In the middle of an open office filled with sticky notes, where pour-over coffee and coconut water flow freely and hipsters ideate in pods with a backdrop of the San Francisco Bay, sits an unlikely character. He’s 60 years old, short of hair and works for the federal government, but Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell defies the definition of a typical bureaucrat. He’s holding meetings at IDEO, the lofty design consulting firm, where he’s having conversations about innovation in higher education. Next he’ll head to Stanford’s School of Engineering to speak at a summit called “Inventing the Future of Higher Education.”
From behind his electric blue eyeglasses, Mitchell admits that higher education in the U.S. “has the reputation of being staid and slow.” Then he rattles off examples of why that’s not the case, from Georgia State’s proactive advising services to a course-mapping project at Jackson State University. As President Obama’s No. 1 authority on higher education, Mitchell has pushed the administration to experiment with new models of education including coding bootcamps, competency-based degrees and predictive analytics. He admits he’s “most worried about the college-completion problem” as he shares his perspective of the federal government’s role in driving change in higher ed.
“We need innovation that cracks the code around providing access to high-quality, affordable education for the new college student who is more diverse, who has more needs, who in many ways is a challenge to the traditional system,” Mitchell says. He’s adamant that equity should be the end goal for innovation in higher education, and says that too often that hasn’t been the case. “We need to innovate so that the people who have too often been left behind get the good stuff first.”
College Completion Crisis
Although more students enroll in college today, graduation numbers tell a different story, Mitchell says. Of students who start at four-year colleges and universities, only 59 percent attain a degree within six years. For low-income college students, that figure is especially low: About one in five students from the lowest income bracket completed a bachelor’s degree by age 24 in 2013. That figure has barely budged since 1970. But for college students from the top-earning income bracket, 99 percent completed their degrees, compared to 55 percent in 1970.
Low-income students are taking on student debt, leaving school before they get their degree, and can’t get the jobs that would enable them to pay off that debt. “We have to break that cycle,” Mitchell says. “We have to break that cycle for the individual; we have to break that cycle for our economic prosperity; and most of all we have to break that cycle so that we can remind people that America is a place where, if you work hard, there will be a space in college for you. And that space will be a place that will lead you to success.”
Mitchell has seen higher education through many different lenses over his professional life. The San Francisco Bay Area native served as president of the California State Board of Education. He was also president of Occidental College, a private, liberal arts institution in Los Angeles for six years, and held vice chancellor and dean positions at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Mitchell is no stranger to the business of education, either. He was president and CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, where he oversaw investment in edtech startups for nearly 10 years, and has served on the board of a range of education nonprofit and for-profit companies, including Khan Academy and a seed fund for blended-learning schools. He was also an advisor to Salmon River Capital, a venture capital firm that has invested in for-profit Capella University and credential platform Parchment.
In his time with the Department of Education, Mitchell is charged with carrying out President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.“It’s a mindset challenge, but it’s also a business model challenge, and it’s a design challenge,” Mitchell says. He’s referring to the fact that traditional four-year universities weren’t designed for the majority of learners today who are, “the 24-year-old returning veteran, the 36-year-old single mom, the low-income student who’s having to contribute to the family while going to school.”
What’s the Government’s Role?
So how can the federal government drive the kind of change Mitchell describes? He says one part of his department’s role is using the bully pulpit to shine a spotlight on institutions that are making a difference. As if on cue, he mentions Georgia State, saying that the Atlanta-based university with more than 20,000 undergraduates has eliminated the college completion gap between students receiving Pell grants and more affluent students.
Another way he sees the government spurring change in a higher-ed system that’s decidedly risk-averse is through the Department of Education’s “experimental sites,” which loosen financial aid rules to let institutions design and test new approaches. Current experiments include a group of about 40 colleges and universities developing competency-based degrees and a program that allows incarcerated adults to access Pell Grants.
The “Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships” (EQUIP) program, another experimental site, is meant to test partnerships between colleges and “non-institutional providers,” such as coding bootcamps. “We want to focus on outcomes,” Mitchell says. The EQUIP program, still in its early days, will require partnerships to be evaluated by third parties—“Quality Assurance Entities”—that evaluate the program’s rigor. “We think this site is not only going to bring new providers into the ecosystem, but also create new ways for us to think about quality assurance.”
Mitchell admits the administration’s work in higher ed is far from over. Last month he gave his team’s work an “incomplete” grade, saying that much of the department’s efforts will take years to bear fruit. He’ll conclude his tenure when Obama leaves office, but he offers a word of caution for his successor: “I’m worried that if we don’t get the innovators in our space focused on completion for low-income, first-generation students and part-time students, then we really run the risk of American higher education becoming not an engine of opportunity, but a barrier to opportunity.”