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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Examining Postsecondary Success and Challenges

October 28, 2014

We are often asked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation what we think are the most exciting innovations in education, as well as what we see as the primary challenges.

Through our Postsecondary Success program work, we see encouraging advances every day that not only improve access to a postsecondary education for all students but also improve the systems that help students move through their education and graduate. There are challenges, of course, to ensuring that students get the best and most effective education at a reasonable price, and to enabling colleges to more effectively advance that mission. Here are some of our thoughts.

Five Things We’re Excited About

1. Better College Access in the United States
In the past several decades, colleges and universities have made great strides in student access, especially for low-income students, under-represented students of color, and first-time college goers. Since the 1950s, we have nearly doubled the proportion of U.S. adults who have access to higher education whether in search of Associate’s or Bachelor’s degrees, or certificates that lead directly to sustaining careers.

2. The Explosion in Personalized Learning
We are excited about new tools for personalized student learning, including digital courseware, Integrated Planning and Advising Services (IPAS), and online and blended learning programs, which are helping colleges and universities drive better student outcomes. Our Next Generation Courseware Challenge selected seven finalists to engage in a comprehensive, three-year effort to create digital courseware solutions to help low-income students succeed in high-enrollment general education college courses.

3. Progress in Developmental Education Interventions
We are seeing tremendous steps forward in removing barriers for students to complete or altogether avoid remedial classes. In the current system, once a student enters remediation, the chance that they will complete a postsecondary education significantly diminishes. Montana and North Carolina are among the states removing barriers to student success by using predictive analytics and early-stage interventions to help students avoid or quickly move through remedial courses and onto the path to degree completion.

4. Institutional Innovation
We are encouraged by the work of our grantees, partners, and others in the field that are committed to sharing best practices and playbooks for implementing and scaling effective education interventions that enable many more of their students to complete affordable, high-value credentials. Only by sharing what works and what does not work can all of higher education move forward. Examples of partnerships that are dedicated to scaling and sharing evidence-based approaches to improving students success include the 9 community colleges from Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio working together in Completion by Design, and the University Innovation Alliance, a group of 11 public research universities.

5. Improved Consumer Information
There’s a tremendous outpouring of innovative consumer information sites that help students identify the colleges and universities that are right for them. Such sites include PayScale’s College Selector, Money’s Best Colleges, CollegeMeasures and LinkedIn University Rankings. They provide information about how much a credential will cost at a given institution, how long it will take, and what kinds of jobs and salaries graduates can anticipate. There also is an emerging body of evidence showing that students who use consumer information, and choose the college best suited to their needs and abilities, have a higher chance of graduating.

Five Challenges to Postsecondary Success

1. Increasing Completion
Progress in college access has not been matched by better completion. Only 58 percent of students at four-year colleges and 30 percent at two-year colleges will complete their credentials. To help increase these numbers, we are working with our grantees and partners to implement and scale solutions that offer flexible learning pathways, such as online and hybrid course models, and predictive, automated programs that monitor student performance and trigger extra help when needed.

2. Expanding Transparency and Accurate Measurement
Despite improved consumer information sites, there still is a need for better data about what college costs, how long it takes to graduate, and what employment prospects will be after graduation. There also is a dearth of information about what students actually learn in college and what ‘value’ colleges add to their learning and future outcomes. Better measurement will not only drive continuous improvement in consumer sites, it will help public officials craft smart policies and higher education leaders better understand what works for students. We work with organizations such as, Student Achievement Measure, which tracks and reports on students unaccounted for in traditional graduation rate reporting, and Maximizing Resources for Student Success, which helps community colleges collect detailed data about the cost of their instructional and support programs and the cost of reforming those programs. And we are supportive of groups like the AAC&U and the Degree Qualification Profile that seek to identify means for determining what students are learning.

3. New Approaches to Student Advising
Using new technologies can help colleges and universities provide better guidance to students, ensuring they enter college with realistic education and career goals, and are well informed about the courses they need to take in what order to earn a degree in a timely and cost-effective manner. Completion By Design is one such effort. Higher ed leaders can draw extensively on the a growing body of data that these technologies generate to help students, faculty and advisors identify early-on when there is risk of students falling behind. That allow for early intervention to ensure students stay on track. To use these technologies effectively, though, requires fundamental shifts in student advising, greater collaboration between those who provide academic and other student supports, respectively, and professional development for advisors in the use of new technologies.

4. More Effective Financial Aid
The current federal financial aid process is cumbersome and can lead students and their families to make suboptimal choices that have long-term financial implications. Students and families need support such as a more simplified FAFSA form, and universities need to be held accountable for ensuring students graduate on time with a degree that has value in the marketplace, and without significant debt. Through the Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery (RADD) project, we helped some 25 organizations conduct independent research and analysis on the challenges of the current system and pose possible solutions. The RADD grantee reports discuss how to structure financial aid in a way that makes college more affordable and give students the support they need to earn a degree or credential.

5. Improving College Readiness
Too many students enter postsecondary education unprepared for the coursework. More than half of students attending two-year institutions and a third of students attending four-year colleges are placed into remedial classes where the credits do not count toward graduation. Once a student enters remediation, the chance they will complete a postsecondary education under the current system diminishes. Higher education and k-12 leaders need to do a better job of working seamlessly together on behalf of students. We have seen some strides forward, such as the support for Common Core State Standards through Higher Ed for Higher Standards. We must better prepare students for the transition into college with better interventions from academic and financial aid counseling

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