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Scaling Student Success: Insights from Bridget Burns on Ed on the Edge

Scaling Student Success: Insights from Bridget Burns on Ed on the Edge

On the Innovating Together Podcast, University Innovation Alliance (UIA) founder and CEO Bridget Burns typically partners with a journalist for conversations with leading figures in the world of higher education. For this episode, however, we shared Dr. Burns’ visit to Dash Media’s Ed on the Edge podcast. Speaking with host Michael Moe, she discussed her personal experiences with student success, the UIA’s first ten years, how to scale change, and the value of embracing failure.

Inside Student Success Innovation

While Dr. Burns prefers sharing the UIA’s vision and work rather than her personal journey, she explained how her experiences helped inform the Alliance’s goals:

“My experience in higher ed as a student was very telling about what has to change. It's not that people are lazy, don't care, or don't want to help students. It's that higher ed was never designed around students. It was designed around the faculty. And if you think that universities can redesign themselves by themselves – well, good luck.”

Dr. Burns’ desire to learn about innovation in higher ed brought her to the ACE Fellows Program, through which she met Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.

“I shadowed him for a year and learned a ton about how innovative leaders think. The Alliance was his idea. He had already gathered the group of presidents to talk about it, and I was free labor. When we first met, he said, ‘You're a bureaucrat, and we have to turn you into an entrepreneur.’ And so, I became an entrepreneur and built the UIA.”

She encapsulated the UIA’s mission this way:

“People describe us as the Ivy League of student success innovation. A group of college presidents and chancellors united around a shared sense of urgency that we were doing a bad job of graduating students, especially low-income students. Everybody works in silos and there’s not enough collaboration. It’s a highly competitive environment. We’re missing a huge opportunity to team up and accelerate innovation and change at scale. So, for the past ten years, we have been innovating together, scaling up what works across all of our institutions. Now we're trying to see what needs to happen for the next chapter as we round the bases on year ten.”

10 Years of Positive Outcomes

Dr. Burns enumerated the UIA’s impacts and successes:

“Innovation, scale, and diffusion are the three buckets. We look for shared challenges, problems that get in the way of innovation across our campuses. We also look for innovations that can scale, that have evidence behind them, and we try to take them from one institution to all these other environments. We've now had our tenth scale initiative across 17 institutions. We've produced an array of playbooks. We’ve done 10,000 student randomized control trials. We've implemented predictive analytics, chatbots, proactive advising, any cutting-edge innovation that you hear about today. We’re advancing work that is five to seven years ahead of the sector.

Quote: We look for innovations that can scale, that have evidence behind them, and we take try to them from one institution to all these other environments.

“We produce materials, supports, templates, and insights that any university or college can use to implement an innovation. We’re not trying to sell this. We're giving it away, because we need every institution to use the most innovative practices to educate millions more people. And we know that small campuses don't have enough money, people, or time. We need to make it so innovation works for them.”

She noted other visible changes over the past ten years:

“When we first started, ‘student success’ was not talked about. It was all about graduation rates and access. And we started trying to introduce this narrative about ‘what if every student graduates?’ To borrow from one of our member campuses, Georgia State, instead of blaming the student, what if we're the problem? This was about changing the value system of higher ed. There are more collaboratives now doing similar work, groundbreaking initiatives. Other campuses scale our ideas, playbooks, communities of practice that have formed. We're also pretty noisy: online broadcast shows on Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. We're trying to shift attention toward innovation.”

Scaling Change in Higher Education

Because the UIA is a small organization with limited resources, Dr. Burns described how scaling is a critical strategy:

“We need millions more people participating in higher education. The public has very strong feedback that should be listened to and synthesized, because any entrepreneur knows that you should be obsessed with your customer to learn what they need. If we're going to serve those millions more people, we need to recognize what they expect from the American Dream. We have to evolve some of the things we offer, to make sure that the classroom is as effective as it can be. I think that higher education is a talent activator. We have to activate the talent of millions more people. And there are a lot of tools and supports that equip us with far better learning outcomes. Scale is going to require it.

“Right now, young men and boys are deciding not to go to college. And that should be very concerning. Again, is the American Dream an illusion or a reality? We have to make it a reality regardless of your background, or else we are basically showing up to a fight with our arms behind our back when it comes to competitiveness with other countries.”

She added that scaling means getting past the excitement of new ideas to discover how or if they’ll work:

“I want to know how other universities are responding to that new idea, what that feedback is, what is their critique. I want us to collectively kick the tires on ideas and see what exactly is this, does it work in other environments? I have 17 different institutions, 17 different leadership structures, different ways of doing things. We learn how one idea might work in all these environments. How do you adapt it? How do you evolve it? How do you tweak it to work in all these different ecosystems? Because the thing that was missing from higher ed was a method for scale.”

Failure as a Component of Success

Dr. Burns noted that with the academic world’s built-in focus on success, it’s never felt safe for people to admit any kind of failure:

“Higher ed has always embodied a lot of repeated experiments and failures, but we don't talk about failure. That's very common in the entrepreneurial space but not in higher ed. When your successes and failures are siloed and you come up with solutions that don't work for each other, when you’re making decisions that affect each other but aren’t talking to each other, that's how you get real problems. So, within the UIA, you're not allowed to have the microphone unless you're sharing a story from failure. That's been a cornerstone from year one. Failure is the greatest teacher. It's the difference between are you a learning organization or just obsessed with efficiency? I think it's the north star.”

She stressed that embracing and moving beyond failure is critical to the UIA’s goal of sector-wide success:

“When we talk about scale, millions more people, specifically low-income, people across generational status, race, rural, urban, gender, all of it, we've got to step up. We have to prove that you can be big and good, which is one of the fundamental questions of the Alliance, because all of our campuses are larger. We have to shift and be open to different modalities of learning innovation, and we have to make sure that what we're doing prepares people for the workforce.”

Get Involved With the UIA

Dr. Burns invited everyone who cares about the future of higher ed to help the UIA accelerate its mission:

“Our newsletter and the Innovating Together Podcast are at Of course, I am running a nonprofit and I will take your money. I’m out raising money because we're about to launch an entirely new goal that I hope will be even more ambitious than the first and directly aligned with the talent and opportunity needs for the country. And my universities match all the money that I raise, because it's not about what you can pay universities to do. It's shifting how they spend their own resources over time. We are going to hold the UIA Summit in October. That’s where we’ll be sharing the nuts and bolts about how we can implement it our innovations.”

Note: This interview in the Innovating Together Podcast series originally aired on May 6, 2024 as a rebroadcast of Ed on the Edge’s December 20, 2023 podcast. Innovating Together appears live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.


Links Mentioned in This Episode

Bios of Guest and Co-Hosts

Guest: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director 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 (ACE) 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.

Host: Michael Moe, Founder and CEO of Global Silicon Valley Holdings (GSV)
Michael Moe is founder and CEO of GSV, a growth-focused investment platform, inspired by the entrepreneurial mindset of Silicon Valley that is spreading throughout the world. GSV has invested in game-changing businesses such as Facebook, Twitter, Snap, Palantir, and Spotify. In the digital learning sector, GSV has invested in Coursera, Chegg, Course Hero, Masterclass, and Guild Education. Michael is also the co-founder of the ASU+GSV Summit, which Forbes called “the Davos of Education.” Additionally, he serves on the Board of the National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame, Center for Education Reform, ClassDojo, Bookclub, FatBrain, Hi Solutions, and is an advisor to Arizona State University. Before GSV, Michael was founder and CEO of ThinkEquity Partners, Head of Global Growth Research at Merrill Lynch, and was voted to be on the Institutional All American Research Team and named "Best on the Street" by the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of three books, Finding the Next Starbucks, The Global Silicon Valley Handbook, and The Mission Corporation. Michael holds a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Minnesota and is a Chartered Financial Analyst. He and his wife Bonnie currently live in Dallas, Texas.

About Innovating Together
Innovating Together is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. Every week, we join forces with Inside Higher Ed and talk with a sitting college president or chancellor about how they're specifically navigating the challenges of this moment. These conversations will be filled with practicable things you can do right now by unpacking how and why college leaders are making decisions within higher education. Hopefully, these episodes will also leave you with a sense of optimism and a bit of inspiration.

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