Teaching the Ivory Tower New Tricks

A guide to the people and ideas reshaping higher education.

American colleges and universities are known throughout the world for the innovations they nurture and produce, from breakthroughs in solar power, chemotherapy research, and touchscreen technology, to the creation of the spreadsheet. But when it comes to innovating internally—by changing their structure and design to better serve their students—they are notoriously hidebound. For example: nearly 30 percent of all undergraduates are now over the age of twenty-five, but the vast majority of college classes are still held during the workday, not on weekends and evenings when adults with full-time jobs can take them. This is one of the many ways in which colleges have not adapted to the changing needs of the average student. 

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That said, there’s growing pressure on them to change. Students and parents are outraged by exorbitant tuition costs and the high levels of debt they have to take on; employers are frustrated by a mismatch between the skills they’re looking for and the ones newly minted college graduates have cultivated; and policymakers are increasingly concerned about the huge number of students, mostly from modest backgrounds, who start college but don’t finish, and are left with no credential that could help them get a good job to pay off their student debt. As a consequence, there’s now more oxygen for higher education leaders who want to start doing things differently. 

A few years ago, we began profiling in our annual College Guide the institutions and individuals—be they college presidents, academics, researchers, private-sector entrepreneurs, or lawmakers—who were coming up with innovative ways to make college work better, rather than helping universities increase their endowments and climb up the U.S. News & World Report rankings. This year, we take stock of how those ideas have progressed and spread, and what policymakers are doing to advance them. 

Predictive Analytics 

One of the biggest challenges facing higher education is the need to not just enroll more students, but keep them. Only around 40 percent of the students who enroll in college each year graduate in four years. (For students of modest means, the odds are even worse.) With such a high number of dropouts, institutions are under increasing pressure to help students persist until they earn a diploma. It turns out that the emergence of Big Data can help. 

Georgia State University, in partnership with the consulting firm EAB, was one of the first universities to pioneer predictive analytics—the use of past data to forecast future behavior and design interventions to shape it—in an academic setting. The aim was to use troves of digital information to identify predictors of when a student was at risk of failing. The school found, for example, that if a student earned a C or lower in an introductory course for their chosen major, they were statistically less likely to graduate. So now, when that happens, an adviser will reach out and help the student identify another course of study with a better chance of success. In recent years, GSU’s graduation rate has risen by more than 30 percent. Even more remarkably, the school has eliminated the racial achievement gap, and now awards more bachelor’s degrees to African Americans than any other nonprofit college in the country. 

Predictive analytics isn’t magic. It only works when a college uses the data as a basis for changing the way it interacts with students.

Now, more than 500 schools are partnering with EAB and other firms to apply predictive analytics models to improve student outcomes and replicate Georgia State’s success. One of the most innovative companies is Civitas Learning, based in Austin, Texas, which is now working with more than 300 colleges, including the University of South Florida and Utah State. Civitas’s basic thesis is that the best indicator of whether a student will graduate is not grades or test scores or demographics—it’s their behavior. Habits like logging into their online class portal reflect engagement, which is what ultimately determines whether a student succeeds. 

Predictive analytics isn’t magic. It only works when a college uses the data as a basis for changing the way it interacts with students. The University of South Florida, for instance, which Civitas began working with in 2014, created a “persistence committee” representing different parts of the university—from faculty to student affairs—to meet weekly to review student data and identify red flags. For students who raise alarms, the committee dispatches an academic advocate to figure out what’s going on and develop a remedy. It seems to be working. In 2011, USF’s six-year graduation rate was 52 percent. Now it’s 73 percent. 

The Texting Revolution 

While predictive analytics can identify students who need help, providing that help on a mass scale is expensive. It’s simply not possible for most of the schools that serve lower-income students—which tend to be poorly funded open-access public universities and community colleges—to hire a lot more trained guidance counselors. And so the race is on in higher education to find low-cost digital solutions.

One of those involves something called chatbots. If you’ve ever sought help from your bank or Apple using their online chat function, you’ve probably experienced this without knowing it: your initial questions are being answered by an algorithm. It’s only when those responses prove insufficient that a human being is brought in.

Georgia State was the first to apply this automated live chat service in a college setting, allowing students to ask questions, whether about financial aid or enrollment deadlines, and receive an answer almost immediately. The technology also addresses the fact that, as university president Mark Becker put it, “Students are vampires, and they tend to ask questions at one o’clock in the morning. And we tend not to have our financial aid staff sitting at their computers at one a.m.”

Students who seek information on their own are one thing. It’s those who don’t, but should, who are most likely to drop out. The most cost-effective way to find these students is not in the dining hall or the dorms or even the classroom. It’s on their phones. That’s why Georgia State began using automation to send text messages to students with critical reminders about deadlines and opportunities, and, when necessary, to let them know they have an outstanding assignment that needs to be turned in. 

Another pioneer in connecting via text is Trinity Washington University, an urban campus in Washington, D.C. Trinity uses Starfish Retention Solutions to notify students when they’ve missed an assignment or earned a poor grade. At the same time, the school sends out “Kudos” notices after they’ve earned a good grade, or after a professor puts in a notice through the system. “You had people who actually cared that you were getting everything that needed to be done,” said Deanna Stripling, who graduated from Trinity last year. “If something needed to be done, they would send you a reminder.”

A number of other schools have adopted similar techniques. The software company AdmitHub created Georgia State’s two-way messaging platform, and one of its competitors, Signal Vine, has partnered with schools like the University of Texas–Austin, Texas A&M, and the University of New Mexico. 

Ben Castleman, who founded and runs the Nudge4 Solutions Lab out of the University of Virginia, has taken the concept a step further. In 2011, he realized he could use texting to address the national phenomenon known as “summer melt,” in which low-income students sign up for college after graduating from high school but don’t show up in the fall. His idea was that texting students to remind them to fill out pre-enrollment paperwork would increase the likelihood that they started college on time. Sure enough, a recent study found that 72 percent of low-income students who received reminders ended up matriculating, compared with 66 percent in the control group of students who didn’t.

But texting is not a cure-all. And sending too many can backfire, as students start getting annoyed. So Alan Tripp, who previously cofounded the education consulting firm InsideTrack, created a new company called Motimatic to take digital intervention one step further. The company works with schools to buy ad space on students’ social media feeds and then installs messages that can serve as either a reminder or encouragement. In some cases, the ads merely reinforce the idea of being a student. For struggling students who are tempted to give up, it can be just the extra push they need. A recent study found that students who interacted with Motimatic messaging in the fall of 2015 had a 5 percent higher retention rate than those who didn’t. 

Competency-Based Education 

One of the hottest trends in higher ed reform is competency-based education. Under this model, students are able to complete courses once they can demonstrate mastery in the subject, not after they’ve fulfilled mandated seat-time requirements. If the course material is entirely new to the student, she might finish it in anywhere from eight to eighteen weeks. But if she is already familiar with the topic, she can immediately take the final. This allows students to move through the system as soon as they’re ready. That’s especially useful for adult students, who are not only typically trying to earn a degree while working full-time and raising kids—and for whom time is thus a precious commodity—but who have also likely learned skills on the job that overlap with some of what they’re being taught in class. 

First pioneered at Western Governors University—a revolutionary nonprofit, online institution created in 1997 by nineteen governors, mostly from western states—the idea came from one of its founders, former Colorado Governor Roy Romer, who wanted to hold schools accountable for teaching students competencies while streamlining the process. That has worked in ways Romer might not have imagined. Roughly 91 percent of WGU’s students are adults, and tuition remains low (a little over $6,500 a year). And, according to a 2018 Harris Poll Online survey, 87 percent of WGU graduates said they were employed in their degree field. 

Over the last ten years, the concept has been spreading. In 2009, then Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels announced a partnership with the school to create WGU Indiana, the first online university to become part of a state system. Today, the average time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree at WGU is two and a half years. Now, other states—Texas, Nevada, Washington, Missouri, and Tennessee—have developed similar partnerships with Western Governors. 

But there’s major blockage in the spread of this innovation, and it’s located in D.C. Under law, students are generally only eligible for federal financial aid if the classes they take are measured in standard credit hours, which competency-based classes are not. (One of the benefits of creating state-based versions of WGU, as Indiana did, is that it makes it more likely that students can receive financial aid from the state.) 

Purdue University has launched a program called “Back a Boiler,” which allows students to borrow money from the school and agree to pay it back by giving the university a percentage of their salary.

The good news is that there’s a growing movement to get Washington to bust open the credit-hour monopoly. Amy Laitinen of New America, Charla Long of the Competency-Based Education Network, and others have been pushing for lawmakers to change the conditions by which financial aid is disbursed. In 2011, Laitinen was researching the issue when she stumbled upon a provision in a 2006 law that called for the federal government to exercise “direct assessment” when determining a school’s financial aid eligibility. The Obama administration used that loophole to issue an invitation to universities to experiment with competency-based models without losing access to federal financial aid. But it did so cautiously, with a host of preconditions meant to avoid giving predatory for-profit colleges—of which there are many—a further chance to peddle useless and expensive degrees. Because of the added red tape, few colleges took advantage of the opportunity. 

The debate, however, continues. During the Department of Education’s rulemaking session last winter, there was a lengthy discussion about credit-hour reform. It didn’t result in any immediate changes to federal policy, but as Julie Peller, executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, told me, it revealed a growing awareness that the current system “measures time, not learning”—and that isn’t serving the needs of students. While the exact reform that is needed remains a conundrum—there does need to be some way to ensure that federal loans aren’t going toward exploitative institutions—a consensus is building that the current system has got to change. 

Income-Sharing Agreements 

The problem isn’t just that too many students aren’t graduating. It’s that many of those who do aren’t able to get a decent-paying job afterward. One idea to address that is to make universities share in the financial risk if students fail to succeed in the job market. This was the thinking when Purdue University—under the leadership of Daniels, who became its president after leaving the governor’s mansion—launched a program called “Back a Boiler,” which allows students to borrow money from the school and agree to pay it back by giving the university a percentage of their salary. (The idea is now being championed, though not exclusively, by conservative thought leaders, including at the American Enterprise Institute.)

This isn’t, at some level, much different from simply taking out a loan. After all, you still owe money that, research shows, can hinder you from getting married or buying a home. Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University, a skeptic of income-sharing agreements, referred to them as a form of “indentured servitude.” Proponents, however, say that making schools have “skin in the game” creates an incentive for them to improve the quality and marketability of the degrees they’re offering. Other schools to have since adopted this model include the University of Utah, Colorado Mountain College, Lackawanna College, Clarkson University, and Messiah College. 

Yet, because these arrangements are so new, they are not yet regulated. Private companies have gotten into the business of issuing income-sharing agreements to students, increasing the possibility of exploitation. For that reason, several members of the U.S. Senate, including Democrats Chris Coons and Mark Warner and Republicans Todd Young and Marco Rubio, proposed a bill in July to establish some rules of the road, such as creating an income threshold for when repayment obligations kick in and capping obligations at 20 percent of a graduate’s income. 

Remedial Education Reform 

Too many students, for too long, have been getting caught in the remedial education trap. This happens when students deemed unprepared for college-level work are placed in remedial classes before they can advance to courses that count toward a degree. This discouraging experience appears to hurt students more than it helps them. Research out of Columbia University shows that fewer than half of the students who are referred to remediation advance beyond it. For African Americans and older and part-time students, the results are even worse. All in all, students who are forced to take remedial classes have a much worse chance of graduating than comparable students who aren’t. 

That realization led two California community college professors, Katie Hern and Myra Snell, to develop the California Acceleration Project, one of the most ambitious applications of what’s called “corequisite education.” In a corequisite model, students take remedial courses and regular, for-credit ones at the same time, often through courses where remedial work is included alongside the normal curriculum, instead of having to pass the remediation gauntlet before earning any credit. Study after study has demonstrated far higher course pass rates through the corequisite model than through traditional remedial courses. 

But while that approach has boosted success rates, it hasn’t changed the fact that many students placed into remediation shouldn’t be there in the first place. For decades, thousands of schools have relied on standardized tests to determine which students should be shunted into remedial programs. This is despite mounting evidence that these downscale versions of the SAT, for which students are seldom, if ever, asked to prepare, aren’t very good at predicting future academic success. 

Judith Scott-Clayton of Columbia University was one of the first to notice that high school grades were better indicators of whether a student is ready for college-level math and English. Other data shows that placement tests were holding back people who would succeed if allowed to take regular courses. That includes research done by the Multiple Measures Assessment Project, a nonprofit made up of California community college staff. The group’s analysis of California public college data led state lawmakers to pass legislation in 2017 requiring community colleges to demonstrate evidence that a student is “highly unlikely” to succeed in a college-level course before placing them in remediation. The only metrics that can count as evidence are the student’s high school course work or grades. 

The New Urban Work College

There has long been a small group of rural colleges, including Berea College in Kentucky and the College of the Ozarks in Missouri, that have provided decent educations to poor students through a work requirement. While the two schools are different in many ways, the basic model is the same: every student works a job—whether on campus or off—that essentially pays for his or her tuition. 

In 2007, Michael Sorrell brought this same concept to the small, historically black urban college that he was taking over as president and that was, by all accounts, failing. At the time, Paul Quinn College, in Dallas, only had about 250 students enrolled—and it was struggling to keep them. So Sorrell undertook a dramatic plan that included eliminating the football program and turning the field into a farm. This was the first step of creating what he calls the “New Urban College Model.” Another way to put it: he’s transplanting the rural work college idea to the big city. In addition to operating the farm, students are also placed in a variety of part-time jobs in firms around the Dallas metro area. They earn a salary that first goes toward paying off their tuition, and then goes into their pockets. Ultimately, this new approach enabled Sorrell to lower tuition at Paul Quinn by almost $10,000 while increasing enrollment. 

Sorrell also reinvented the college’s curriculum so that students would be gaining the skills that employers wanted. After taking over, he arranged a series of meetings in which company executives and hiring managers told him they wanted job applicants who could write and speak well and analyze data efficiently. In response, he mandated that every class include curricula to help students develop those skills. 

In July 2018, the college expanded to Plano, a Dallas suburb twenty miles from the original campus but far richer in nearby work opportunities. Paul Quinn College Plano is, in Michael Sorrell’s words, a “campus-less campus.” Classes are held in rented or donated corporate office space, with precious university funds spent on finding students nearby apartments. Students attend classes three days a week and spend two days working paid internships at companies like JPMorgan Chase, Liberty Mutual, FedEx, and Aimbridge Hospitality. Sorrell is betting that the skills and connections they gain from their internships will land them good job offers when they graduate.

Other colleges around the country are beginning to adopt Sorrell’s work model, including Kuyper College in Michigan and Wilberforce University in Ohio, both of which are doing so through a grant from the University Innovation Alliance. (Clinton College in South Carolina has also expressed interest and is in the early stages of transitioning into a work college.) 

College Advising 

The distribution of guidance counselors is an underappreciated inequity in American education. Data from Utah shows that students who meet with a college access adviser three to five times are twice as likely to go to college. But many students don’t have that opportunity. According to the most recent publicly available data, the national average student-to-counselor ratio is 482 to 1. (The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum of 250 to 1.) Those figures don’t fully reflect the disparities between rich school districts and poor urban and rural ones. 

Most children who grow up in affluent areas have at least two things going for them when applying to college: parents who have degrees and are intensely committed to helping them get into the best possible school (which can include paying for test prep, helping with essays, and taking them on campus visits), and on-staff high school counselors ready to assist with the application process. Low-income students, however, often have neither. 

College Advising Corps inserts advisers in schools all around the country. In 2016–17, students who met with a CAC adviser were 30 percent more likely to apply to college—and 24 percent more likely to be accepted—than those who didn’t.

Counselors in economically distressed neighborhoods rarely get to spend much time on college advising when they’re helping students who may be homeless, food insecure, or touched by violence. A recent survey of high school counselors found that only 33 percent of U.S. public high schools have a full-time or part-time counselor focused exclusively on college advising, compared to 68 percent of private schools. In other words, the students who need help the most are the ones getting it the least. 

That’s where two groups come in: College Possible and College Advising Corps. Both recruit promising recent college graduates to counsel high school students in poor areas around the country. College Possible, which was founded in 2000, is a nonprofit staffed by AmeriCorps members who do on-the-ground advising in needy high schools. College Advising Corps, which started in 2005, likewise inserts advisers in schools all around the country. While the organization’s scope is modest, it has proven that its approach works. In 2016–17, students who met with a CAC adviser were 30 percent more likely to apply to college—and 24 percent more likely to be accepted—than those who didn’t. 

Now, thanks in part to that proof of concept, lawmakers in a number of states are starting to work on policy solutions. Utah is currently developing an initiative to install an adviser in every high school in the state by 2022. Meanwhile, North Carolina lawmakers are working on legislation that would place a college adviser in every county. 

Other states have also been considering ways to ensure that high school students enroll in college. Texas and Louisiana have each passed laws requiring students to complete their federal student aid, or FAFSA, forms to graduate. The idea is to effectively preempt the possibility that, come August, the student won’t be able to start because they haven’t finished their paperwork. The germ for this experiment came from a few schools that forced or incentivized their students to complete FAFSA forms in order to go to senior prom. “This is one of the most innovative policy approaches that really gets inside the seventeen-year-old mind-set,” Nicole Hurd, the founder and CEO of College Advising Corps, told me. 

It’s not easy to innovate. But the more that university leaders, reformers, and entrepreneurs step inside the shoes of students, the more they’re able to develop cutting-edge ideas that can make college more accessible and effective. Those breakthroughs may not always make headlines, but they represent the ideals of American higher education at its best.

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Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is digital editor at the Washington Monthly.