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Universities to Boost Student Grad Rates by 20 Percent

An alliance made up of 11 major universities across the United States has knocked its goal of graduating more students — including more low-income students — out of the park. The members of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) reported that they're on track to expand their combined annual degree awards by almost 20 percent, creating 94,000 more graduates over the next 10 years than they would have prior to their involvement in the group. UIA recently received $3.85 million in new funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and USA Funds to support its work.

The alliance, formed in 2014, is a collaboration made up of top-tier research institutions, including Iowa State, Georgia State, Michigan State, Arizona State and the University of California, Riverside. Each has committed to working with the others on four objectives: getting more students across the graduation finish line, graduating more students across the socioeconomic spectrum, sharing data and innovating together.

According to Bridget Burns, UIA's executive director, the alliance was formed because "we wanted to stop repeating each other's failure by not sharing about it. We wanted to create a space where we can help accelerate innovation by working together, by giving each other a head's up about different things that do or do not work — so that we can capitalize and advance ideas."

She explained that the alliance operates at multiple levels. One level is a board comprised of presidents and chancellors from the member institutions, which sets the "big targets" and thinks about "how we're going to advance this work." That group convenes about four times a year, including a gathering that recently concluded at UC Riverside.

Another level is a series of "innovation clusters," where "institutional research and data people" come together. In the first year of the alliance, those participants "worked together on defining what data and metrics we were going to share, how we were going to share them, what the rules of engagement were," Burns said. Similar meetings have brought enrollment managers and financial aid directors together "to discuss potential changes to federal financial aid."

But the bulk of the work pushed up by the alliance is handled by individual campus-based "student success teams." These consist of a handful of senior administrators within an institution whose efforts are supported by a "UIA fellow," a person funded by UIA who acts as a project manager or coordinator for the work being done on the campus related to the student success goals. "Now they have a whole extra FTE they didn't have that is just there to offload their overburdened plates and to make sure that this work moves forward," said Burns.

The alliance's funding is also distributed to the campuses to help seed specific initiatives. In its first year, the alliance focused on predictive analytics. That was an area chosen, Burns explained, because "we knew, no matter what else we achieved, if we didn't have a clear scoreboard and strong data and strong analytics, we wouldn't know how successful we were."

In the course of that year's focus, "mentor" universities worked with "mentee" institutions, sharing details and data about strategies, approaches, failures and lessons learned. For example, Georgia State, one of the mentors, used predictive analytics and "proactive advising interventions" to increase its semester-to-semester retention rates by 5 percent and reduce its time-to-degree for graduating students by nearly half a semester. The result of the school's efforts is that 1,200 more students are persisting in their programs every year.

"Each of our campuses has made dramatic progress," Burns said, including a few that initially had no interest in the use of predictive analytics "and now they have already uploaded 10 years of data and they have piloted in two of their colleges and they're ready to roll it out across their entire institutions."

She estimated that if every four-year public college and university in the country increased their graduation rates at the same pace as UIA institutions over the next decade, 1.3 million additional people would become college graduates.

In its second year, the UIA is focusing on "intensive advising." The alliance won a $8.9 million grant from the federal government to launch a 10,000-student random control trial to, as Burns expressed it, "put some data on the table about what interventions truly work for first-generation students rather than speculate."

She added that the project "requires us to have analytics up and going. It's going to test [whether] we can actually accrue all of this information about these interventions and what are our models are saying and how accurate they are. It's really going to be pushing us."

In addition to the ongoing work among its member institutions, the alliance is also committed to doing what Burns described as "innovating diffusion" — sharing as much of its learnings in as many forums as possible. The organization is working on a "playbook" and developing an online portal that will share "ideas, innovation concepts [and] tools that we have had to create. And we want to give it all away."

It has also embraced the idea of "observer" institutions — other schools that want to participate in UIA activities when the alliance figures out the best way to make that happen.

"What we're prototyping is how to build a community of practice that helps improve and accelerate innovation across campuses," she said. "There is magic in relationships and we have found a way to build them around a very specific objective that is shared amongst these CEOs and our campuses. Think of a series of interlocking networks, where there are similar networks like this of different types of institutions that are willing to try this work together and are willing to advance a really ambitious agenda to serve students."

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