Colleges and universities across the country are under enormous pressure to transform themselves to meet the needs of today’s student:

  • For affordable, career-relevant, and high-quality education accessible to those juggling jobs, family and other commitments as well as their education
  • For pathways that lead efficiently to a college degree for those taking courses at two or more institutions
  • For advice, supports and instruction that are tailored to individual student’s goals and needs

Is this transformation possible and if so, what does it look like?  To find out, I traveled with Bill Gates, the foundation’s CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann and Allan Golston, who leads the foundation’s US Programs, to the forefront of this critical juncture in higher education: Arizona State University, Rio Salado College, and University of Phoenix.

These three institutions are very different. ASU is a public research university, Rio a public community college, the University of Phoenix, a private for-profit open enrollment university. Yet each is committed to the success of today’s student – our new student majority – and to experimenting vigorously to figure out how. At the center of their work is technology that enables personalized learning by offering higher quality, more engaging instruction and more effective student advising and supports. In his blog post, “Online, All Students Sit in the Front Row,” Bill highlights several of the personalized learning solutions we saw first-hand —from courseware, to technologies that supportintegrated planning and student advising services (IPAS), to developmental education.

The positive impact is reflected by the students we met who are working to complete a degree through partial or fully online academic programs.  Chirag Kapadia, a junior at Arizona State University, uses an online learning tool, Major Maps, to help him stay on a timely path to graduation. Samantha Hill, a Rio Salado student, uses an online tool calledCompass to connect with advisors, meet her academic goals, and track her progress to a degree. Positive impact is also apparent in the faculty and advisors that we met. Technologies allow them to interact more deeply and more effectively with their students than was possible in more traditional settings, where most had experience.

What drives innovation and success at these institutions? I identified four common trends:

  • Laser-like focus on students. Everyone we met with at ASU, Rio, and the University of Phoenix – faculty, administrators, and advisors – knew their students. They study them, they understand their needs and aspirations, and they build educational, coaching, mentoring and counselling services tailored to their students’ needs. And they seek feedback continuously from their students and adjust accordingly.
  • Professional development for faculty and advisors. Driven by the integration of technology, all three institutions we visited support and encourage routine engagement of their faculty and advisors with learning science and with best practices in instruction, coaching, and mentoring. This has a remarkable effect on the organizational culture, keeping it oriented to and wholly animated by student success.
  • Experimentation. I was struck by how aggressively and how rapidly each of these institutions is evolving its practices, gathering data about students, finding out where they are struggling in their courses, why and at what points they are slipping behind or dropping out, and experimenting with innovations – in instruction and advising – that target those friction points. At each of the institutions, the continuing quest after improvement is scientific and intensely data driven. And innovation takes place in partnership with other institutions, both commercial and nonprofit, sharing innovation and best practices. No institutional ego here about where innovation derives from – reward is measured exclusively in students’ success.
  • Courageous leadership. Evolving traditional academic practices so they meet the needs of today’s students is a complex and challenging process. It requires constant experimentation with new tools and approaches, some of them adapted from other industries. It requires a willingness to explore new cost and revenue models, and a commitment to supporting the professional development and training of dedicated experts working in fields undergoing fundamental transformation. And it calls for a combination of patience (because fundamental change takes time) and urgency (because today’s students cannot wait for us to address their needs tomorrow). We learned this from the ASU, Rio, and Phoenix leaders, but also from leaders of other innovative universities and colleges who we met with: from the City Colleges of Chicago, Georgia State University, Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina, National Louis University, and Southern New Hampshire University.

This was an inspiring learning trip—an opportunity for foundation leaders to see the future of colleges and universities, today. It allowed us, for a time, to shift our gaze from the day-day to look into the realm of what is truly possible. I applaud these institutions for their willingness to innovate – not just in pilot programs but at enterprise scale – so they serve their students better and enable more students to attain career-relevant, affordable credentials. I encourage other universities to learn from them – and take their own risks for the future of higher education and the future of our students. The time is now.

Published in collaboration with Impatient Optimists 

Author: Dr. Daniel Greenstein is the Director of  Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Image: Profile of students taking their seats for the diploma ceremony at Harvard University in Cambridge REUTERS/Brian Snyder