Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

April 23, 2018

The What and How of Scale

By  Patrick Methvin

First, I want to express how grateful I am for the opportunity to serve as director of Postsecondary Success for the foundation. I have enjoyed getting to know many of you over the past five years, and I look forward to meeting even more of you – grantees, partners, critical friends – in the coming months. Most importantly, I am eager to listen to and learn from you about how we accomplish our shared goals of increasing student success and closing success gaps when it comes to race and income.

As Allan mentioned in his post introducing me, our strategy is focused on comprehensive institutional change at scale to achieve the goals I mentioned above. But what do we at the foundation mean when we say “scale?” It’s a question that I get often, and one that I have been spending a lot of time thinking about coming into this role.

Our definition of scale is grounded in work done by leading researchers like Chris Dede and Cynthia Coburn, and focuses on core issues such as: depth (significant change in practice), spread (how many institutions and students reached), sustainability (change that can last), and ownership (investment and commitment by those implementing the change who ultimately go on to influence and shape future design). But it is really important to stress that scale is more than that to us. It has to be if we are going to achieve better outcomes for more of today’s college students – low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults.

Here are just a few additional factors related to scale that we are wrestling with, both inside the foundation and with our partners. I’m only going to touch on them here; stay tuned for future posts that provide a more in-depth look at these factors, and potentially others.

Replication versus adaptation. Higher education, like a number of other enterprises I have worked with over the years, has a natural – and legitimate – resistance to “one size fits all” approaches. At the same time, we have learned from our partners that reinventing the wheel when it comes to things like improving advising is expensive, slow, and ultimately not sustainable. The key for us is rooted in Tony Bryk’s idea of “implementation with integrity” – marrying tested design principles with insight about local context to ensure that change achieves the desired ends and stands the test of time.

Networks. While innovation can (and does) spread organically, we’re learning that sometimes it needs a push, especially in the form of support and insight from early adopters. But what are the right mechanisms for accelerating learning and resource sharing across colleges and universities? Do they already exist, or do they need to be created? What role do we as a foundation play in cultivating and maintaining them? We are learning a great deal from emerging networks like the University Innovation Alliance and our own Frontier Set, and we will be sharing that learning in the months ahead.

Policy. The rules of the road – at the campus, state, and federal levels – can significantly encourage or discourage the adoption, adaptation and spread of innovation that helps more students navigate their way to a degree or certificate. For example, a number of states – most recently California – are beginning to address articulation and transfer in a comprehensive way. The questions for us when it comes to the role of policy in scale relate to which policies, informed by which practitioners, at which levels will have the most impact toward achieving the change we seek.

Equity. One of the most pressing – and difficult – questions we face in tackling innovation and scale is that of impact on today’s college students. Specifically, how do the innovations that are showing promise – online learning, improved advising, redesigning remedial education – work for students? Are they helping to close college access and success gaps? If so, how much? If not, why not? I have seen this first hand in our work on remedial education with the Strong Start to Finish initiative, where there has been intense front-end discussion about the need for a more intentional focus on the intersection between scale and equity.

Data and measurement. This is a fundamental element of our scaling approach. How do we know particular approaches are working?  For which students? Under what circumstances? That is why we are firmly committed to improving existing data systems to reflect all students in all institutions, so that students have timely information to guide their paths to certificates and degrees, institutions have the knowledge to make informed decisions about the change they need, and policymakers and other stakeholders can gauge progress and understand how they can provide a supportive environment for scaling.

There is a lot of challenging and exciting work ahead of us, and we on the Postsecondary Success team are ready to roll up our sleeves and dig into it, focusing on what we can do with you and the field as a whole to advance the cause of educational opportunity at an important time in our history.

Patrick Methvin is director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.