Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

September 25, 2017

Strengthening the Bridge to Opportunity (Remarks at NALEO Conference)

Remarks (as prepared) by Dan Greenstein at the NALEO California Statewide Policy Institute Conference

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


Fri., Sept. 22, 2017

Thank you for inviting me to join you. I am honored. I am also painfully aware of the pitfalls of being a lunch-time speaker, so I will keep my remarks brief and (I hope) interesting.

First, I want to express my appreciation for all that you do in service to the people of my adopted home state. I am a New Yorker by birth but a Californian at heart. You are truly on the front lines of some of the critical debates facing our nation today, and you need to know that, as a foundation, we stand with you in your efforts.

We also stand with you in protecting and defending opportunity for our Dreamers. Our co-chairs and our CEO made it crystal clear a couple of weeks ago: the decision to rescind DACA was misguided and self-defeating. And we urge swift action to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of young people who are the lifeblood of our communities and our economy have a place in the country they call home.

I’d like to talk briefly about a real and growing crisis that is facing our nation, and what we can do about it. As a foundation, we like to think of education as a bridge to opportunity, the surest route to realizing one’s potential. And for millions, including many of us, it has been.

But that bridge is under growing stress. For many of our students, it is too hard to navigate with all its cracks and off-ramps, and it is too hard to access because the toll is so high. The consequence? Instead of being the great equalizer, our schools and colleges and universities are reproducing privilege, and, dare I say it, segregation. How did we get here? I see the work of three forces weighing on the bridge

One is economic. Demand for people who have some education after high school is rising and will continue to rise, both here {in California} and nationally. A generation ago – as many of us were entering the workforce – just over a quarter of jobs required some form of postsecondary education. Now two-thirds do, including virtually all new post-recession jobs.

This places unprecedented demands on our educational systems. Gone are the days when you could graduate high school in my hometown of Rochester, New York and get a good, secure, middle class job at Kodak. Gone are the days when colleges and universities can just accept high dropout rates as a fact of life. Our economy and our society expect – no, demand – more from our education systems. They should.

But for too many, the journey to and through our education systems results in a dead end. In California, nearly one in five students don’t finish high school. About 40 percent of high school graduates in the state are not enrolled in further education 12 months after graduating.

And the leaks in our pipeline continue for students that do arrive at college. Nationally, half the students who enroll in college don’t complete, and those numbers are higher for less selective institutions.

This matters because unless we take action to help more of our students achieve education and training after high school, our economy will suffer. We estimate that at current enrollment and graduation rates, our economy will face a shortfall in 2025 of up to 11 million people with post-high school credentials. That’s a 5 percent compound annual growth rate in degree productivity. How many of you are at or know a college on track to increase degree productivity 5 percent a year, annually for the next decade? That’s the problem. And not addressing it will have a devastating impact on our communities, our states, and our nation.

A second force weighing on the bridge to opportunity is demographic, as California knows best. In the first decade of this century, the share of non-white high school graduates in this state went from less than half to two-thirds. And by 2025, it is projected to be three-quarters. Nationally, the share of non-white students at our colleges and universities has doubled in just 15 years.

Beyond race and ethnicity, today’s – and tomorrow’s – college students bear little resemblance to the time-honored stereotype of the 18-year old coed going off to study for four-years on residential campuses with grassy quads. Two-thirds of today’s students work at least part-time. About 40 percent are 25 or older. About a third of them are the first in their family to attempt college. And just over a quarter are parents.

This matters because the students we need to succeed to meet that 11 million – low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults – are the very students who are most underserved by our education systems. Today, a high-income student is five times more likely to have a degree by 24 than a low-income student. Whites are twice as likely as Latinos to have bachelor’s degrees, a gap that hasn’t narrowed in a generation. This is unacceptable untenable, economically and morally.

A third force is fiscal. I don’t have to tell you that these are challenging times for state and local governments, which in turn brings challenges for K-12 and higher education. Per student appropriations for higher education in California are slowly recovering from the steep declines of the Great Recession, and rising enrollment poses ongoing capacity challenges. Nationally, per student funding is well below pre-recession levels. And with aging infrastructure and rising health care and pension costs, the squeeze will only continue, even in a strong economy.

This matters because our colleges and universities can’t simply cross their fingers hoping for good times to return. Instead, there must be frank and hard conversations about things like mission, focus, and sustainability. This is clearly on the minds of college leaders. Only about half of college presidents recently surveyed expressed confidence about their institution’s financial stability 10 years out. But as we’re seeing on campuses across the country, business models don’t change quickly or easily in this sector.

So, now that I’ve given you all of the bad news, where are the signs of hope, ? Where do we find promising efforts to repair and strengthen that bridge to opportunity, to make it more accessible for all?

I’m pleased to report that there are a number. I’ll look quickly at a few, focusing initially on what we’re seeing in higher ed, and then moving to a new area – new for the foundation at least – which thinks about education holistically through a student’s lens and that follows the student along an educational journey beginning in pre-K and ending (we hope) with a college credential and a sustaining career.

Start with what we are seeing in postsecondary. Increasingly the higher ed community is coalescing around innovations that help students over major loss points. An example is remedial education. About 60% of students enrolling in a two year college require some remedial education but only one in 10 will have a degree in three years. One in 10!

A group of our partners took on the challenge of reimagining remediation, using different and more accurate measures to place students, and placing students in credit-bearing courses with supplemental help as needed. These efforts are getting results, in some cases doubling student success rates in early college courses. We are thrilled with results emerging from Long Beach Community College’s innovation and with CSU’s decision to leverage the community’s learning to revamp its remedial education policy system-wide.

There are other examples: the guided pathways movement is taking off in two year colleges including in California where the governor has put significant funding behind the effort. In effect, it demands that degree programs are highly structured and designed around students’ effective progression – that college advising and academic, and other resources are focused on helping students get on, stay on, and complete their pathway with intensive focus. So much different than the traditional approach where students are expected to navigate themselves through what are often multi-thousand course catalogs.

We are seeing huge gains being made with technology across all higher ed sectors – digital learning tailors content and instruction to students’ strengths and needs while curbing costs; advising tools use predictive analytics to help students navigate the path to a credential. California is not out front but poised to learn from others and catch up.

We are also learning that innovation isn’t enough. Good ideas don’t just spread on their own which is why we are interested in networks of colleges that collaborate, to spread and speed adoption of innovations that work, and that minimize the need that is felt college by college to reinvent the wheel. Earlier this year, we announced the launch of the Frontier Set, 29 colleges and universities and two state systems committed to changing their business models to increase student access and success, and to sharing their learning with others. We’re looking forward to charting their progress, and documenting and amplifying the lessons they are learning.

And to build and sustain momentum, we are also seeing coalescence around a handful of enablers of innovation and collaboration. Here I’m talking about things like data that help pinpoint which students need our help and at what point on their journeys. Every high-performing institutions, system, and state, is high performing in part bc it they use student and financial data in their decision making. That’s why we’re working with partners to build consensus on common performance measures that can be shared across all institutions through robust and secure data infrastructures and systems.

Enablers also include good education public policy at both state and federal levels – policies that determine how money flows to whom with what incentives to encourage student success; that determine what data are available and how they can be utilized to strengthen education systems; that govern how students are able to move between high school and college and between colleges, accumulating credits towards their degree rather than having to stop and start repeatedly.

At the foundation, we are also trying to catch up with innovations that strengthens the bridge to opportunity by thinking holistically about the student’s journey from pre-K through college and into a career. This effort is still in an early stage at the foundation, but we are asking ourselves what can we do to support this kind of work, to assess its potential, and amplify its promise.

We’ve landed on a couple of ideas, and I want to float them briefly here to see if they resonate.

This is early stage work, and I’m curious to know if it resonates

So these are all signs of hope and reasons for optimism. But there is also an incredible amount of urgency and a need for widespread change. We simply can’t pilot our way to the outcomes we need for our students and for our economy. We haven’t the time or resources to keep reinventing the wheel. Scale is not an option – it is a necessity.

And that is where you as policymakers, and board members, and influencers come in. You have tools at your disposal that you can use to promote and accelerate change.

One is funding. And here I want to focus less on how much we have to spend and more on how we spend it. At the institution level, are we spending it in ways that directly promote students’ access and success, and that specifically target overcoming inequities? At the state and district level, are we tying funding to performance – using so-called outcome-based funding policies which we believe show enormous promise?

A second is accountability. As policymakers and board members what data are you getting, what information are you asking for from the institutions you serve and support?

If your answer is no to any of these questions I urge you to use your voice and ask for those data! And if they are not forthcoming ask why they are not forthcoming and be persistent

Third, the bully pulpit. In our work, we have seen the impact that results when influencers raise up best-of-breed examples from their sectors and ask probing questions about why the institutions they serve are not emulating or better yet out in front of them. Get smart about what is happening at high-performing, mission-driven institutions in your sector (or districts or states). Visit them, identify the secrets to their success, and ask probing questions at home.

I’m an historian by training and an optimist by nature. As an historian, I believe that higher education is fast approaching an inflection point, a moment of choice. We will either make the hard decisions necessary to remain a bridge to opportunity, or we will duck those decisions and become a reproducer of privilege and more unfortunately, segregation.

As an optimist, I believe that we have the people and the know-how to rebuild and strengthen that bridge to opportunity. So I ask you to join me in getting to work.

Thank you for everything you do.