The Sixteen Most Innovative People in Higher Education

How they’re working to make college more accessible, affordable, and effective.

You can find the rest of the 2016 College Guide here and our full rankings here.

Last year, we profiled ten college and university presidents who, in our judgment, were doing things differently, and better, than their peers. Instead of using their positions to increase their endowments and recruit a “better” sort of student in order to move their schools up the U.S. News & World Report rankings, these leaders were turning their institutions into laboratories of innovation in a hunt for better ways to deliver higher ed—providing quality degrees at lower cost, getting more students to graduate, and so on. One of those presidents, Michael Sorrell of Paul Quinn College, is the subject of a longer feature in this issue (see Matt Connolly, “Labor of Love”).

But, of course, even the best college presidents, like the most successful company CEOs, aren’t necessarily the ones dreaming up the actual new ideas. Those tend to come from lower down the chain of command—administrators, faculty members, even grad students—or from people outside these institutions, in government, nonprofits, and the private sector.

These front-line innovators don’t always have a lot of power. So when they try to advocate for new and better ways of serving students, they are typically pushing against resistant leadership, indifferent or threatened colleagues, and a general institutional inertia that makes progress painfully slow.

The good news is that the atmosphere for innovation is beginning to change. As more and more students and parents grow frustrated with the rising cost and uncertain quality of a college education; as employers and policymakers bemoan the negative economic effects of a lack of college-educated workers; and as voters turn angry about how the higher education system seems to perpetuate inequality rather than alleviate it, politicians are putting pressure on institutions to improve. Conditions are becoming ripe, in other words, for the innovators to take charge.

One of the best ways we can think of to empower those still struggling to create change is to publicize the work of those who are already succeeding. So we set out to find innovators from all corners of the higher education map. This list isn’t a ranking, and it’s by no means exhaustive. Consider it a snapshot of the various overlapping ways in which creative, passionate people around the country are working to make higher education more accessible, affordable, and effective.

Georgia State University

Georgia State, in Atlanta, is a microcosm of the challenges facing higher education in America. The demographics of the university’s more than 30,000 undergraduates have shifted dramatically over the past decade, as Pell Grant–eligible students have risen from about 30 percent to 60 percent of the student body and the ratio of white students to students of color has flipped from 60/40 to 40/60. At the same time, state funding for higher education has declined. A huge, non-elite, non-flagship urban public university, trying to do more with less while serving students from less privileged backgrounds: welcome to higher education in 2016.

Tim RenickCourtesy of Georgia State University
Tim Renick

Given these shifts, you would expect Georgia State’s academic results to have suffered—after all, research shows a tight negative correlation between a low-income student population and graduation rates. Yet the opposite has happened, thanks to the university’s “Student Success Collaborative,” initiated in 2012 and headed by Renick. (Last year, we wrote about university president Mark Becker.) The initiative, which has become a model for other schools trying to improve student outcomes, encompasses more than a dozen different programs, including pre–freshman year summer sessions, redesigned introductory math curriculum, and micro-grants for students in need of a few hundred bucks to make it through the semester. The centerpiece is the enthusiastic embrace of predictive analytics, which means using historical data to determine the telltale signs of when students are in need of targeted interventions. A student who gets a C in an intro course in her intended major, for example, is statistically very unlikely to graduate. But traditionally, the only feedback she would get would be from the grade itself, which says: “You passed.” Now, through predictive analytics, warning flags like that C grade trigger interventions in which advisers give students the information they need to get back on track. In the last year, for instance, the system has helped 2,000 students who picked the wrong course for their requirements switch into the right one. In the past, they wouldn’t have known about their wasted time and money until after the semester was over. That can mean the difference between graduating and dropping out, since financial aid packages only cover so many credits.

It’s hard to overstate the project’s impact. Georgia State now confers 30 percent more bachelor’s degrees than it did five years ago. The overall graduation percentage has risen from the low 30s to the low 50s. Most remarkably, the racial achievement gap has vanished—in fact, black and Hispanic students now graduate at higher rates than white students, and Georgia State confers more bachelor’s degrees to African Americans than any other school in the country, including historically black colleges.

And, according to Renick, the reforms more than pay for themselves. Each percentage improvement in student retention brings in $3.1 million in gross revenue. That means there’s no excuse for other universities not to do what Georgia State is doing. And many are. Examples include Delaware State University, a struggling public historically black college where chief operating officer Teresa Hardee has put together a leadership team that “completely understands that it’s more financially advantageous for the university to retain students than to lose them,” notes Daniel Greenstein of the Gates Foundation, which is supporting DSU’s predictive analytics efforts.

Renick describes predictive analytics as “simply a way to level the playing field.” Students whose parents or siblings went to college have the benefit of an “invisible support system” that first-generation students lack, which helps them overcome obstacles that are frequently of the university’s own making. Renick sees his efforts as fundamentally about removing those obstacles. “When we began to deal with those problems systematically,” he says, “what we found is a lot of these achievement gaps just evaporated.”

University of Texas at Austin

UT Austin has long been the pride of the Texas public university system. But in 2011, Laude, a chemistry professor, was assigned to confront its quiet shame: about half of undergrads failed to graduate within four years. Students who stay longer rack up more debt, are less likely to graduate at all, and take up spots that could go to new students. Low-income, minority, and first-generation students, who can least afford not to

David LaudeCourtesy of University of Texas at Austin
David Laude

graduate on time, are the most at risk. Much of Laude’s work has been focused on precisely that group. A system similar to Georgia State’s predictive analytics flags the students at the greatest statistical risk of not finishing on time. They’re placed in smaller first-year classes and given intensive faculty and peer support; some are awarded a $20,000 scholarship and on-campus internships. According to Laude, these efforts have helped bump at-risk students’ percentage rate of first-year persistence—an obvious factor affecting timely graduation—from the low 80s to the low 90s. This year, the overall four-year graduation rate cracked 60 percent. Based on the numbers so far, the class of 2017, the first cohort to have entered school during the graduation effort, is on track to hit the program’s goal of 70 percent. Laude says the most important innovation has been something difficult to pinpoint: a cultural shift. “This doesn’t necessarily sound all that exciting, because you can’t point to a particular program and say, ‘That’s the program that did it,’ ” he says. “It was, effectively, making jokes about staying on campus for more than four years go away. It stopped being part of what people said in graduation speeches or in orientation. And it was replaced by the steady drumbeat that a four-year graduation was in a student’s best interest.”

Georgia Institute of Technology

Much has been made of the fact that universities aren’t producing enough STEM graduates to fill the growing number of technology-based jobs. At the same time, an advanced computer science degree from a traditional on-campus program is unrealistic for millions of would-be students. A top department like Georgia Tech’s, for instance, only has the physical space to enroll a few hundred students a year. And the price tag—about $20,000 per degree for in-state students, about $38,000 for out-of-state—can be prohibitive. Isbell, a professor

Charles IsbellCourtesy of GT College of Computing
Charles Isbell

and senior associate dean, helped create Georgia Tech’s online master’s in computer science to solve both problems. Produced in partnership with the for-profit ed tech company Udacity, and with funding from AT&T, the online program allows students to get the same degree awarded to on-campus students for the eye-poppingly low average price of about $7,000. Isbell devised the idea along with Zvi Galil, dean of Georgia Tech’s college of computing, and Sebastian Thrun, the CEO of Udacity. Now he both helps oversee the program and teaches an online machine-learning course. What excites him most about the online degree is the fact that it draws thousands of qualified students who, because of price or geography, weren’t applying to the on-campus program. Without the physical constraints of classroom size and teacher availability, a class that traditionally held 300 students can instead reach 3,000. And while the in-person program overwhelmingly attracts students from India and other Asian countries, the online degree enrolls mostly U.S. citizens. “It turns out we’re accessing a whole set of students who can succeed but otherwise would not have the opportunity,” says Isbell, an Atlanta-area native who talks faster than the average New Yorker. He’s not stopping there: recently, he’s been traveling to Kenya to set up partnerships with African universities. His goal? To become, in a few years, “the largest single producer of graduate IT talent in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Franklin & Marshall College

Can a selective liberal arts college triple its share of low-income students in a few years without sacrificing academic quality? The example of Franklin & Marshall suggests that the answer is yes. Since Porterfield became president in 2011, Pell-eligible students have gone from 5 percent of the student body to 19 percent.

Dan PorterfieldCourtesy of Franklin and Marshall College
Dan Porterfield

That’s one result of the ambitious Next Generation Initiative, a multipronged effort to boost Franklin & Marshall’s socioeconomic, racial, and geographic diversity. The college has eliminated so-called merit aid, which overwhelmingly goes to students who can afford tuition, and doubled its spending on need-based aid. It hosts a three-week summer prep program for high-achieving, low-income high school seniors from urban charter networks and rural Pennsylvania schools. And each year the school accepts two ten-student cohorts from the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit focused on college access. Porterfield is especially proud that these students are actually improving the academic environment. First-generation students and Pell Grant recipients have the same average grades as the overall student body, and students who get need-based aid are graduating at a higher rate, with higher GPAs, than the school as a whole. The college says it has gotten more selective, not less, since it started the initiative. To Porterfield, that makes it an obvious win-win. “I wish I could tell you that I was facing competition from ten other top schools,” he says. “But the reality is, these students are under-recruited.” Once on campus, they raise the bar for everyone. “Education is one endeavor where everybody wins if you give low-income kids an opportunity.”

University of Texas at Arlington

A few years ago, when she was provost and vice president for academic affairs in the University of Hawaii system, Linda Johnsrud crunched some numbers and found that students were taking 5.8 years on average to earn a four-year degree. That extra time to graduate, she recognized, imposed considerable costs on those students. It meant more out-of-pocket tuition and living expenses, higher debt burdens, and lower lifetime

Linda JohnsrudCourtesy of University of Hawaii News
Linda Johnsrud

income (by delaying their entrance into post-college careers). Perhaps worst of all, it increased the risk that students wouldn’t graduate at all. Upon further examination, Johnsrud found that one of the main reasons students were putting themselves on five- or six-year tracks was that they were taking fewer than fifteen credits per semester, often at their advisers’ encouragement. In 2012, Johnsrud developed an aggressive advertising campaign called “15-to-Finish,” intended to “change the norm to full-time [meaning] 15 credits, not 12,” according to the program’s proposal, and in effect to help students accrue far less debt and actually attain a degree. When 15-to-Finish started, 49 percent of students were completing at least fifteen credits in their freshman year. That number is now 55 percent. Meanwhile, Hawaii’s four-year graduation rate rose from 20 percent in 2012 to 28 percent last year. The campaign was so effective that fifteen states have followed Hawaii’s lead changing financial aid structures to encourage students to up their enrollment intensity.

Johnsrud is now interim vice provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington, where she continues to innovate. Last month she launched TransferUTA, an online portal that not only provides information for two-year students looking to move to four-year schools but also, in partnership with local community colleges, proactively identifies students who are likely to transfer and makes sure they have access to transfer and credit information from the get-go.

Brandman University

Dodge, vice chancellor of institutional assessment and planning and vice provost at Brandman University, is a leader in helping adult and other nontraditional students get the college degrees they need to advance their careers. Taking advantage of an Obama administration decision allowing federal financial aid to be used for “competency-based education” (CBE), Dodge created new bachelor’s programs that busy, mid-career adult

Laurie Dodge Courtesy of Brandman University
Laurie Dodge

can complete quickly and without having to commute to campus. Depending on the degree, students must complete fifty-six to sixty-one competencies—online classes taken at students’ own pace, with assessments to show mastery—to earn their degree. Students who already know the material or have already learned the skills involved can test out of these competencies at any point. At $5,400 in annual tuition, and with degrees taking about thirty months to earn, most students can complete the entire program for $13,500 or less, a much cheaper and faster approach than the traditional bachelor’s degree. Brandman’s competency-based program was among the highest performing in the country, according to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. (Brandman, part of the Chapman University system, only became a separately accredited institution in 2008, so it does not have the ten years of income data necessary to be included in our ranking of America’s Best Colleges for Adult Learners.) As co-chair of the Competency-Based Education Network, a consortium of colleges working on CBE curriculum, Dodge also helps drive experimentation in the field more broadly.

University of Virginia

In 2011, Castleman, then an education doctoral candidate at Harvard, was trying to find a low-cost way to address the problem of “summer melt.” That’s the phenomenon in which high schoolers say they plan to go to college, but fail to follow through during the summer after senior year—when counselors and teachers can’t keep an eye on them. The issue is acute for low-income students, who are less likely to have college-savvy family members to help them with applications, financial aid forms, and so on. It’s a problem

Ben CastlemanSanjay Suchak, UVA University Communications
Ben Castleman

Castleman observed in Providence, Rhode Island, where he worked as a high school teacher and administrator before going to Harvard. Applying principles of behavioral psychology, he realized that to change these students’ actions, it would be necessary to meet them where they are. Where are they? On their phones, of course. So, along with Lindsay Page, a Harvard researcher, Castleman partnered with uAspire, a Boston-based financial counseling nonprofit, to test the effectiveness of text message–based reminders at combating summer melt. They found that kids who lacked college-planning support were significantly more likely to enroll in the fall if they got the texts—at a cost of only seven dollars per student. Since then, Castleman has continued to expand his text-based interventions, which he describes in his 2015 book, The 160-Character Solution. (If predictive analytics is about using data to discern which students need help, Castleman’s work is about using behavioral psychology to figure out what kind of help actually works.) The key is finding organizations that have access to student information and cell phone numbers. This past winter, he partnered with the Common App to reach out to 450,000 low-income students, and this fall, text nudges are going prime-time: Castleman is working with Michelle Obama’s Better Make Room campaign to get millions of high school students signed up.

Open Learning Initiative
Stanford University

Thille is something of a celebrity in the world of learning science. She’s best known for the online statistics course that she developed in 2007, while leading the Online Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon. The OLI designs courses based on learning science and evaluates them according to student performance. The

Candace ThilleCourtesy of Stanford University Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning
Candace Thille

courses are adaptive, meaning they provide immediate feedback tailored to students’ responses. Studies found that Carnegie Mellon students using the online stats course, with minimal instructor contact, did as well as or better than students in traditional face-to-face classes. That was a major milestone in online education, because it proved that “online” need not be synonymous with “lower quality.” Since then, the results have been matched by other universities using the OLI course. The upshot: colleges and universities can use well-designed online courses to cut costs without sacrificing learning outcomes. And because the OLI’s materials are freely available online, anyone—professors, administrators, or individual students—can use them.

Now running the OLI at Stanford, Thille continues to explore how to make online education more adaptive to individual learners. This fall, she will collaborate on a project at Georgia State to test the effectiveness of “mind-set interventions,” developed with Stanford colleagues Carol Dweck and Geoff Cohen. Working with Ryan Baker at Columbia Teachers College, they are building “affect detectors” into the OLI stats course to determine when students should receive the interventions. Translation: if a student’s performance indicates that her morale is flagging, the course will deliver her a psychological boost. (Research shows that low self-esteem is a major roadblock for disadvantaged students.) Thille is excited about the use of technology to create personalized and adaptive learning systems, but she’s worried about the design of these systems being outsourced to for-profit companies whose proprietary software isn’t transparent or peer reviewed. Thille—who spent eighteen years in the private sector before beginning her academic career—emphasizes that in a university context, researchers, educators, and students are all in the same environment, providing a feedback loop that’s ideal for innovation and improvement. “As institutions of higher education,” Thille says, “we are in a very privileged position.”

New America

Think of a “typical” college student and what probably comes to mind is an eighteen-year-old freshman living in a dorm. In fact, nearly half of all college students today are adults, most of them studying part-time while juggling work and family responsibilities. In 2011, Amy Laitinen, a former Obama administration education policy adviser then working at a D.C. think tank, was trying to figure out how to get the higher education system to do a better job of meeting the needs of these adult learners. Only a handful of schools at the time were doing so. Excelsior College in New York, for instance, has long built its curriculum around competency-based education. Instead of giving students college credit based on “seat time” in class—the credit hours we all earned in college—students in CBE move at their own pace, typically in online classes, and advance by showing mastery of specific knowledge and skills (“competencies”) on exams designed by subject-matter experts. In addition, students who have already garnered considerable knowledge on the job can convert that knowledge into college credit by taking exams and building portfolios of their prior work that are judged by outside experts—“prior learning assessments” is the term of art. Via CBE and PLA, Excelsior and a few schools like it have shown that it is possible to provide quality degrees to adults at a fraction of the time and cost of traditional degrees.

Amy LaitinenCourtesy of New America
Amy Laitinen

Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, students can’t get federal financial aid for CBE courses. That’s because federal aid is tied, by statute, to the old credit hour system. There is good reason for this policy: it helps keep unscrupulous diploma mills, where students rarely, if ever, have a chance to interact with professors, away from federal aid dollars. The problem is that it also keeps great programs, like Excelsior’s, out of the federal aid system (and out of the running for our Best Colleges for Adult Learners rankings, which are based on federal aid data). That, in turn, means that very few other schools have followed Excelsior’s lead and developed innovative programs to serve adult students.

While researching this problem in 2011, Laitinen noticed an obscure provision in a 2006 statute allowing for something called “direct assessment.” Lawmakers had added the provision so a politically plugged-in college, Western Governors University, could access federal aid for its competency-based curriculum.

WGU ultimately decided to build its CBE curriculum around the credit hour, so it had never taken advantage of the loophole. But other colleges could, Laitinen reasoned. Indeed, as she later told the Chronicle of Higher Education, direct assessment represents “an entirely different way of awarding federal financial aid.” Laitinen wrote up her discovery in a widely read report for New America and spread the word among her extensive—and at first skeptical—contacts in the federal government and the wider higher ed sector. Discussions she convened between federal regulators and college administrators convinced both sides that the loophole does indeed apply broadly. Since then, a handful of colleges, including Brandman University (see Laurie Dodge profile above), have created CBE-based curricula and are receiving federal financial aid. Hundreds more are looking into doing some form of CBE.

Tennessee Board of Regents

Tennessee has become a national leader in improving remediation (also known as developmental education—non-credit-bearing courses for students deemed academically not ready for college-level work), and Denley has had a lot to do with it. He was provost at Austin Peay State University when, in 2007, that school began to test the effectiveness of a co-requisite model: instead of making students complete multiple semesters of

Tristan DenleyCourtesy of Tennessee Board of Regents
Tristan Denley

developmental math and writing before allowing them into college-level courses, a co-requisite model has students do remedial work in addition to, and at the same time as, credit-bearing classes. (Another pioneer of the approach is Peter Adams, formerly of the Community College of Baltimore County.) The experiment was wildly successful, and a few years later, as vice chancellor for academic affairs at the Tennessee Board of Regents, Denley began applying the approach to Tennessee’s community college system. Despite efforts to improve the developmental curriculum, the numbers were abysmal: statewide, 60 percent of incoming community college students were placed in developmental math, English, or both. Only 12 percent of those placed in math remediation finished a credit-bearing math course within an academic year; for English, the number was about 30 percent. In 2014, the Board of Regents launched a co-requisite pilot program enlisting about 2,000 students in the state’s community colleges. The results were so staggering that the very next year, the model was implemented at every community college in the state, for every student in remediation. The expansion has been a wild success. In its first year, 51 percent of co-requisite math students passed their credit-bearing math class in the fall semester—compared to the 12 percent who previously managed that in a full year. In English, the 30 percent number leapt to nearly 60 percent. In fact, more students are now completing credit-bearing classes than previously completed just the remedial courses. And even students who don’t pass their first semester end up earning more credits than they would have under the old model. To Denley, that’s powerful proof of the role students’ mind-set plays in their success or failure. The failure of the old model may have a lot to do with the fact that it told students they didn’t belong at college—and they believed it.

California Acceleration Project

One day in 2009, Hern mentioned to Snell that students who took Hern’s one-semester remedial English course at Chabot College were, surprisingly, more likely to graduate than those who took the normal, multi-semester

Katie HernCourtesy of California Acceleration Project
Katie Hern

remedial sequence. Snell, a math professor at Los Medanos College, explained that this was no fluke: it was unintentionally built into the design of remediation. (Chabot and Los Medanos are community colleges.) She made Hern take out a calculator: even if 80 percent of students make it through each course, if you multiply that by three semesters, you’ve lost half the students. “Every layer of remediation was guaranteed to reduce the number of students who moved forward,” Hern recalls realizing. “By taking students that we thought were not prepared for college and putting layers of non-credit-bearing courses in their path, we were producing worse results for those students, rather than better results.” Remediation, they argued in a 2010 paper, wasn’t just ineffective; its structure made students less likely to graduate. They founded the California Acceleration Project with the goal of getting California community colleges to radically overhaul their approach to developmental education.

Myra SnellCourtesy of California Acceleration Project
Myra Snell

CAP stresses three major reforms: first, schools should institute co-requisite course designs, as in Tennessee; second, schools should condense remedial sequences into fewer semesters and better align them with college-level work; third, colleges should simply place fewer students into developmental classes in the first place. Many students who could succeed at college-level work—especially students of color—are nevertheless assigned to remediation based on standardized placement tests. To fix that problem, Hern and Snell say colleges should place students based on high school GPA, a more accurate predictor of college success. Unlike in Tennessee, California’s community college system is decentralized. That means CAP has been a grassroots, one-at-a-time effort. Hern estimates that about 75 percent of community colleges in the state have adopted at least some of CAP’s recommendations so far. She’s hoping to bring California colleges to the point where they will naturally approach remediation from the simple yet somehow radical premise of maximizing student success.

Achieving the Dream

As the president of Montgomery County Community College for fourteen years, Stout developed a reputation for the kinds of unsexy institutional reforms that drive student success. She put together an executive team to map out all the points where student attrition happens, from application to graduation. Then she initiated a

Karen StoutCourtesy of Achieving the Dream
Karen Stout

host of changes to how faculty and staff interact with students, including an overhaul of the college’s student-advising system and a minority mentorship program. In 2014, the White House praised MCCC’s work to improve graduation and retention, and last year, Stout became president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, an initiative founded in 2004 to support community colleges around the country. Stout aims to build ATD into something analogous to the University Innovation Alliance (see Bridget Burns profile, below)—providing guidance, resources, and a forum for collaboration to drive large-scale innovation—but for a network of more than 200 colleges serving more than four million students. This fall, ATD will lead an effort at thirty-eight colleges, in thirteen states, to offer full degree programs using open education resources (OER)—free course materials instead of textbooks—which could save students thousands of dollars each. As important, in Stout’s view, is that moving away from textbooks will prompt faculty to get more involved in thinking about how to most effectively design their courses. And they won’t be going it alone. “In the past, any of the OER work on our campuses was typically done by one faculty member, one course at a time,” Stout says. “That approach won’t scale.”

College Advising Corps

The national average ratio of guidance counselors to public high school students is 1 to 471; in California, it’s 1 to 1,000. Compounding the issue, counselors in modest and poor districts are evaluated based on whether their students finish high school, not whether they apply to and succeed in college. And, of course, wealthy

Nicole HurdCourtesy of College Advising Corps
Nicole Hurd

districts have more advisers than poor ones, which means that the kids who could use the most help are getting the least. Hurd founded the College Advising Corps to address the problem. A national service organization, the CAC recruits recent college graduates and deploys them to high schools with high numbers of low-income students. Think Teach for America, but for counseling—and with some important differences. CAC advisers overwhelmingly resemble the students they help: 66 percent are underrepresented minorities, 62 percent were eligible for Pell Grants in college, and 54 percent were the first in their families to go to college. They’re not taking anyone’s job: they’re on the payroll of the university they graduated from, with their salaries coming half from the university and half from a mix of philanthropic and public sources. The goal is to work with teachers, counselors, and principals to create a culture in which kids expect to go to college. Hurd recalls getting a call from a principal gushing about a CAC adviser. The adviser had found that many of her students refused to engage with the admissions process because they didn’t know anyone who’d ever gone to college. So she convinced the school’s teachers to put signs on their classroom doors showing not only their name, but also their alma mater—a small but meaningful way to make students realize that they were surrounded by people who had gone to college. The CAC can point to more concrete results, too. Over the past two years, college enrollment rates in its New York City partner schools have gone up by 35 percent. But Hurd knows the organization can’t single-handedly solve the college-advising crisis. “That’s not going to happen without public investment,” she says. “Part of our goal is to execute with excellence and keep proving to everybody that this works.”

University Innovation Alliance

As an American Council on Education fellow at Arizona State University in 2013–14, Bridget Burns traveled to more than fifty campuses around the country asking two questions: How are you innovating to improve student success? And what are nearby schools doing? “No one ever answered that second question with any

Bridget BurnsCourtesy of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education
Bridget Burns

level of specificity,” Burns says. She realized that a major barrier to innovation in higher education is the fact that universities just don’t share ideas. To fix that, she helped bring together eleven universities from around the country to found the University Innovation Alliance, in 2014, where she is now executive director. The member schools—all huge, public universities, including Georgia State and the University of Texas at Austin—have committed to collaborating on solutions to the obstacles facing low-income, first-generation, and minority students. Each school has a UIA fellow and a student success team. The UIA holds “convenings” on different campuses throughout the year, where members share ideas and—unlike at academic conferences—spend time coming up with a plan to bring those ideas back to their campuses. Burns points to predictive analytics, like the Georgia State program described above, as an example of a good idea that the UIA is helping go viral. This coming academic year, member schools will launch an unprecedented randomized controlled trial, using 10,000 students, to measure the effectiveness of analytics-based advising programs. In the past, Burns says, it may have taken years for an innovation like that to catch on. “What really matters is that, a year ago, I would have been talking about predictive analytics and telling you that we have three campuses actively using it. And now I can say we have nine.”


While much of the attention in higher education reform is focused on academic issues, the reality is that students’ life outside the classroom plays an even bigger role in whether they graduate. That’s where student-success coaching comes in. When Drekmeier cofounded the for-profit InsideTrack with Alan Tripp in 2001,

Kai DrekmeierCourtesy of InsideTrack
Kai Drekmeier

coaching was an unknown quantity. Now, after contracting with colleges to coach more than a million students, Drekmeier knows that the model works. Unlike tutors, who help with immediate academic challenges like an upcoming exam, InsideTrack’s student-success coaches focus on developing long-term life skills: handling family and work obligations, fitting into the campus community, staying motivated to graduate. A Stanford study in 2011 found that InsideTrack coaching led to improvements in college persistence and completion of about 5 percentage points; last year, a large-scale program with more than 2,000 low-income public university and community college students in Indiana yielded slightly greater improvements. Those numbers aren’t earth-shattering, but they’re significant—and, Drekmeier points out, the coaching pays for itself, since students who stay in school keep paying tuition. Over the years, InsideTrack has made its services cheaper by incorporating web-based coaching for the kinds of support that don’t require a sit-down meeting. Like the other leaders in this list, Drekmeier, president of InsideTrack, is interested in making a systemic impact. To that end, he has been shifting InsideTrack’s focus toward “capacity building”—training colleges and universities to do their own coaching. “It’s what the market is asking for,” he says. “But also it’s helping us accelerate progress on our mission, which is really to help improve graduation rates, career success, and unlock human potential—and we’re serious about that.” Indeed, Drekmeier speaks so consistently in terms of helping others that it’s easy to forget he’s running a for-profit company. He comes by his idealism honestly. “My parents are basically socialists,” he says. “I’m the first person in my family, in this generation or the last one, to have a for-profit-type job.”

Gilad Edelman

Gilad Edelman is an editor of the Washington Monthly.