Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

September 20, 2016

Collaborating to Drive Student-Centered Innovation

This post was guest authored by Bridget Burns, Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance.

The University Innovation Alliance (UIA) brings together 11 large public research universities with a common vision: to raise college success rates, particularly for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students.

UIA members are tackling a big question that impedes many universities’ efforts to become more student-centered: “Who is responsible for student success?” New survey data confirms the existence of a “bystander effect”—or lack of clarity about who is responsible for improving student outcomes.

From the outset, UIA members have acknowledged the need for clarity of roles and responsibilities for student success. At the beginning of our work two years ago, each campus developed cross-departmental student success teams designed to carry out the work of the UIA. These teams come from different departments—academic, advising, financial aid, registrar, and more—and have a mandate from university leadership to advance innovation focusing on student success across campus. As a result, student success has become a university-wide priority, led by respected individuals in the faculty and administration who serve as resources and advocates.

Throughout the year, the 11 student success teams convene at UIA member campuses to share ideas and experiences, assess ongoing projects, discuss opportunities for future innovation, and develop relationships with members of their own team and allies at other institutions. When the teams return to their home campuses, they have a plan, a built-in network of people ready to drive those plans, and a network of contacts they can tap for advice and guidance when challenges arise.

In our first two years, we’ve taken student success initiatives that are working on one or more of our campuses and shared them throughout our network, building evidence that collaboration can accelerate innovation in higher education. One example of this is process mapping, which allows universities to see their policies and practices through the eyes of the students they serve.

Two UIA members—Georgia State University and Michigan State University—used process mapping exercises to better understand the challenges new students were facing as they began their college careers. By prioritizing the needs of incoming first-generation and underrepresented students, both universities were able to clarify communications about issues such as financial aid and academic advising. This helped to reduce the confusion that many new students confront, especially when they have limited financial resources or limited access to advice from people who have previously attended college. Now, other UIA members are going through their own process mapping exercises to identify student success barriers in these and other areas.

Georgia State is also a national leader in using proactive advising to identify students at risk of not graduating and intervening early to keep them on track. As part of this process, the university changed the way it handled student advising appointments. Now, any student can come into the advising center at any time, without an appointment, to talk over questions or concerns they may have. This required increased investments in advising staff, but the financial benefits of keeping students enrolled and on track for graduation outweigh the up-front investment.

By building and convening student success teams that are empowered to drive change on their campuses, and implementing strategies like process mapping at multiple institutions, the UIA is demonstrating that innovation is truly a collaborative process. After starting out with a goal of graduating an additional 68,000 students above and beyond previous projections over 10 years, UIA member institutions are now on track to exceed that goal by an additional 26,000 students. We are excited about the progress we’ve made and thrilled about the opportunities that creates for the first-generation and under-represented students who are essential to our future.

Originally published on Impatient Optimists.