When our founder and CEO Dr. Bridget Burns appeared on An Educated Guest, a podcast by Wiley University Services and Talent Development, host Todd Zipper asked a number of excellent questions. We shared this conversation on the University Innovation Alliance's (UIA) own Innovating Together Podcast as an extra opportunity to clearly articulate our mission and methods. Topics included: why higher ed wasn't designed around student success; why data are fundamental to supporting at-risk students; how chatbots can resolve student issues and boost institutional efficiency; why career services must become part of every classroom experience; how micro-grants help students graduate; and how owning institutional failure is key to successful innovation.
Redesign Higher Ed for Student Success
Dr. Burns explained how college was never designed around student success:
"One of the many ways is that our data systems are not connected. The people who would need to know to tell students that they're off track wouldn't have that information. When it's time for a student to graduate, the student has to tell them. Most of the information on that paperwork, the institution already has it. Higher ed in this country was historically designed around the faculty, because that was our intellectual capital at the time."
The key to changing this, she observed, lies in business and cultural trends toward user-centered design:
"We can pick up our phone and get food delivered or have a car pick us up. We know what it's like to have our experience considered in design. When you understand that higher education has a design problem, you can work on the design solution. The first step of design is empathy. If you're going to create anything for anyone, you have to understand that person's needs. If a university's a body, where's the ear? The closest thing we have is advising or a help desk, but they're designed to tell the student how they can change their behavior to accommodate into our systems. There is not a space where universities ask, 'What do you need? What's not working?' We became aware of it in COVID, because that exposed why our design has been so poor. Look at our outcomes: more than half of the people who walk in the door don't graduate. If you have no meaningful way to consistently listen to your user, you won't be able to deliver on what you need to."
Using Data to Help At-Risk Students
To illustrate predictive analytics, Dr. Burns compared it to building a personal budget around bank balance, income, and known expenses:
"It's the same with students and our institutions. Run the data. Who makes it through? Who drops out? When? What do they do right before they drop out? Synthesize the last 20 years of data. That's what predictive analytics do. What are the landmines on your campus? What types of students dropped out? In many institutions, it's a low-income student. What happens is that we lose students by the thousands, we find out much later, and there's nothing we can do about it. So imagine that all your data systems are firing and the right people have access to that data. At Georgia State, they have 800 to a thousand indicators they're monitoring at all times. Every Monday, they get a printout of the students who have just hit a red flag that indicates something going wrong. That week alone, they spend 3,000 advising hours to talk to those students. They reach out to them."
She describes how proactive advising mobilizes predictive analytics:
"When I go to a campus, I'll ask advisors how many screens they have to go through before they can meet with a new student and diagnose the problem in a 30-minute appointment. If you have to go through ten screens, that's the reason why we're not getting what we need. Our best outcomes are from a combined effort of predictive analytics, proactive advising, completion grants, and redesigning that last mile. The biggest data outcome improvements we've seen on all of our UIA campuses is that we have graduated an additional 118,000 students above the number we originally expected to produce across our original 11 institutions. We've also increased our graduates of color by 85% and our low-income graduates by 46%. I think there is something really powerful about a group of presidents communicating that this is a priority. You got to get your data systems working, or you can't do the rest of the innovation that needs to happen in higher ed."
Chatbots in Higher Ed
Addressing the rising prominence of artificial intelligence, Dr. Burns spoke about the potential for chatbots:
"My exposure to this field has shown that the institutions that are doing the best and making the most progress embrace technology at a significant level. The data coming out of Georgia State on chatbots is impressive. There are repetitive questions that all students are going to have. They don't actually need to talk to a person, and in many cases, they don't want to. 'I just want to get facts. Send me the right webpage.' A chatbot ensures that the people who work for you can use their best skills daily and not spend all their time answering repetitive questions. It is also a way to make sure that you're capturing problems with students in real-time. If you have the predictive analytics background, chatbots are a great way to triage. You can use it as an extension of advising. Why wouldn't you want additional ways to capture data about the student experience, or intervene in real-time? Chatbots won't replace human connection. You're looking for places where students need additional service, and where it would actually be helpful to capture and address some of these things."
The College-to-Career Advantage
Since 2021, the UIA has released three playbooks, downloadable from our website, that serve as free resources for campuses seeking to innovate. Dr. Burns spotlighted the College-to-Career Playbook:
"Seven of our institutions came together in 2017 to figure out what if we had a well-designed handoff between college and career that was intentional? What if we build this based on our empathy in listening to students? How do you unpack what's going on, come up with a better solution, and build it for your students?"
She mentioned UC Riverside's paid internship program with the EPA, where environmental studies majors develop clean energy technology solutions, adding:
"Connecting the classroom with an actual, meaningful career preparation activity that's moving society forward, that's the kind of value we want. The example that stands out is from University of Central Florida. Career services professionals are repurposed as instructional designers to help put career readiness into every single class for each student's four years. One of the things in the playbook is you have to be doing empathy interviews to understand what your students are struggling with. In the end, the future of career services is inside every classroom. "
Accessible Graduation for All Students
For an example of completion grants, Dr. Burns again cited Georgia State:
"They found that students would get a financial aid hold in their senior year, and they would just drop out. A lot of campuses are doing last-mile approaches where they're finding people who have dropped out and getting them back in. It's such a waste of money that we just let you walk out the door. What you do with the completion grant is you just put the money in their account, up to a thousand bucks. They use that to register for classes and pay fees. The vast majority of these students graduate within two terms. It's a financially smart move for institutions. For a thousand bucks a pop, there's a graduate, a whole degree that you wouldn't have had. We've had 4,000 students graduate as a result of these completion grants. It's just smart practice for institutions to work their data regularly to find these students."
Better Leadership Through Failure?
Failed initiatives are painful for any institution to consider, yet Dr. Burns said that owning and exploring these failures gives them great value as teachable moments:
"In higher ed, admitting you don't know what you're doing is really terrifying. Well, the truth is, the dumb question is the right question, but you got to create a safe space for that. We bring folks together and have failure-sharing sessions because the greatest teacher is failure. All it takes is one to two people doing it, and all of a sudden, it's just like the floodgates. The most innovative institutions have an autopsy process because we have million-dollar failures on each campus. We don't talk about it, and we keep making the same mistakes: doing a project for students and never talking to a student before you start, giving projects to areas of the institution that are overwhelmed, and then being surprised that they're not working out. Getting institutions to trust me enough with the gift of their stories from failure is the ultimate act of generosity that helps other institutions learn. A failure review space doesn't cost you money, and will, over time, transform your institution."
Transforming How We Think About Higher Ed
When asked how she would measure the UIA's success, Dr. Burns looked backward as well as forward:
"Every time we do something that years later people are using, and they don't even know that it came from us, that's a win for me. When we first started talking about student success in 2014, that language wasn't even used in the field. We started talking about predictive analytics, scale, and interventions back in 2014, and now they're normal, and people not affiliated with the Alliance are doing them. That is so awesome.
"We want to normalize the best practices that will help people do a better job for students. Normalize considering how we at the institution level might be the problem. Normalize the idea that institutions should team up with other institutions to try and get better, that going it alone is a waste of time, energy, and money. Normalize that the future of higher education has to involve technology because we're dealing with consumers who expect it. Students cannot wait. It is too expensive, and it is such a missed opportunity to transform the future of our country. What we do is too important to not do it better.
"At the end of the day, what we need to focus on is that the family you're born into, the neighborhood you're born into still predict your life's outcomes. That is so messed up. The only way we fix that is helping higher ed become better so that no matter your background, you are likely to complete, and when you do, it leads to your ability to support your family and to contribute to society positively."
Note: This episode of the Innovating Together Podcast was adapted from An Educated Guest, a podcast by Wiley University Services and Talent Development that originally aired on November 15, 2022. You can follow Innovating Together Podcast live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Links Mentioned in This Episode
• University Innovation Alliance
• Dr. Bridget Burns
• An Educated Guest
• Wiley University Services and Talent Development
• Innovating Together Podcast
• Proactive advising ("Proactive Advising: A Playbook for Higher Education Innovators" UIA, 5/19/22)
• Three playbooks ("The University Innovation Alliance's Three Playbooks for Student Success" UIA, 12/15/22)
• College-to-Career Playbook ("Bridging the Gap From Education to Employment" UIA, 9/8/22)
• Completion grants ("Completion Grants: Innovative Financial Aid for Today's Students" UIA, 11/3/22)
Bridget Burns, CEO, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founder and CEO of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (A.C.E.) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.
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