The sixteen most innovative people in higher education: how they're working to make college more accessible, affordable, and effective.

Author:Edelman, Gilad

Last year, we profiled ten college and university presidents who, in our judgment, were doing things differently, and better, than their peers. Instead of using their positions to increase their endowments and recruit a "better" sort of student in order to move their schools up the U.S. News & World Report rankings, these leaders were turning their institutions into laboratories of innovation in a hunt for better ways to deliver higher ed--providing quality degrees at lower cost, getting more students to graduate, and so on. One of those presidents, Michael Sorrell of Paul Quinn College, is the subject of a longer feature in this issue (see Matt Connolly, "Labor of Love," page 67).

But, of course, even the best college presidents, like the most successful company CEOs, aren't necessarily the ones dreaming up the actual new ideas. Those tend to come from lower down the chain of command--administrators, faculty members, even grad students--or from people outside these institutions, in government, nonprofits, and the private sector.

These front-line innovators don't always have a lot of power. So when they try to advocate for new and better ways of serving students, they are typically pushing against resistant leadership, indifferent or threatened colleagues, and a general institutional inertia that makes progress painfully slow.

The good news is that the atmosphere for innovation is beginning to change. As more and more students and parents grow frustrated with the rising cost and uncertain quality of a college education; as employers and policymakers bemoan the negative economic effects of a lack of college-educated workers; and as voters turn angry about how the higher education system seems to perpetuate inequality rather than alleviate it, politicians are putting pres sure on institutions to improve. Conditions are becoming ripe, in other words, for the innovators to take charge.

One of the best ways we can think of to empower those still struggling to create change is to publicize the work of those who are already succeeding. So we set out to find innovators from all corners of the higher education map. This list isn't a ranking, and it's by no means exhaustive. Consider it a snapshot of the various overlapping ways in which creative, passionate people around the country are working to make higher education more accessible, affordable, and effective.


Georgia State University

Georgia State, in Atlanta, is a microcosm of the challenges facing higher education in America. The demographics of the university's more than 30,000 undergraduates have shifted dramatically over the past decade, as Pell Grant--eligible students have risen from about 30 percent to 60 percent of the student body and the ratio of white students to students of color has flipped from 60/40 to 40/60. At the same time, state funding for higher education has declined. A huge, non-elite, non-flagship urban public university, trying to do more with less while serving students from less privileged backgrounds: welcome to higher education in 2016.


Given these shifts, you would expect Georgia State's academic results to have suffered--after all, research shows a tight negative correlation between a low-income student population and graduation rates. Yet the opposite has happened, thanks to the university's "Student Success Collaborative," initiated in 2012 and headed by Renick. (Last year, we wrote about university president Mark Becker.) The initiative, which has become a model for other schools trying to improve student outcomes, encompasses more than a dozen different programs, including pre-freshman year summer sessions, redesigned introductory math curriculum, and micro-grants for students in need of a few hundred bucks to make it through the semester. The centerpiece is the enthusiastic embrace of predictive analytics, which means using historical data to determine the telltale signs of when students are in need of targeted interventions. A student who gets a C in an intro course in her intended major, for example, is statistically very unlikely to graduate. But traditionally, the only feedback she would get would be from the grade itself, which says: "You passed." Now, through predictive analytics, warning flags like that C grade trigger interventions in which advisers give students the information they need to get back on track. In the last year, for instance, the system has helped 2,000 students who picked the wrong course for their requirements switch into the right one. In the past, they wouldn't have known about their wasted time and money until after the semester was over. That can mean the difference between graduating and dropping out, since financial aid packages only cover so many credits.

It's hard to overstate the project's impact. Georgia State now confers 30 percent more bachelor's degrees than it did five years ago. The overall graduation percentage has risen from the low 30s to the low 50s. Most remarkably, the racial achievement gap has vanished--in fact, black and Hispanic students now graduate at higher rates than white students, and Georgia State confers more bachelor's degrees to African Americans than any other school in the country, including historically black colleges.

And, according to Renick, the reforms more than pay for themselves. Each percentage improvement in student retention brings in $3.1 million in gross revenue. That means there's no excuse for other universities not to do what Georgia State is doing. And many are. Examples include Delaware State University, a struggling public historically black college where chief operating officer Teresa Hardee has put together a leadership team that "completely understands that it's more financially advantageous for the university to retain students than to lose them," notes Daniel Greenstein of the Gates Foundation, which is supporting DSU's predictive analytics efforts.

Renick describes predictive analytics as "simply a way to level the playing field." Students whose parents or siblings went to college have the benefit of an "invisible support system" that first-generation students lack, which helps them overcome obstacles that are frequently of the university's own making. Renick sees his efforts as fundamentally about removing those obstacles. "When we began to deal with those problems systematically," he says, "what we found is a lot of these achievement gaps just evaporated."


University of Texas at Austin

UT Austin has long been the pride of the Texas public university system. But in 2011, Laude, a chemistry professor, was assigned to confront its quiet shame: about half of undergrads failed to graduate within four years. Students who stay longer rack up more debt, are less likely to graduate at all, and take up spots that could go to new students. Low-income, minority, and first-generation students, who can least afford not to graduate on time, are the most at risk. Much of Laude's work has been focused on precisely that group. A system similar to Georgia State's predictive analytics flags the students at the greatest statistical risk of not finishing on time. They're placed in smaller first-year classes and given intensive faculty and peer support; some are awarded a $20,000 scholarship and on-campus internships. According to Laude, these efforts have helped bump at-risk students' percentage rate of first-year persistence--an obvious factor affecting timely graduation--from the low 80s to the low 90s. This year, the overall four-year graduation rate cracked 60 percent. Based on the numbers so far, the class of 2017, the first cohort to have entered...

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