collaboration tech skills gap

How a new university collaborative is destroying poor retention rates

“It’s primarily because of the CEOs,” said Burns, noting that many of the leaders of UIA schools are themselves former low-income students. “This was a significant priority for each of these 11, and I think that’s been a huge part of our success.”

Second, because the schools are geographically dispersed, they don’t view each other as direct competitors. “None of them competes with another for students or resources,” said Burns. “We’ve all seen collaboration fail when competition was on the table. People in UIA feel as if they can share more than they would with someone in their local region. They ask the hard questions, they share their campus experiences, and they help coach each other.”

How UIA Schools Collaborate

Collaboration among the 11 schools occurs at three levels. At the top, the CEOs get together on a regular basis for closed-door conversations about new ideas, goals, and how to rethink some of the fundamental premises in higher education. At the second level, Burns works with a senior-level liaison from each campus who, according to Burns, “is someone whom the president or chancellor trusts to really deliver on change. I meet together with these 11 on a regular basis, and that’s where the bulk of the activity happens.”

At the third level , on each campus, the CEO and liaison have created a student-success team that comprises about five people. “Their task is to really help us close the delta in performance between different student groups and to graduate more students,” said Burns. “They’re narrowly focused on this work.”

Serving as project manager and coordinator for UIA projects on each campus is a fellow, usually an early to mid-career employee. In Burns’s view, the fellows play a key role. “In higher education, we assume people’s plates expand,” she said. “But the reality is that most people are doing multiple jobs already. At the end of the day, you can’t just say, ‘Collaborate on top of that.'”

Although predictive analytics has been a high-technology success for UIA, many of the solutions shared among the alliance are smaller, incremental improvements that often have little to do with technology. According to Burns, improving retention can be as simple as looking at the college experience from a student’s perspective.

One member school, for example, decided to use process mapping to look at how the university communicated with students from the day they were first admitted until they arrived on campus. It turned out the school was sending 450 e-mails to new students from 450 different e-mail addresses ending with .edu. “There were 50 types of holds that a student could have on their accounts by the time they showed up, and no one person was in charge of them,” said Burns. “We create a lot of noise that makes it very difficult for first-generation students to be successful. This kind of communications review is something any campus could do: It doesn’t cost money, it’s simple, and, frankly, it’s where you have to start.”

(Next page: Individual universities’ retention solutions)

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