Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

January 9, 2020

Evolution and Revolution

By Patrick Methvin

Today is a big day for the Postsecondary Success strategy and our shared efforts to dramatically increase student success and eliminate race and income as predictors of that success, as we announce the launch of our Intermediaries for Scale. This diverse group of 13 organizations will work with a broad range of partners and at least 300 colleges and universities in the coming years to promote and support widespread institutional transformation – fundamental change in culture, structure, and business models and operations to address evolving student needs.

This is an important evolution in our strategy – a logical next step on a journey more than a decade in the making. Since the beginning of our work in 2008, we have been learning and adapting, all around the critical goal of expanding educational opportunity after high school.

Our road to institutional transformation started with the questions of “who” and “where” for boosting student success. At the outset of our strategy, we took a hard look at which students were most at risk of being left behind and at which institutions. That led us to focus on young adults (especially students from low-income backgrounds and students of color) attending community colleges. We have since expanded our focus to include older students attending more diverse types of institutions, but our bedrock commitment to success and equity have remained the same.

That focus on “who” and “where” led us to “what,” specifically, the policies, practices, and tools that would help more of today’s students get on a path to a certificate or degree, stay on that path, and ensure learning along the way. Once again, we followed the evidence to focus on innovations such as redesigning developmental education, strengthening student advising, and creating high-quality digital learning tools to address some of the most prevalent causes of attrition. To be clear, these solutions are not the only ones that can move the needle on student success, but we believe they offer some of the greatest opportunity for impact.

Investments in “what” led us to “how.” As we and our partners worked with colleges and universities to adopt, adapt, and integrate different innovations, bigger questions about institutional design came to the surface. How student-centered is institutional culture? Is leadership prepared for and committed to the hard work of change? Do colleges and universities have academic programs and business models built around student success? These and other questions fueled the launch of two major initiatives –Completion by Design, a $30 million investment focusing on community colleges, and the Frontier Set, a $70 million investment focusing on a broader range of institutions and state higher education systems. In both of these initiatives, campuses and systems have set ambitious student success and equity goals and are pursuing significant change in policy, practice, and design to achieve those goals.

The results have been promising. All of the Completion by Design colleges met their near-term student success targetsthree years early. Several of the Frontier Set institutions have seen increases in success indicators such as first-year credit accumulation and some have narrowed or even closed their success gaps by race and income. All of the participating campuses and systems would say that they still have a distance to go to reach their ultimate goals but would also say that their progress to date has had real and lasting impact on how – and how well – they serve their students.

That brings us to today and the need for scale. The transformation that is happening at dozens of institutions must now be expanded to hundreds – and eventually thousands – of colleges and universities. And that work will require a lot of support – strong networks for sharing knowledge and resources, as well as intermediaries that can help colleges and universities tap into these networks and provide advice and support through the transformation process. Over the next two years, the 13 intermediaries will build and strengthen their capacity to support a dramatically expanded set of institutions.

Yes, we are moving in new directions in this new year. And these directions build on more than a decade of partnering with and learning from institutions and organizations committed to transformational change. In many respects, it is the evolution of a revolution for educational opportunity.