Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

April 4, 2016

John N. Gardner Institute Remarks


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

Good morning… You know, my eldest is headed to college in the fall and the whole admissions process has ironically brought many of the issues I deal with from my foundation perch to my dining room table.

An American Success Story

During this process, I’ve been struck by how much our expectations of higher education have changed in a generation.

A personal story. I grew up in Rochester, New York at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation and attended a large, diverse urban public high school in which a majority of students qualified for free or reduced lunch. Maybe 20 to 30 of the 350 students in my graduating class went on to a four-year college; perhaps another 40 went to community college. Going to college was the exception, not the rule. Most went right to work at places like Kodak or Xerox – jobs that at the time afforded entry into the middle class.

Flash forward just a generation, and the world is fundamentally different. The jobs for high school graduates at Kodak and Xerox are largely gone. A high school education alone is not a ticket to the middle class, it’s a sentence to the minimum wage. That’s why in survey after survey, the vast majority of parents – rich and poor, black, white, and brown –see college in their children’s future.

I saw this in my son’s experience. He, too, attends a large, diverse urban public high school where a majority of students qualify for a free or reduced lunch. At his freshman orientation, I remember looking on at him sitting in the school gym with 450 of his new classmates. A counselor asked “how many of you are going to college when you finish high school?” And what do you think happened? Most of the hands went up. Because that’s their aspiration, part of their American Dream.

That aspiration grows out of one of the greatest success stories in American history. Faced with unprecedented opportunities and threats, we as a nation opened the doors of public higher education to millions of Americans. States built scores of new campuses to serve them. In short, higher education became a bridge to opportunity and we built a new middle class.

I am encouraged by the progress we have made. I’m in awe of it.

Our progress is evident in the diversity of our student body, which is evolving rapidly to more closely reflect the diverse people of this great country.

Our progress is evident in the fact that college access and college completion have emerged as key issues on the national agenda. Who would have imagined a decade ago that the President of the United States would call us to action on college attainment, or that presidential candidates of all persuasions would offer competing visions of higher education? Deeply concerned with attainment, workforce development, and above all student debt.

A Fork in the Road

At the same time, our progress has brought us to a fork in the road.

Demand for higher education has never been greater because it is the ticket to the middle class.

And that demand comes mostly from the new majority of students on our campuses. The days where the average college student is 18, living on campus, and going to school for four years are long behind us – if they ever really existed. Today, the majority of students work while going to college, many of them full-time. Four in 10 of our students are 25 or older. Together with the first generation college goers and low-income and non-white students, they are the face of higher education.

They are students like Katherine, a sophomore at Johnson C Smith University in North Carolina. Katherine overcame long odds as a foster child to even make it to college. But she did make it, and is now thriving because of the mentoring and support she receives there.

And they are students like Shawn, who is studying online at Rio Salado College in Arizona. Shawn came back to college after dropping out and enduring a series of low-paying jobs. He is balancing his studies with the responsibilities of fatherhood and work, which makes the flexibility of Rio Salado a good fit for him.

But while the face of our student body has changed considerably, the educational experience largely has not. That is at least part of the reason why nearly half of the students who begin a college education in this country fail to complete one. The system as a whole is not built for them. It is not built for students like Katherine and Shawn.

We have to do much better meeting today’s students where they are and helping them get to what’s next. This new student majority brings high and often fragile aspirations to our institutions, so we need to equip our institutions to meet them.

And meeting our new majority students where they are is not just an equity issue – it is an economic one as well. By 2025, 65 percent of the jobs in this country will require some form of postsecondary credential. Today only 40 percent of our adults have one. That represents 11 million more credentialed workers by 2025 than our colleges and universities are capable of producing at current rates. 11 million. That’s like a compound annual growth rate of 5 percent a year in the number of credentials being produced. Who here hails from a campus that’s even targeting, let alone achieving, that level of productivity?

Meeting that need will require a “both/and” approach. We must both enroll more students and graduate more of those who attend, especially among the new majority.

Meeting that need also demands that we face an inconvenient truth. Today, educational opportunity and attainment is correlated with socio-economic status.

Students from wealthy families are eight times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than students from low-income families. That’s unacceptable. It’s also unsustainable if the nation is to meet its economic development goals

These are more than numbers. They represent people like Katherine and Shawn. And they represent decisions with consequences. Where is the nation going to get talent for its increasingly knowledge-driven economy? What will a widening rift between haves and have nots mean for social cohesion?

The bridge to opportunity that is higher education has become too narrow, too hard to navigate, with a toll that is too high for too many. And we have reached a time for decisions about how and for whom, we deliver, fund, and measure higher education.

Those decisions will have a real impact on the America we will see in 2025. Higher education will either serve as the bridge to opportunity and a better life for more Americans, or it will stand as a barrier to opportunity, reproducing privilege and driving a wedge between the haves and have nots.

I’m a historian by training, so I am more comfortable studying the past than predicting the future. But the trend lines are clear, and if we fail to consider the possible outcomes of our action – or inaction – we will be shaped by our future rather than shaping it.

Two Americas

I see two scenarios for the nation looking ahead to 2025: one in which we have met our higher education opportunities and challenges with innovation and a commitment to quality and equity, and one in which we have allowed self-satisfaction and the politics of the status quo to prevail, at the expense of economic development and social mobility.

In the optimistic scenario, a majority of Americans have a post-high school certificate or degree. There is no gap between what our higher education system produces and what our workforce needs. And race, income, gender, and zip code are no longer predictors of educational attainment.

Where will that leave us as a nation? It will leave us healthier and stronger, more engaged and less saddled with debt, because all of these things are associated with increased educational attainment.

Now for the other scenario. It is one in which 2025 arrives and our post-high school attainment rate has not budged from today’s levels. Employers with high-skill jobs are so desperate for workers to fill them that they move their operations across state lines or to other countries. The likelihood of getting a certificate or degree depends more than ever on your race, your gender, your income, or your zip code.

And the consequences? We will be a poorer and less secure country, with more underemployed scrambling to make ends meet, less engaged, deeper in debt, and more divided than ever.

Extreme scenarios? Perhaps. But they are rooted in today’s realities. Our economy is changing. The face of our society is changing. And a higher education system that celebrates who it keeps out as much as who it lets in simply won’t cut it in the world that is unfolding.

What It Will Take

So how do we navigate toward the more optimistic path? Of course, there are no silver bullets or simple answers when it comes to transforming higher education. But years of work and research and trial and error underscore two imperatives that must be met for higher education to remain a bridge to opportunity.

One is the need to dramatically increase student success rates, especially for the new majority of students I described earlier.

The other is to introduce these changes in ways that ensure the financial viability of our colleges and universities. Let’s face it – demand for higher education is not perfectly inelastic. Competition for public funds is intensifying, as you know better than most. And we cannot keep pumping the tuition well at the rates of the past two decades. Something has to give. We must look carefully and creatively at the revenue and spending sides of the ledger.

So what will it take to meet these equity and sustainability imperatives? We are looking to three things: incentives, solutions for institutional transformation, and networks.

Let’s start with incentives, where I’m going to speak to money and measures. With regard to money, we need a simpler federal aid application process, specifically, the FAFSA. FAFSA as is stands as a barrier for two million students a year. We also need policies that tie funding levels to institutional performance and reward rather than penalize colleges that seek to enroll and graduate high-need new majority students. Preliminary evidence from Tennessee and Ohio show that outcome-based funding, if implemented well, will drive performance.

With respect to measures, we need better data – data to empower 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. And until we connect our student records from high school and colleges, we can only really guess about the education policies and pathways that work best. These data issues are complicated, but they can and must be addressed at the state and national levels.

Let me turn to solutions for institutional transformation. There is a small but growing number of colleges that are systemically adopting high impact solutions so that many more of their new majority students are able 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. Technology is one. It is making teaching and learning smarter, empowering but not supplanting faculty and advisors, helping them to be even better in what is and will continue to be a fundamentally human and social endeavor – education.

With blended learning supported by adaptive technologies, the University System of Maryland is doubling students’ chances of completing weed-out developmental and general education courses. Data on the effectiveness of online learning are now pretty commonplace. The question is no longer whether online can return as good results as on-ground, but rather how to support faculty most effectively in what is a whole new and more effective approach to teaching and learning.

Using integrated planning and advising services (or IPASS), colleges like Austin Peay in Tennessee are improving retention and graduation rates by bringing data together from different parts of the campus. IPASS platforms provided by Civitas, EAB, Starfish and others are supporting advisors and faculty as they help students plan their educational journeys. They include 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.

Highly structured credentialing pathways that students follow into and through college represent another solution. Yes, college is about exploration. But getting lost is not exploration, and too many of our students – especially those from the new majority – are getting lost.

Look, our students come to us through many doors. Some of them are not completely ready for college-level work. Some of them do not come directly from high school. Some come with credits from one or more institutions. They need help plotting their course. It isn’t enough to hand them degree requirements, a course catalog, and hope for the best.

Colleges are addressing this challenge by using IPASS.

They are addressing this challenge by reforming developmental education – 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.

Colleges are addressing this challenge by implementing credit transfer policies that 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. Look at how Florida leverages the state’s common course numbering system to build robust, guaranteed transfer paths for its students.

These solutions are powerful and deliver in real ways in improving student success, but to scale and sustain them in a way that makes a real difference, a transformational difference, at least two conditions need to be met: they must be engaged by faculty AND staff, and they need to be tied to and directly support an institution’s long-range “enterprise plan” (in some places, they’d say “business model”).

A word about each of these conditions.

Let me begin with faculty. Effective transformation without faculty engagement isn’t going to happen. At the same time, we’ve got to move beyond having to re-discover high potential solutions faculty by faculty, course by course, program by program, college by college. How do we apply in college-level teaching and learning the same empirical principles that guide college-level research – principles that allow the next researcher to build on rather than constantly reproduce what has gone before?

For those who say we can’t… I’ve seen some pretty inspiring models that suggest otherwise.

I’ve seen innovation driven across colleges by widely reputed leaders in specific disciplines – new math pathways, for example.

I’ve seen innovation by researchers and practitioners who define their solutions with taxonomies that distinguish different approaches, using common evaluation frameworks to comparably assess efficacy, random control trials, and other means to inform faculty practice. In particular, I have observed this in the development of adaptive courseware and in programs such as CUNY’s ASAP.

I’ve seen innovative engagements within colleges where you find transparency about campus’s current state and future prospects, co-created and compelling student-centered missions that are articulated with clear, and focused strategies and goals– at the institutions I mentioned earlier and dozens more.

In short, we are seeing the emergence of effective visioning and change management practices. They can and they must be captured so they can be replicated and adapted with increasingly powerful effect.

Faculty engagement is hard. So is enterprise planning that creates a viable financial model from delivering affordable education to new majority students, and that is realistic about relative contributions from tuition and state funds.

But it can be done. I learned this a while ago from the leadership at Delaware State when they showed me how their retention goals contributed directly to and were framed in terms of their revenue goals. When it is cheaper to keep a student than to lose a student, guess what, you keep the student. You begin to look for new majority students who are underserved but who have what it takes (with the right supports) to succeed in college. You begin to re-think credentialing programs and pathways with student success in view.

I keep encountering the same theme everywhere among those who are really moving the needle on completing new majority students. They understand often in a formal and financially very sophisticated way how their various student supports and program redesigns are knitted together to drive to fiscal viability.

Some brief examples:

With good online learning, Central Florida added 30,000 students, increasing tuition revenue without incurring what would have been $400 million in capital costs.

Arizona State achieved such great scale it was able to drive down per student educational expenditure to about half of what it is at other leading research universities.

Miami Dade College will use data from their planning and advising system to make better use of their instructional resources, improving efficiency and service to students.

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 we need, but a whole bunch are going have to step up.

So how are we going to make that happen? That’s where networks come in. This is an idea that is still taking shape for us, so I will only touch on it briefly. But it is encouraging to see the higher education community coalescing around a small number of high impact solutions, some of which I referenced earlier, including clarity in their definition, mounting evidence of their effectiveness, and even implementation guidelines. We’re seeing some interesting efforts emerge that are beginning to define a handful of very promising enterprise plans that could be incredibly useful.

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?

Maybe through networks?

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 of 11 research universities; the Yes We Must coalition of small liberal arts colleges serving high proportions of low income students.

We are encouraged by work of a handful of associations that are supporting innovation in particular communities – Achieving the Dream in the community college sector, APLU among research universities, JFF’s student success centers in places like California, New York, Ohio, Texas and Washington. They are helping to amplify demand for innovation and connect it with the supply of know how to implement it effectively. But these efforts are all still in their early stages.

This brings me to a concluding question…

Join Us

I believe it will take more than incentives, and solutions that drive transformation, and networks to strengthen higher education’s bridge to opportunity, to make it more accessible and more navigable. It will take a movement. That is why I am so excited by the energy and the focus of those of you gathered in this room. Frankly, it is why I am here. To ask: is anyone ready to join that movement? Even lead it? 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 innovate and make the hard choices necessary to expand opportunity and increase student success, or we will watch higher education become a wedge between the haves and the have nots. 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.

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. 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 are not prepared to answer that call. Perhaps they can sustain themselves on endowment funds, out-of-state students, and high-priced graduate and professional programs.

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 trustees.

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.