What Happens When Colleges Get $25M to Innovate With No Strings Attached?

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A curious change is rippling through California State University, Dominguez Hills. Its sophomore class has the highest GPA and persistence rate in the institution’s history. More students in this group are completing 15 credits per semester—the gold standard to graduate in four years—than in any prior class.

Dominguez Hills received a $3 million award from the State of California in 2014 to try a new approach. The university divided its 2015 freshman class into cohorts that moved through their first year together so that students could support each other. The State of California hopes to jump-start more success stories like this by offering “no-strings-attached” funds to public colleges and universities.

The 2016-2017 Awards for Innovation in Higher Education will make $25 million available for schools to test new approaches to improve student outcomes. “It’s not about one single innovation, but creating cultures of innovation in California that support questioning existing structures, practices and policies,” says Christian Osmena, principal program budget analyst in the California Department of Finance.

The $25 million comes from California’s general fund, which is discretionary resources available to the governor and the legislature. This is the second time Gov. Jerry Brown’s office has granted innovation awards to higher-ed institutions. In 2014, the state awarded $50 million to selected colleges, one of them being Dominguez Hills.

The idea behind the funds is to give institutions the means to test new approaches that have the potential to help more students from all backgrounds make it to college and graduate in a timely manner. California colleges are still struggling to cope with budget cuts driven by the 2008 recession, and tight finances don’t afford much opportunity for them to test new and unproven strategies.

Plus, “It’s really hard to create change in large systems that have dedicated ways of doing things,” says Lande Ajose, executive director of California Competes, an arm of the nonprofit The Opportunity Institute. That’s why the awards go to individual institutions or programs as opposed to state systems, she adds. California Competes ran public awareness campaigns in 2014 to shine a spotlight on some of the programs selected for the first round of awards, and this year Ajose is on the committee to evaluate applications.

Unlike the first awards, which were open to any state institution, the 2016 applications are only available to community colleges. They can partner with school districts and 4-year institutions to offer joint programs, but the money will ultimately go to the community college to manage.

What qualifies as innovation for the awards is loosely defined. The application says that the evaluation committee will give preference to programs that fit one or more of three categories: redesigning curriculum and instruction (e.g., three-year degrees), competency based education and new ways of addressing financial aid (e.g., reducing textbook costs).

In the first round of awards, very few of the applications looked toward technology as a typical solution, Ajose says. Instead, she estimates about a third to 40 percent focused on various models of advising to improve graduation rates. “We found that interesting here in California—a state where innovation and tech are spoken about synonymously,” says Ajose, who will serve on the evaluation committee for the 2016 applications.

The legislature approved the budget for the 2016 awards in June, and applicants have until February 3, 2017, to submit their proposals. In the previous round of awards, California received 57 applications and provided 14 awards ranging between $2.5 million and $5 million. Osmena says he expects the state to offer a similar number of awards this time and that all will receive at least $2.5 million for their work.

While most state grants come with tightly managed deadlines and deliverables, these awards have few strings attached. Selected programs will just have to record how they spend the money.

“This is patient capital,” says Julia Lopez, president and CEO of the College Futures Foundation, a nonprofit focused on improving college access and completion. “If I’m an investor, I’m betting that what you’re doing is worthwhile. I’m not going to define for you how you’re going to use the money and the time.” College Futures will offer grants to help schools prepare their applications.

Lopez says she expects to see pathway programs, which smooth the transition between high school, college and the workforce, be a central focus of applications this year. Education delivery is segmented between K-12 institutions, community colleges and four-year universities, but “from a student’s perspective there aren’t those silos,” she says.

Both Lopez and Ajose point to one program that received money from the first round of awards as an example of a success story. Hartnell College and CSU Monterey Bay used award money to offer a three-year degree program in Computer Science and Information Technology. Students can begin earning credits for the program in high school, then they work in cohorts at the community college and transfer to Monterey Bay. The program has seen early wins. Somewhere near 90 percent of students are Latino, which “gets at that deeper equity imperative that we need to improve in the state,” Ajose says. And the early cohorts have persistence rates between 80 and 90 percent, she adds.

Not all awardees will be a success, and that’s OK. Giving institutions room to try—and fail—is an innovation in and of itself, Lopez says. “This is like wine—you have to wait for kids to get through.” 

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