Opinion | Postsecondary Learning

College Wasn’t Designed Around Student Success. Here’s How to Fix It.

By Bridget Burns     Apr 2, 2018

College Wasn’t Designed Around Student Success. Here’s How to Fix It.

Half of the students who walk through the doors of a college or university leave without a degree. Half.

Most of those students are bright and energetic, highly capable students—they may even be extra motivated to succeed because of the hurdles they’ve had to overcome just to get into college. But they lack resources. Not just financial resources, but networks of family, friends, and mentors who understand the college experience and can guide them through such things as choosing a major, selecting the right courses, and navigating campus bureaucracies.

College wasn’t designed to help students succeed. Worse: Most campuses lack the time needed to step back, observe the student experience and take a more empathetic approach to designing students’ trajectories. But solutions do exist. We can redesign our way out of this college completion challenge. And one way to do this at the scale that our students and our country need is to drive change across multiple schools, leveraging the power of a network.

That’s just what the University Innovation Alliance has been working on for the past four years. The Alliance is a consortium of 11 major public research universities enrolling 400,000 students, 120,000 of whom are low-income. These institutions recognized that trying to innovate alone wastes time, energy and money. So they designed the UIA to innovate together, to scale proven ideas across the alliance and to share what they learn. The UIA’s initial goal was to produce an additional 68,000 graduates (above current trend lines) over a ten-year period, with at least half of those new graduates coming from low-income backgrounds (as measured by Pell status). Four years into the work, we estimate that the UIA will exceed that goal and produce 94,000 additional degrees in the same time period. And the number of degrees awarded to low-income students is already up by 25 percent.

By focusing on solutions—and building authentic empathy for the student experience—the UIA is showing we can change student outcomes in a significant way. Here are three of the top design challenges we’ve worked on—and how we’re tackling them.

Design Challenge One: Untangle the Journey

Faculty and administrators have it (relatively) easy: They understand their “lane,” namely how they operate at a college and how they communicate with students. Not so for students, who have to navigate across hundreds of lanes to get the support they need to succeed. Who do they go to for academic help? To deal with registration issues? To find solutions to financial challenges?

To make a university experience more navigable, faculty and administrators must take a step back and get a glimpse of how students interact with their institution. As a result, the UIA has turned to process mapping.

Administrators take a particular challenge—say, financial aid pitfalls, registration hurdles, ineffective communications—and plot out the problem from a student’s perspective. What information is the student receiving? How many offices do they have to visit to get an answer? We can redesign our way out of this college completion challenge. We can redesign our way out of this college completion challenge.

Design Challenge Two: Bolster Planning Capacity

When administrators from different schools within university or distinct administrative offices come together to create this kind of map, the results can be stunning: At Michigan State University, for instance, a process mapping exercise uncovered that incoming students were receiving hundreds of emails from the university during their first few months and, as a result, ignoring most of the school’s messages. The cross-university team tamped down the flood of communications, making the remaining messages more effective especially for students who find the college experience overwhelming.

Even if administrators and faculty know their lane, they are frequently overwhelmed by how much they have to do. This is not a popular argument to make outside of academia. But all too often, colleges and universities simply load more responsibilities onto administrators’ plates, trusting they’ll figure out how to get it all done. What gets squeezed out is time, especially, the planning time and capacity to think through how the university can help students better engage in—and succeed at—school.

Again, a solution is at hand: One of UIA’s first projects was to hire “innovation fellows,” people who would be central to the innovation work on campuses and link those campuses to each other. These fellows are early- to mid-career professionals, most of whom reflect the background of students we’re working to help. They want to work on institutional change and they’re being trained to shepherd change through complex bureaucracies. Fellows have provided the backbone for scaling innovations between campuses, including predictive analytics (to signal when students are going off track); proactive advising (to reach out to students to get them back on track); and retention grants (to prevent students who are close to graduation from being derailed by financial problems). Along with senior-level UIA liaisons, the fellows provide continuity and focus. And they are accountable to the president or chancellor of the university, which ensures that they’re empowered to make change happen.

Design Challenge Three: Sharing the Good and the Ugly

Higher ed’s strategies for sharing innovation are simply antiquated. Oh sure, when a college or university makes progress on some indicator, administrators will shout from the rooftops. But we don’t tend to talk about the ugly details–the challenges, the failures, the frustrations. Without those conversations, institutions are doomed to waste time making the same mistakes or they may just give up when success seems too far off. Students pay the price for our failure to talk about failure. We need to shift the higher ed innovation culture to embrace vulnerability and to reward the courage to talk about why plans go awry.


Register now for the EdSurge webinar, “How Analytics Can Support Student Success in Higher Ed,” April 25, 2018 at 12 pm PT | 3 pm ET. Sponsored by Salesforce.org.


The UIA is built on trust–trust earned by being vulnerable about your own challenges and by helping others seek solutions to their’s. At our convenings, hosted by member campuses once or twice a year, we encourage people to build real relationships and trust, so that they can candidly share their challenges and hear about others’ journeys. We engage in short talks that allow for a lot of direct exchanges; we include open and honest failure-sharing sessions. We also make sure every campus attends as a team, to help build relationships within and among institutions.

This week in Atlanta at our first national summit, we’re introducing our convening strategy to campuses outside the UIA. We’ll share our insights from process mapping, scaling projects and more, and be frank about our own design challenges and how we’ve started to overcome them.

We still have a long way to go. But we believe that by approaching innovation as a community, especially a community motivated by the urgent mission of improving outcomes for low-income and first-generation students, the UIA is driving authentic change. With friends and allies to turn to for advice, colleges and universities can level the barriers that stand in the way of student success, start closing achievement gaps and produce more of the proud college graduates that our country deeply needs.

Opinion | Postsecondary Learning

College Wasn’t Designed Around Student Success. Here’s How to Fix It.

By Bridget Burns     Apr 2, 2018

College Wasn’t Designed Around Student Success. Here’s How to Fix It.

Half of the students who walk through the doors of a college or university leave without a degree. Half.

Most of those students are bright and energetic, highly capable students—they may even be extra motivated to succeed because of the hurdles they’ve had to overcome just to get into college. But they lack resources. Not just financial resources, but networks of family, friends, and mentors who understand the college experience and can guide them through such things as choosing a major, selecting the right courses, and navigating campus bureaucracies.

College wasn’t designed to help students succeed. Worse: Most campuses lack the time needed to step back, observe the student experience and take a more empathetic approach to designing students’ trajectories. But solutions do exist. We can redesign our way out of this college completion challenge. And one way to do this at the scale that our students and our country need is to drive change across multiple schools, leveraging the power of a network.

That’s just what the University Innovation Alliance has been working on for the past four years. The Alliance is a consortium of 11 major public research universities enrolling 400,000 students, 120,000 of whom are low-income. These institutions recognized that trying to innovate alone wastes time, energy and money. So they designed the UIA to innovate together, to scale proven ideas across the alliance and to share what they learn. The UIA’s initial goal was to produce an additional 68,000 graduates (above current trend lines) over a ten-year period, with at least half of those new graduates coming from low-income backgrounds (as measured by Pell status). Four years into the work, we estimate that the UIA will exceed that goal and produce 94,000 additional degrees in the same time period. And the number of degrees awarded to low-income students is already up by 25 percent.

By focusing on solutions—and building authentic empathy for the student experience—the UIA is showing we can change student outcomes in a significant way. Here are three of the top design challenges we’ve worked on—and how we’re tackling them.

Design Challenge One: Untangle the Journey

Faculty and administrators have it (relatively) easy: They understand their “lane,” namely how they operate at a college and how they communicate with students. Not so for students, who have to navigate across hundreds of lanes to get the support they need to succeed. Who do they go to for academic help? To deal with registration issues? To find solutions to financial challenges?

To make a university experience more navigable, faculty and administrators must take a step back and get a glimpse of how students interact with their institution. As a result, the UIA has turned to process mapping.

Administrators take a particular challenge—say, financial aid pitfalls, registration hurdles, ineffective communications—and plot out the problem from a student’s perspective. What information is the student receiving? How many offices do they have to visit to get an answer? We can redesign our way out of this college completion challenge. We can redesign our way out of this college completion challenge.

Design Challenge Two: Bolster Planning Capacity

When administrators from different schools within university or distinct administrative offices come together to create this kind of map, the results can be stunning: At Michigan State University, for instance, a process mapping exercise uncovered that incoming students were receiving hundreds of emails from the university during their first few months and, as a result, ignoring most of the school’s messages. The cross-university team tamped down the flood of communications, making the remaining messages more effective especially for students who find the college experience overwhelming.

Even if administrators and faculty know their lane, they are frequently overwhelmed by how much they have to do. This is not a popular argument to make outside of academia. But all too often, colleges and universities simply load more responsibilities onto administrators’ plates, trusting they’ll figure out how to get it all done. What gets squeezed out is time, especially, the planning time and capacity to think through how the university can help students better engage in—and succeed at—school.

Again, a solution is at hand: One of UIA’s first projects was to hire “innovation fellows,” people who would be central to the innovation work on campuses and link those campuses to each other. These fellows are early- to mid-career professionals, most of whom reflect the background of students we’re working to help. They want to work on institutional change and they’re being trained to shepherd change through complex bureaucracies. Fellows have provided the backbone for scaling innovations between campuses, including predictive analytics (to signal when students are going off track); proactive advising (to reach out to students to get them back on track); and retention grants (to prevent students who are close to graduation from being derailed by financial problems). Along with senior-level UIA liaisons, the fellows provide continuity and focus. And they are accountable to the president or chancellor of the university, which ensures that they’re empowered to make change happen.

Design Challenge Three: Sharing the Good and the Ugly

Higher ed’s strategies for sharing innovation are simply antiquated. Oh sure, when a college or university makes progress on some indicator, administrators will shout from the rooftops. But we don’t tend to talk about the ugly details–the challenges, the failures, the frustrations. Without those conversations, institutions are doomed to waste time making the same mistakes or they may just give up when success seems too far off. Students pay the price for our failure to talk about failure. We need to shift the higher ed innovation culture to embrace vulnerability and to reward the courage to talk about why plans go awry.


Register now for the EdSurge webinar, “How Analytics Can Support Student Success in Higher Ed,” April 25, 2018 at 12 pm PT | 3 pm ET. Sponsored by Salesforce.org.


The UIA is built on trust–trust earned by being vulnerable about your own challenges and by helping others seek solutions to their’s. At our convenings, hosted by member campuses once or twice a year, we encourage people to build real relationships and trust, so that they can candidly share their challenges and hear about others’ journeys. We engage in short talks that allow for a lot of direct exchanges; we include open and honest failure-sharing sessions. We also make sure every campus attends as a team, to help build relationships within and among institutions.

This week in Atlanta at our first national summit, we’re introducing our convening strategy to campuses outside the UIA. We’ll share our insights from process mapping, scaling projects and more, and be frank about our own design challenges and how we’ve started to overcome them.

We still have a long way to go. But we believe that by approaching innovation as a community, especially a community motivated by the urgent mission of improving outcomes for low-income and first-generation students, the UIA is driving authentic change. With friends and allies to turn to for advice, colleges and universities can level the barriers that stand in the way of student success, start closing achievement gaps and produce more of the proud college graduates that our country deeply needs.

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