Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

July 19, 2017

Dan Greenstein’s Remarks at ACT’s Enrollment Planners Conference


Dan Greenstein is the director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Four Questions for Closing the Opportunity Gap

(This is the “as prepared” version of the speech that Dan Greenstein delivered at ACT’s 32nd Annual Enrollment Planners Conference on July 19, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.)

Good afternoon, and thank you for allowing me to close out your meeting! It can sometimes be difficult to bat clean-up after such a great program, because so much has already been said. But I will try my best to be both inspiring and provocative.

I come to you at a significant—and let’s face it, unsettled—moment for our enterprise and for our nation. As an enterprise, we are—or should be—coming to grips with the fact that we are losing public confidence when we need to be building it. Polling data from New America shows that only one in four Americans believe that higher education is fine the way it is. And even newer data from Pew that should concern us all very deeply, shows growth overall in the proportion of folks who think higher education has a negative effect on the country, as well as a real partisan divide on that issue.

As a nation, I don’t think I have to tell you that we face deep divisions about who we are, where we are, and where we are heading. But despite all of the heated rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle, I actually think that this is less about left and right than meets the eye. But more on that in a moment.

Because I’m an historian, I’m naturally interested in the “how” and “why” of these developments. As an educator, I am interested in what they mean for higher education. So I have spent and will continue to spend a good bit of time talking with a wide range of people from coast to coast and reading a lot—everything from best sellers to PowerPoint decks and obscure blog posts. My goal is to get a better sense of the world that is unfolding and how our colleges and universities fit into it.

The experience—so far—has led me to a couple of observations. First, our nation is more divided than many of us realized only a year ago, and the division is more about opportunity than ideology. There is a palpable sense of anxiety and anger among many Americans about being left behind. Many people feel that globalization and innovation have not left them better off, and that the institutions that are supposed to help them are not there for them.

The second is that we—higher education—are in the hot seat for helping to close that divide. While inequalities in economic opportunity lie at the heart of many Americans’ discontent, gaps in educational opportunity are a natural extension of that frustration. This should not surprise us, as survey after survey has relayed the sentiment that education after high school is necessary but it is also increasingly unaffordable.

In communities where there are no jobs it can also seem—well, sort of hopeless. I encourage you to check out the book Janesville, an account of laid off GM workers pursuing alternative careers at Black Hawk Community and Technical College; or a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about Kentucky coal miners facing non-existent local jobs trying to reskill at Hazard Community Technical College.

This frustration is corrosive. It is too early to tell what it will mean, but it should give us pause. The point was driven home to me when I speaking to a gas station attendant while on a bike ride in Iowa. As I urged him to consider education after the high school he had recently graduated from, he just looked at me and asked, “Why would I spend money I don’t have to go to a community college where no one graduates?”

Four Questions

As we wrestle with the world that is unfolding, I believe that we in higher education need to engage in a serious dialogue about our role in widening the opportunity gap and our obligation going forward to close it. And that means tackling four basic questions:

 FIRST: What is higher education, and who is it for?

We have to redefine education after high school. Too many people—especially those who make decisions and those who tell the stories they read—still have outdated images of the average student as a newly-minted high school graduate making his or her way to lectures via perfectly manicured quads.

Today, 40 percent of our students are over 25 and fully one-quarter are parents. The share of non-white students has doubled in just the past 15 years. We also are up against a narrative that reads “college equals a four-year degree and not everyone needs a degree.” You and I know that higher education includes everything from short-term vocational training to postdoctoral studies, but there are many among us who do not. And we as educators are frequently guilty of building walls rather than bridges between vocational/technical, and academic institutions and programs. And that must end.

So why does all of this matter? It matters because our students are changing. Our economy is changing. And our colleges and universities must be prepared to change right along with them. We spend a lot of time talking about how to make students “college ready,” but how much emphasis do we place on making colleges “student ready”? Not nearly enough. And that is because we—just like some of those we are trying to influence—are stuck in old mindsets about our enterprise, and what and who it is designed for. And I would love to have a conversation with the people in this room about that.

That is why our work at the foundation has evolved to embrace a broader range of institutions and students. And to be explicit about eliminating race and socioeconomic status as predictors of educational attainment. We can’t be everything to everyone, but we firmly believe that real change requires real commitment.

SECOND: How important is higher education?

Even while people increasingly question the value of higher education, the evidence is clear: our economy favors those with education and training after high school, and punishes those who lack it. Virtually all of the jobs created since the Great Recession—99 percent—required some form of postsecondary education.

That trend will only continue. The Georgetown Center estimates that, at current enrollment and completion rates, our economy faces a shortfall in 2025 of 11 million credentialed workers. That’s a 5 percent compound annual growth rate in credentialing productivity at every single college and university in this country starting now… by show of hands, who here is from an institution that is on track for that level of credentialing productivity…?

To achieve that goal—even to get a good way toward it—we need more access and success in higher education, and we especially need it for the people who have consistently been left behind: low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults.

And we will need to achieve this feat amid some pretty adverse circumstances:

And just when all the signals suggest we have to cast our net wider, to grow our student body and succeed better with the students we do enroll, our incentive and recognition systems continue to celebrate and reward exclusion. And our funding models in most places reward enrollment not outcomes.

Think about it…the institutions that top the U.S. News & World Report rankings are the ones that reject the most applicants. The colleges and universities that receive the greatest per-student public funding are the least diverse ones. Public dollars—federal and state—still flow to institutions based—if in some places more loosely than once was—on enrollment. We absolutely must change these paradigms if we are going to leave fewer Americans behind.

Institutions like those in the University Innovation Alliance deserve credit and, more important, support, for their efforts to redefine excellence not in terms of who they exclude but who they include—and how well those students succeed. So do open access institutions that redefine their students’ experiences to emphasize credential completion and employment, like Miami Dade College and Sinclair Community College. They and a growing number of other innovators are determined to achieve excellence by leaving fewer students behind.

I understand that this is counter-cultural. But it is extremely important. As enrollment professionals, you are on the front lines of helping your colleges and universities to provide the best access to your institutions. I would argue that you will increasingly be judged on the success of those you bring through the door, which I hope will empower you to participate more fully in—or invite yourselves to—strategic discussions about student progress and success.

From the beginning, our work at the foundation has had college completion as its north star. And we also recognize that success must not come at the expense of access. Both require our attention and our efforts if we are going to have any hope of meeting the economic demands I just mentioned. 

THIRD: Can higher education sustain itself financially in ways that shrink rather than grow opportunity gaps?

In several respects, our enterprise is on a trajectory that will narrow opportunity rather than expand it. The most obvious dimension of this is financial. At the institutional level, the rich are getting richer, and the rest are increasingly scrambling. According to new data from Moody’s, the 20 wealthiest private universities hold 70 percent of the wealth in that sector. Less than half of community college presidents surveyed (43 percent) are confident in the financial stability of their institutions over the next decade. And at regional conferences drawing together the leaders of small independent colleges, I’m told that the ambient sentiment is one of mounting concern—in some cases bordering on fear.

 This is clearly impacting students. At public colleges and universities, tuition’s share of operating revenue has jumped from 38 percent to 48 percent over the past decade. The cost of room and board and books and fees has grown even more dramatically. Student aid funding in all its forms has made heroic efforts to keep pace but with disturbing consequences as institutional and some state aid begins to favor middle income students who are able to foot a higher proportion of the growing tuition bill. This has kept college costs flat for middle and upper income students (measured as a share of family income).

But these trends are disastrous for students from the lowest income quartiles, who are experiencing growth of about one percent a year in terms of the share of a family’s income required to attend college—and college expenses are already consuming 40 percent of their income.

The depth and severity of the college affordability issue are hotly debated, with some depicting a full-blown crisis requiring wholesale reform of the system, and others calling those claims overblown and suggesting more modest tweaks. I believe the reality lies in between. But about one thing we can be certain. For our lowest-income students, a crisis is unfolding. They are not just choosing between institutions; they are choosing whether they can go at all. And, for too many who do go, they are making difficult trade-off choices having to do with college costs on the one hand, and the basics having to do with food and shelter.

That is why we are so interested in rethinking financial aid and aid packaging, and also in institutions that are demonstrating how they can do more for their students while keeping costs low—National Louis University—a spunky, Chicago-based, social-justice-oriented independent college with roots going back to Jane Addams’ settlement era—is making headway with a quality bachelor’s degree whose $10,000 tuition is pegged at about the level of the total federal and state-based aid dollars that can be available to low-income Illinois students. Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors Universities are demonstrating scaled capability with adult-oriented, highly affordable competency based programs.

FOURTH: What is higher education’s role in the public arena?

Throughout our nation’s history, colleges and universities and their leaders have been engaged in the great debates of war and peace, civil rights, and poverty and inequality. But as America divides along the lines of the haves and have nots, where is higher education on issues like immigration and health care reform?

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, wrote a thoughtful piece in Inside Higher Ed arguing that higher education has become too insular, too self-referential, and too risk averse. She wrote that many college and university leaders, fearing the wrath of politicians and donors, have moved from the center to the sidelines in the public arena. I agree with her. We need those voices back if we are going to really address the opportunity gap.

I am heartened to see campus leaders address questions related to immigration and use their convening power to address and hopefully lower the racial tensions affecting many communities. But I am also left wondering how much standing we in higher education have already ceded in the public arena, absorbed with the pursuit and prestige and the race for revenue as those left behind have fallen even further back. The Pew and New America findings I mentioned earlier should be a clear warning sign, because goodwill among policymakers and the public are key to our sustainability as an enterprise.

Foundations are not exempt from this critique. If we’re being honest, we must admit that we have missed opportunities to speak up and speak out on issues that affect those most at risk of being left behind, particularly when it comes to systemic and institutionalized inequality. It’s an error that I am determined to correct, with your help.

Closing the Opportunity Gap

Reflecting on those four questions leads me to an inescapable conclusion: we need to think—and more importantly act—differently about how we deliver, fund, and measure higher education to make many more students successful and close the equity and opportunity gaps.

After nearly a decade of investing and learning with our grantees and partners, we believe that transforming higher education is a matter of will, not skill. That is why we are focusing on three related priorities that I’m going to refer to as innovations, collaboration, and incentives.

I will start with innovations. There is a small but growing number of colleges that are systemically adopting high impact programs, technologies, and practices to transform their education and business models so they can help many more students to acquire affordable, high-quality credentials.

These innovations are increasingly well known and we are seeing energy developing around them. Digital learning is one, empowering but not replacing faculty, helping them to be even better in what is and will continue to be a fundamentally human endeavor—education.

Technology-enhanced advising is another. This includes dashboards and degree maps that help in selecting courses, tracking progress, even raising flags on things such as missed registration, weak academic performance, or financial aid deadlines.

A third is redesigning remedial education, which we all know is a road out of college for too many. Leading associations, as well as at least 19 states and 16 funders, have adopted and are now advocating basic principles for reform that would not have been possible just a few years ago.

Fourth is improving credit transfer policies to reduce the amount of re-work students have to do when they change institutions. More than one-third of all students attend more than one institution on their way to a credential, and some of them lose a semester—or more—worth of credit for much of the same work. That is unfortunate and unfair. And it is something we can change.

These innovations are powerful, they are evidence based, and increasingly they come with implementation guidelines that are sensitive to the fact that there is never a one-size fits all approach—that local context matters. The question isn’t any longer what do we do. It is, do we have the will to do it? Can we integrate and scale these practices to make a real difference, a transformational difference for hundreds of thousands—and eventually, millions of students?

Look at institutions like Arizona State University. The University of Central Florida. Georgia State University. Miami Dade College. Delaware State University. Each of these institutions has committed to maintaining and improving access and success for all their students and is making real progress. Georgia State has gone so far as to eliminate attainment gaps between rich and poor, black, white, and brown. So has Florida State, UC Riverside—and others.

And there’s more. At these institutions, student success is tied directly to the college’s financial sustainability. And guess what? When it’s cheaper to keep the student than to lose the student—you keep the student. When the financial viability of your institution relies on growing and retaining enrollments, you figure out how to grow and retain enrollments. Talk about incentive.

And here’s the kicker. Most (but not all) of the institutions I’ve named are transforming themselves not by pursuing wealthy out of state students who can pay a higher rate of tuition, but by dipping more deeply into their existing student pools and doing better with the students that are in them.

We need lots more Delaware States and Miami Dades. We need a lot more institutions willing to scale innovation across their entire enterprise—not just try it with one small cohort or in one isolated program. We cannot pilot our way to meeting our nation’s educational needs, to closing opportunity gaps, to addressing the mounting frustrations that are so apparent on our civic and political lives. We need scale across the industry.

Transformational change is super hard. But is it so hard that we’ll defer engagement in it and put at risk the lives of millions of students and the financial sustainability of our colleges? Not every institution is going to contribute to the 11 million additional credentials, but a whole bunch are going have to step up. Will yours?

It’s one thing to say the community is coalescing around a handful of increasingly well-defined evidence based practices (and it is). It is another to know how to capture those practices and make information about them accessible to the next state, or college, or individual that needs it. How do we make sure that it is actually useful and used in supporting and accelerating the next institution-level transformation?

This is where collaboration comes in. We are really excited about the communities of practice that are growing up around the innovations like the ones I mentioned earlier.

We’re seeing real promise in colleges that are coming together to learn from one another, to accelerate their progress—the Completion by Design community colleges; the University Innovation Alliance; the APLU’s urban serving institutions, AASCU’s 42 colleges that are transforming the first year experience, as well as AACC’s pathways institutes that are well attended by around two dozen community colleges.

We are encouraged to see the associations that are beginning to crop up in states—Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, and California—advocating for and supporting achievement of ambitious education goals. They are helping to amplify demand for innovation and connect it with the supply of know how to implement it. You are—or at least you could be—a network, trading information and tools and resources, sharing with one another in public, warts and all, accelerating your own transformation and improvement

And we believe that solutions and networks require strong incentives to spread and scale. A dramatically improved higher education system will require simpler, stronger, and more targeted financial aid programs. This begins with a simpler federal aid application process, specifically, the FAFSA. FAFSA as is stands as a barrier for two million students a year. We’ve seen real progress on simplifying FAFSA just within the past year, but there is more work to be done.

It will also take better data that empowers students, educators, and policymakers in their decision-making. Higher education is a half-trillion-dollar enterprise, and yet there are critical questions about cost, outcomes, and value that can’t be answered because the data are not available. This wrecks the kinds of feedback loops that virtually every other industry relies on for its continuous improvement, consumer protection, and accountability.

We need to move toward shared measures that count all students and all institutions, that measure outputs as well as inputs, and that measure costs. And we are going to have to modernize and better connect our data systems at the campus, state, and federal levels. Here too, we are seeing progress in a groundswell of activity by leading states, institutions, and organizations.

And our efforts are guided by an unwavering commitment to equity—equity of opportunity and equity in attainment. Race and socioeconomic status should no longer determine how far someone can travel in their educational journey. And we know that eliminating those inequities is possible. Not easy, but possible. And it starts with signaling that very clearly to opinion leaders and decision-makers.

The Road Ahead

Look, I’m an historian by training and an optimist by nature. I believe that the educational opportunity gap can be bridged. Every week I see proof that it can be bridged. So do you. And we know that it must be bridged if we are going to have an economy and society that is about raising people up rather than leaving them behind. For us in higher education, that process begins by recognizing where our rhetoric may be at odds with reality—and then doing something about it.

So I ask you to double down in your in your efforts on and join us in this journey. Help us learn and hold us and one another accountable for our progress. Working together, let’s stay relentlessly focused on scaling what works and working for those most at risk of being left behind. The opportunity gap is a reality of the present, but it doesn’t have to be part of our future. So let’s get to work.

Thank you.