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Colleges and Universities: Deliver Value and Measure

July 23, 2014

Colleges and universities make extraordinary use of data for all kinds of academic, scientific, and humanitarian purposes. Bill Gates this week encouraged budget officers from the nation’s universities and colleges to turn their expertise on their own institutional data to enable more  students who enroll in college to actually complete with an affordable, high-value degree.

Bill shared with the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) annual meeting in Seattle that equality of opportunity hinges on access to and successful completion of higher education programs for all students. “We have to deliver value. We’ve got to measure that value,” he said. 

Bill offered that amid shrinking government funding and rising tuition, colleges and universities must turn to innovation—innovation that builds to deliver effective results. But only by using measurement can they determine which innovations actually contribute cost effectively to improving students’ success.

Bill urged higher education budget officers to gain better control of their overall costs so they can inform students and legislators who increasingly want to understand the disparity in student tuition between institutions that seem similar in all other respects, such as the kinds of students they serve and the student outcomes they produce.

He also urged the budget officers to make sure they exchange knowledge and learn from their peers about the multitude of ways to get the very best value out of their scarce financial resources. “We can identify the best ways to deliver postsecondary education and we can share that. There are so many different decisions where there must be thousands of best practices that we’ve learned from,” he said.

For example, there is growing evidence that shows when online courseware is incorporated effectively in developmental and general education courses, it maintains or improves student learning outcomes and reduces cost. A recent report from the research firm Ithaka S+R found that faculty using MOOCs achieved student outcomes comparable to traditionally taught sections with, on average, considerably reduced class time. The findings held true for both well-prepared students and academically at-risk students, including those from low-income families, under-represented groups, first-generation college students, and those with weaker academic preparation.

The North Carolina Community College System devised a diagnostic process in which students could begin college-level Math and English through multiple criteria, largely informed by research indicating that high school performance predicts success in college math at least as well as pre-enrollment placement tests.

Miami Dade College used data to change its approach to students needing developmental Math. Miami Dade created very targeted student-specific "refreshers," or week-long boot camps, rather than a whole course sequence right before the start of the semester for students. Half of students completing the boot camps tested one-level math course higher, and one-quarter tested out of the need for remedial help.

The same can be said of technologies that augment student advising once they are enrolled with data about students’ degree plans, and their progress fulfilling them. Such systems bring together in one place for students, and their faculty and advisors, information about the courses that are available, and how they need to be completed in what sequence in order to complete the students’ desired degree.

They also track students’ progress towards their degree, their course selection, grades, participation, and instructor and counselor feedback. Where these technologies are being implemented, at Arizona State University, Sinclair Community College, and Georgia State, students are benefiting significantly from them and persisting through to their degrees in higher number.

 Where these technologies are being implemented, students are benefiting significantly.

Bill spoke, too, about the gains that can be made in graduation rates by institutions that use data about their students’ performance to target scarce resources to where they will have the greatest impact. 

Overall, he said, “That’s an opportunity for all of you to rise to the occasion. We need to make sure that we’re really talking about the goals and the outcomes. And yes, it’s over simplistic to say it’s just getting a job” at a certain salary. “There are things about citizenship, and broad knowledge, a deep understanding of the world that we should have in mind. And those are very difficult to measure” but should not keep us from measuring what we can.

But scattered examples will not change the landscape. We need a holistic, transparent picture of measurement. Not just individual metrics about particular innovations or individual schools, but system-wide comparable accountability that provides students and their families, institutions, and policymakers a better understanding of the cost and value of higher education. 

You might ask, what we mean by “value?”  We define it as how much students learn; and what salary they make and what can they do with their education when they leave.

Make no mistake, the demand for greater accountability in higher education will not cease, Bill noted. He urged budget leaders to “get out in front of” deciding which measurements are the best to ensure that that all students have the ability to complete a college degree with real value that lead to a decent living. 

NACUBO 2014: Bill Gates Q&A
Following Bill Gates' opening remarks at NACUBO 2014, Rolando Montoya, college provost for operations at Miami Dade College in Florida, interviewed Bill based on questions submitted by attendees. Read an edited version of the question-and-answer session.

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