form in the future,” she said. “My hope is that we’re showing higher education leaders that meaningful change can happen quickly and within and across universities by picking a project and doing sustained work over the course of the year to share ideas. There’s no reason that needs to be confined to just the 11 members of the UIA.”


Read about other higher education leaders who are making a difference