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A Year in Review: Progress Toward Higher Education Transformation

December 23, 2015

It seems like only yesterday I was reviewing the progress we made in 2014 and was eagerly looking ahead to 2015. Today, I’m in awe of how much we have accomplished over the past 12 months.

The impressive advances that have taken place in support of student success are thanks to the persistent and innovative work of partners and grantees across the country. I applaud them for their dedication to ensuring that all students have the opportunity to fulfill their potential and realize their dreams.

That being said, we have our work cut out for us in 2016. More must be done to ensure higher education is a bridge, not a barrier, to opportunity. Policies, practices, and models must continue to morph in order to best serve the new student majority—low-income college-goers, first-generation students, and students of color—and their changing needs.

As I look back on the past year and toward the future, I’d like to spotlight some of the key areas of focus that are helping move the needle on student success and close the higher education gap:  

  • Fixing the FAFSA: Financial aid helps make college affordable for students with the most need, and promotes both access and success. “Better for Students: Simplifying the Federal Financial Aid Process” called for fixing a FAFSA process that is complex, redundant, and poorly timed. Under the current system, as many as two million students who are likely eligible for aid don’t even apply. While there were notable advances this year—particularly with regard to the timing issue, we must continue our efforts to improve the financial aid process in 2016.
  • Redesigning Remedial Education and Paths to Completion: There are many roads to a certificate or degree, and at least as many dead ends, especially for the growing number of students who attend more than one institution. That’s why pathways are essential. Working together, we need to offer students of all kinds a more flexible and coherent path to and through college. Reimagining remedial education is a key part of delivering on accessibility, affordability, completion, and accountability. This year, six national higher ed organizations jointly released updated principles for continued progress in reforming remedial education. The core principles are an effort to scale effective practices, such as placing students directly into credit-bearing work with appropriate supports, aligning content to student degree paths, and helping students stay on track to graduation. We’re excited to see the work continue and spread in 2016.
  • Tailoring Learning: Personalized learning helps students navigate the path to a certificate or degree and enriches the higher education experience. The Next Generation Courseware Challenge, for example, helped shine a spotlight on digital approaches that are demonstrating tremendous potential to help more low-income and first-generation students succeed in high-enrollment general education courses. In 2016, we will launch the next generation of Integrated Planning and Advising Services (IPAS) grants, in which colleges and universities will use predictive analytics and other evidence-backed approaches to provide stronger and more immediate guidance to students, especially those most at risk of not completing a certificate or degree.
  • Providing Better Information: Data are essential building blocks for informed decision-making because they empower students, institutions, employers, and policymakers to make the best choices. Initiatives like Complete College America, Completion by Design, and the Student Achievement Measure have greatly expanded awareness of who is making it to and through our colleges and universities, and where improvements need to be made to boost outcomes for the most underserved students. However, much of the data that’s needed to make informed decisions at all levels is either not available or does not cover critical outcomes, students, or institutions. To know what works, what doesn’t work, and how to scale up our successes, data must be made more clear, consistent, and comprehensive.

Though the journey to this point has not been linear, the mission of our work at the foundation and the work of our partners and grantees has remained the same: we are committed to the students we serve, the lives we are helping to change for the better, the gross inequalities we are campaigning to redress, and progress for all students across the bridge to opportunity that is higher ed. Our task as a nation in this regard is huge. And though our progress as a country can sometimes feel slow and not always steady, our energy and our passion are unwavering.

 It is with great pride that I reflect on all of the work over the past year, and it is with tremendous enthusiasm that I look forward to seeing what we are all able to accomplish in 2016.

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