Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

January 23, 2019

Help Wanted: Supporting Colleges and Universities on the Road to Transformation

By Patrick Methvin

Over the past several months, our team has started using the phrase “institutional transformation” in talking about our partnerships with colleges and universities. That is a lofty sounding term, and probably leaves many of you asking, “What does that mean? Why are you talking about it now?”

Our take on institutional transformation comes out of nearly a decade of work with diverse institutions through initiatives such as Completion by Design and the Frontier Set. Transformation is basically this: colleges and universities building their capacity to dramatically improve student outcomes and eliminate racial and income gaps. This includes having a student-centered mission, using data to make decisions, creating a collaborative environment, setting goals and being accountable for them, and making a commitment to continuous improvement.

We liken institutional transformation to a home remodel. People take on the task (and yes, headaches) of remodeling for lots of reasons, but mainly to have their homes better fit the way they live – more space for a growing family or more flexible space when kids leave home. In much the same way, colleges and universities are facing the need to remodel themselves to better serve today’s students, a growing number of whom need help navigating a system that was not originally designed for them. While we recognize that the analogy isn’t perfect – higher education remodeling is far more complex and consequential – the common element is better and more functional design. Too many students are missing out on the opportunity to increase their economic and social mobility through higher education not because they aren’t college ready, but because colleges aren’t ready for them.

Like a home remodel, institutional transformation requires agreement on the changes to be made and experts to give advice and help make the changes. When it comes to experts, higher education has a growing base of experts on specific aspects of transformation, like advising, digital learning, strategic finance, or data and research. But our work suggests that the field needs more organizations that can serve as connectors and guides, linking campuses with experts and with each other and providing guidance on the change process. We call these organizations intermediaries for scale, and after a couple of years of testing this role, we are looking for more groups to fill it.

What are we looking for in an intermediary for scale? We are looking for higher education-focused organizations that have experience and commitment in working with colleges and universities to improve student outcomes, especially in closing student success gaps by race and income. Additionally, we seek groups that can promote continuous learning and improvement and work with campuses as they identify, implement, and sustain significant changes in policy and practice.

We will select the intermediaries through a rigorous process and award grants for them to build their capacity to help colleges and universities in four areas:

  1. Increasing awareness of successful and promising transformation strategies among campus leaders and communities.
  2. Informing key campus-level decisions about change options and strategies and supporting decision-makers.
  3. Supporting transformation by providing guidance and resources for adopting and adapting, implementing, evaluating, and sustaining changes in policy and practice.
  4. Building connections across colleges and universities and other supporting organizations to accelerate and streamline learning and sharing of promising practices.

So why is it important to find these intermediaries now? Pressure is mounting for colleges and universities to transform – increasing demand for an educated workforce coupled with intensifying financial challenges and wavering public confidence – and a growing number of institutions are responding to that pressure. But they need the support of organizations able to provide networking, resources and guidance to make real and lasting change. There is a great deal of knowledge about the tools for transformation, and the urgent task is to connect and apply that knowledge in ways that benefit students.

As our Frontier Set campuses will tell you, this is exciting work, but it is hard work, and we are learning as we go. We are committed to working closely with the intermediaries we select to support their learning and strengthen their ability to help colleges and universities address the tough choices of change.

I encourage you to check out the resources we have about the intermediaries and the selection process and share them with groups you think might fit the bill…including your own! Today’s students are counting on us to tackle this remodeling job – and get it right.