Education Trends

11 Institutions that Are Finding — and Sharing — the Secrets to Student Success

University Innovation Alliance's Bridget Burns explains how the organization's members are scaling up student success efforts that really work.

Through the use of predictive analytics and proactive advising, Georgia State University has been able to increase semester-to-semester retention rates by 5 percent and reduce the amount of time it takes students to graduate by almost half a semester.

Bridget Burns, executive director of the nonprofit University Innovation Alliance (UIA), is determined to see that success spread to other universities. Founded in 2014, the UIA is a collaboration of 11 research institutions, including Georgia State, committed to four objectives: producing more graduates; graduating more students across the socioeconomic spectrum; sharing data; and innovating together.

"I think proactive advising is very powerful," Burns said in a recent Future Trends Forum video chat hosted by futurist Bryan Alexander. Most universities have a defensive posture with students instead of an anticipatory, offensive posture, she added. Georgia State takes in 800 indicators through its analytics infrastructure, and its algorithm is designed to tell administrators who is about to get off track before they get off track. The university intervenes to get those students the support they need.

"Universities need to talk to their academic advisers, and understand that they are the concierge for student success, and the last person a student talks to before they leave and never come back," Burns said. She asks campus advisers how many computer screens they have to go through before they can diagnose a problem, and some say up to nine. "That is ridiculous," she said. "Most universities don't even talk to their advisers or understand the challenges they face. It is like you are running this super high-end hotel and you have never talked to your concierge."

Besides Georgia State, the other 10 members of the UIA comprise Arizona State, University of Texas, Oregon State, University of Kansas, Iowa State, Ohio State, Michigan State, University of California, Riverside, Purdue University and University of Central Florida. Burns said these universities share a sense of urgency that the United States is not producing enough college graduates to meet our future economic needs and that we are doing a terrible job when it comes to low-income students, first-generation students and students of color. "We think that going it alone to solve those two important problems is a huge waste of time, energy and money," she said. "So we work together to innovate, scale up what works, and diffuse broadly student success innovation."

The high-level goal is to eliminate disparities in outcomes on these campuses. "My goal is to turn them into national models for student success in seven years or less," she said. As an example of the type of work the universities are collaborating on, she said, they just rolled out a 10,000-student random controlled trial for first-generation students to look at which interventions actually help them when they get off track. "That is an example of something we can only do together," she said.

Predictive Analytics

Predictive analytics is an area where UIA is working to identify successes on individual campuses and spread those practices to others. "A lot of people say they have [predictive analytics]. They might have a vendor relationship, but there are certain applications of it that we have validated are real, and driving change," Burns said. For example, an effort to scale up started this year with three campuses using predictive analytics — now there are nine. "Those first three campuses took longer than a year to get things going. So this is about taking ideas that work and accelerating standing them up," she explained.

The UIA organization analyzes whether successes on one campus are real and can be replicated. "If you identify something you think works, we are actually going to kick the tires," Burns said, "because everyone thinks what they do is super-amazing. And we need to find out if it is real because there is a massive hype problem in higher education."

When asked if the efforts to share innovation included adaptive learning platforms, Burns responded, "Adaptive is pretty new. I am looking to see evidence it works before advancing new projects. Everyone is very interested in it. Arizona State has early evidence they are excited about, but we have to first prove with data that it is an intervention worth adapting."

Another videoconference participant asked if UIA was looking to branch out beyond the initial 11 members. "We didn't know if this was going to work, so we didn't have plans to go beyond 11," Burns said. "We are starting to see ideas spread between campuses and be adapted at a pace that exceeds our expectations. We think it is important to move this work beyond ourselves. We don't yet have an answer for what that looks like, except we plan to hold a national convening next fall for any campus that is truly interested in transforming themselves into a national model for student success." She said UIA also is in the process of creating an "observer" status for other institutions.

UIA gets funding from philanthropic organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Markle Foundation, and the member universities provide matching funds. Burns said the organization is very data-driven. "My board is meeting in less than a month, and I am going to hold up a scoreboard for them on who is making progress and who is not." An annual external evaluation report is due on Nov. 4. "We are going to see what is happening and what needs to change. So we are pretty intensely focused on the data."

Working with Tech Vendors

When she was asked how the educational technology vendor community might interact with UIA, Burns expressed some exacerbation with the way many vendors approach higher education. "I am so tired of the tone-deaf approach to universities. People don't have enough empathy for how hard these people are working. People somehow think that because we are in bureaucratic environments, we like that or are defenders of it. No, we fight against it every day. It is actually very difficult. Having a bunch of overconfident 26-year-olds from Silicon Valley with a bunch of VC money tell us how they are going to solve our problems when they have never actually worked on a campus, and they are just going to lob something over the fence, that is not helpful," she said. "It doesn't help when you talk trash about the bureaucrats you are trying to sell to. The vendor community can help by spending a little more time on empathy and understanding the challenges that campuses experience."

She said the most important aspect of any educational technology company is project management and onboarding. "Too often, people spend at most 10 to 20 percent of their energy on the onboarding process and it really has to be 50 percent in higher ed. So I look at who is best at actually standing up their interventions, regardless of the campus environment. Those are the types of tech partners I am looking to work with."

Burns was asked how the 11 universities actually work together. She noted that each university is given resources to hire a full-time fellow to work on these efforts. "We hold 'convenings' a couple times a year," she said. "The rules in the UIA are that you are not allowed to come as an individual; you have to come as a team. Nobody talks more than seven minutes. We put ideas on stage, not titles. We don't allow provosts or presidents to be involved in the convenings. It is the people who actually do the work we are trying to build teams around. They get to spend time with colleagues to build a plan, come up with a timeline, and deliverables."

The typical way innovations are spread through presentations at conferences or whitepapers is totally inadequate, she stressed. "Conferences are set up for the 'shiny pony syndrome,' where we put people up on stage and they talk about how amazing everything is," Burns said. "Unfortunately that does not actually help spread ideas, because I am not interested in you spiking the football. I want to hear the hard stuff, the walls you ran into, and the lessons learned. And the truth is, you are not going to trust me with that if I am in an audience with a bunch of people. So we have to create a community environment where people actually trust each other, where they share about failure. So that is a big part of it. We think teams, we think communities of practice."

Burns said that another reason for the UIA approach is to get better at diffusing innovation. Often, university presidents charge their administrators with looking at other campuses to find solutions that work. If they find one, they send a team to another university to study how they do something. "Georgia State had 100 teams visit them last year," she said. "That is 100 days they can't work on what they are trying to work on. We need to innovate the diffusion of innovation."

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