Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

February 13, 2017

New Frontiers for Student Success

by Art Seavey and Scott Dalessandro

Education after high school has become the dividing line when it comes to economic and social mobility. Nearly all of the new post-recession jobs required a post-high school education, and leading estimates maintain that by 2025, millions of jobs are projected to go unfilled if colleges and universities do not significantly increase access to and completion of high quality certificates and degrees.


Unfortunately, significant gaps in credential attainment across racial and socio-economic groups have held constant or worsened in recent years. A high-income student is five times more likely than a low-income student to have a degree by age 24. We and our partners believe that such inequity is unacceptable.

The foundation’s Postsecondary Success team works with partners to tackle those gaps, focusing on the new majority of college students – low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults. Nearly a decade ago, we began by primarily investing in partners exploring how individual practices and solutions such as developmental education and advising could improve a student’s path to completion. Next came efforts to explore how institutions could reorient themselves around today’s learners, reflected through the work of Completion by Design and the Breakthrough Delivery Models.

These early efforts, among others, helped to inform a point of view that has emerged about what institutions can be and how they can transform themselves. It’s a view borne out of institutional experience that implementing individual solutions, while beneficial, is not enough. The colleges and universities that are succeeding beyond what the field thought was possible are intentionally implementing multiple solutions, strengthening their capacity to adapt, and consistently focusing on how all these pieces come together to improve overall performance. But how to capitalize on the diversity of these institutions and build a culture of sharing that can accelerate change?

That brings us to today, and the pioneering work of our institutional partners. Earlier this month, we gathered leaders from a group of boundary-pushing institutions, collectively known as the Frontier Set, for the first time. This diverse collection of 31 colleges, universities, and state systems marks an important evolution in our strategy and a recognition that there is a critical mass of institutions that are making gains in student success, outpacing their peers, and putting themselves on a transformational course.

Many in the Frontier Set have been hard at work for the better part of two decades. They include research institutions like Georgia State University, state systems such as the Tennessee Board of Regents, regional institutions like University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Urban Serving Universities such as Portland State University, Hispanic Serving Institutions like Miami Dade College, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Delaware State University, just to name a few.

Through the Frontier Set, we will support our partners in accelerating their progress, documenting and demonstrating how institutions can change, focusing the attention of the field, and showing what is possible. Most importantly, this work is being done by a cross-section of higher education that represents the new majority of students and the diverse paths they take to a credential.

Over the next several years, the Frontier Set will focus on:

1. Implementing and integrating practices and policies associated with significantly increasing student outcomes. These include enhanced planning and student advising, increased use of digital learning tools to address student needs, and redesigned remedial education that represents a way up rather than a way out for students.

2. Strengthening institutions’ ability to take on and sustain change. Experience shows that several factors make a difference in whether and how change happens. Here we are talking about things like leadership, strategic finance, technology infrastructure, data analysis for decision making, and state/federal policy.

3. Sharing progress, insights, and lessons learned inside and outside the Frontier Set. The emphasis will be on sharing practical and actionable knowledge and evidence focusing not only on the “what” of change but also the “how.”

We are taking a networked approach. These institutions and systems are supported by more than a dozen organizations, who are also being asked to collaborate in new ways. These include leading national groups such as the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Aspen Institute, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the University Innovation Alliance.

As a foundation, we recognize that lasting change takes time and patience. At the same time, the urgency of the attainment challenge and the will of institutions to address it are becoming clearer. Members of the Frontier Set acknowledge that there is no guarantee of success in their efforts, but they know that exploring uncharted territory and pushing the boundaries on productivity is the right way forward.

Learn more about the Frontier Set