Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

October 4, 2016

Dan Greenstein’s Remarks at COMBASE Fall Conference


Delivered at the COMBASE Fall Conference in Seattle, Wash. on Sept. 24, 2016.

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

A Fork in the Road (The “What”)

I am really glad to be with all of you, especially since you made it easy for me to come to you! I want for this to be a lively discussion, rather than me just talking at you, so I’m going to be posing questions to you at points that I would like for us to engage together. Think of it as crowdsourcing hard questions and good ideas.

While higher education has been my career, it has really taken on a personal dimension in the past year. I am now the parent of a first-semester college student, and my son Michael’s journey into education after high school has given me a lot of opportunities to reflect on both the greatness of our enterprise and why it needs to change.

I remember Michael’s high school orientation, when the guidance counselor asked a packed gym at an urban high school in Seattle how many of the nervous freshman were going to college – virtually every hand shot up. That sent me back a few years to Rochester, New York, where maybe about 20 percent of my high school graduating class headed to college of any kind.

It’s obvious – almost trite – to say that the world has changed. It is the pace of change that is really breathtaking. We are talking about one generation. In the early 1970s, a quarter of the jobs required education after high school. In just a few years, that figure will be two-thirds.

But has our enterprise kept up? Sadly, the answer is no. Our current postsecondary attainment rate is hovering at about 40 percent, and reputable estimates indicate that at current credential production rates, our economy will face a shortfall of up to 11 million credentialed workers by 2025. If that shortfall comes to pass – even in part – it will have significant consequences for our economic and social well-being.

We also have mounting evidence of an affordability and sustainability problem in higher education. Tuition levels have skyrocketed over the past two decades, pushing student debt over the one trillion-dollar mark. Many of your peers are expressing pessimism about the financial stability of their institutions a decade from now.

And we are also facing a public that is questioning the value of a college education, particularly in light of the Great Recession. Just a couple of weeks ago, Public Agenda released survey data that showed a troubling drop in Americans’ sense that education after high school is essential. So we find ourselves caught in something of a bind…promoting an increasingly expensive and rationed good to an increasingly skeptical audience.

After nearly five years at the foundation, I am more convinced than ever that we have reached a fork in the road when it comes to higher education in this country. We will either make the hard choices necessary to preserve higher education as a bridge to opportunity, or stand by as it becomes a reproducer of privilege.

These trends raise important and vexing questions that my team and I wrestle with, and that I want to engage with you. Questions like:

Today’s College Students (The “Who”)

If we as a nation are serious about increasing our educational attainment to meet workforce needs, then we must be equally as serious about understanding today’s college students and their needs.

Again, I think about Michael, and how he is not the typical college student of today. His parents are college-educated and solidly middle class. He is white. He is attending a top-tier university as a residential student and will graduate in four years (at least that’s what his mother and I hope).

You all know many of these statistics, but they bear repeating:

Why do these numbers matter? They matter because these students are too often invisible in our national dialogue about higher education, and are too often underserved or ill-served by our colleges and universities. The notions of college as a four-year sojourn among grassy quads and ivy-covered dorms and college students as wide-eyed coeds are still surprisingly prevalent in our culture.

I think about Danie Korac, a member of my team who is first in her family to be born in this country and first in her family to attempt college. She is about to complete her bachelor’s degree from Western Governors University after a college journey that has been marked by a number of struggles and setbacks. She has persevered, at times in spite of the system rather than because of it.

As an enterprise, we in education have spent the better part of the past two decades grappling with the issue of how to make more of our students college-ready. Given the numbers I just recited for you, I believe that the time has come to seriously engage the question of how student-ready our colleges are.

We have a good example of what that looks like, courtesy of our partners at the University Innovation Alliance. The Alliance is a group of 11 public research universities that have committed to swim against the tide by focusing on how many underserved students they admit and graduate, rather than how many they keep out.

Two of the Alliance’s members – Georgia State University and Michigan State University – have engaged in an exercise of process mapping, which is where institutional leaders and administrators examine processes like registration, financial aid, and advising through the eyes of the student. Doing that has helped these campuses to get better at communicating with their students – especially first-generation students who don’t have a frame of reference about college – about what to expect and how to prepare. This makes a difference in their odds of success.

Our foundation has evolved a great deal when it comes to who is going to college and what they need. When our strategy launched in 2008, the focus was on low-income young adults (age 18-26). They are still a key part of our efforts, but we realized that we also had to expand our reach to older students, many of whom are working and caring for children and/or parents.

And we want to be explicit about race and ethnicity. That is not a comfortable topic for most Americans, as opinion research has underscored. But we will not allow that to hold us back when so much is at stake.

Again, there is a lot to digest here, including:

Three Levers for Change (The “How”)

If we agree that we need to think differently about how we deliver, fund, and measure higher education to make many more students successful, then we need to get about the business of acting differently. After nearly a decade of investing and learning with our grantees and partners, we believe that transforming higher education is not a matter of skill, but one of will. As such, we are focusing on three related priority areas that I’m going to refer to as solutions, networks, and incentives.

I will start with solutions. 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 sustainably enable many more new majority students to acquire affordable, high-quality credentials.

These solutions are increasingly well known and we are seeing the higher education community begin to coalesce around them. Digital learning is one, empowering but not supplanting 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 developmental 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 evidence-driven core principles for reforming dev ed.

Fourth is improving credit transfer policies to reduce the amount of re-work students have to do when they change institutions. Nearly 40 percent 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 solutions are powerful, but we must integrate and scale them to make a real difference, a transformational difference. 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 new majority 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.

And there’s more. At these institutions, student success is tied directly to institutional sustainability.

But here’s the thing… we need lots more Georgia States and Arizona States and Miami Dades. Yes, we need scale within institutions. We cannot pilot our way to meeting our nation’s educational needs. We need scale across the industry. Not every institution is going to contribute to the 11 million additional credentials, but a whole bunch are going have to step up.

We are encouraged to see that the higher education community is starting to coalesce around these and other solutions. We’re seeing clarity in their definition, mounting evidence of their effectiveness, and even implementation guidelines.

But here’s the question: how do we as a community capture that knowledge and make it accessible to the next state, or college, or individual that needs it? How do we support its effective use?

This is where networks come in. We are super excited about the communities of practice that are growing up around solutions such as 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 Yes We Must coalition of small liberal arts colleges serving high proportions of low-income students.

And 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.

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 standard 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.

We also approach this work with an unyielding commitment to equity. Closing gaps in educational access and success is an economic necessity and a moral imperative.

When it comes to the “how” of our work, questions we wrestle with include:

Join Us

It will take a movement to widen and strengthen higher education’s bridge to opportunity, to make it more accessible and more navigable. That is why I am so excited by the energy and the focus of those of you gathered in this room.

And it leads me to a final question: are you ready to join or even lead that movement? What does that mean?

It means sending a clear message that we as a nation are at a fork in the road when it comes to higher education. We will either do the hard work of maintaining higher education as a bridge to opportunity, or we will stand by and allow it to become a reproducer of privilege. You are on the front lines of those choices, and I ask you to use your voices to advocate for the new majority of students, students like Danie.

It means redefining prestige in terms of how many students make it onto and across the bridge, rather than how many we turn away. In other words, measuring our success not in terms of who we exclude, but in terms of who we include and how well they succeed.

It means pursuing aggressive goals for sustainably increasing student access and success. I’m talking about eliminating – not just reducing – attainment gaps across race, socioeconomic status, and gender. And while we often talk about goals at a state or institutional level, I’m asking you to think about how to bring colleges and departments into the picture. Because our success or failure in serving the new majority will be decided there.

It means implementing proven solutions at scale in order to achieve those audacious goals. I’m talking about reaching tens of thousands – not hundreds – of students with proven innovations. As I said earlier, scale is not a question of skill; it is a question of will. It demands a coalition of the willing, and today I am asking you: are you and the institutions you serve willing?

Many institutions – perhaps some of yours – are not prepared to answer that call.

But many are answering the call because they have to – their futures, the futures of their communities, of their students, depend on it. Our vision is that those who answer the call will serve as beacons for others who wish to follow, sparking an interaction effect that will transform this industry for the benefit of our students and for the good of our country.

The road to 2025 will not be paved with bold proclamations from people like me – it will be paved with the actions that you and your institutions take every day that reflect your data, your values, and your priorities, and that will draw on the distinctive insights that you bring as institutional leaders.

As I noted earlier, I’m a historian by training. And I’ve observed that moments of true transformation are about convergence – the combination of people, ideas, and time. I believe that we have the people. We have the ideas. And now is the time. So let’s get to work. Thank you.