collaboration tech skills gap

How a new university collaborative is destroying poor retention rates


An 11-member alliance is improving retention rates among students by openly sharing solutions and working together on new ways to support at-risk students.

“When universities collaborate, students win” is the slogan of the University Innovation Alliance, a partnership of 11 major schools that hopes to reverse the nationwide decline in college enrollment and increase the number of graduates from across the socio-economic spectrum. Recent successes in retention rates suggest that the jingle may be more than slick marketing. At its launch in 2014, the UIA set a goal of graduating more than 68,000 additional students over the next decade. Now the group expects to graduate nearly 100,000 extra students in that time.

Even so, the UIA’s efforts will make only a small dent in the additional 5 million college graduates who will be needed in the U.S. by 2020, according to projections in a 2013 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. But the UIA is hoping that other universities will adopt some of the group’s proven student-retention strategies and forge their own collaborative alliances to spur adoption of new initiatives.

“If all other four-year public colleges and universities in the U.S. increased their graduation rates at the UIA’s pace over the next decade, we would add 1.3 million college graduates to the workforce,” said Bridget Burns, executive director of UIA, whose members include Ohio State, Purdue, Arizona State, University of Central Florida, and Georgia State. “This is a matter of national urgency, but we have to address the way that we share ideas in higher education. At the moment, innovation just dribbles between institutions—it doesn’t even trickle.”

Indeed, a review of UIA’s gains in student-retention rates shows that collaboration has been the biggest factor in the group’s success, allowing universities to identify and replicate solutions from partner institutions in record time.

Burns points to predictive analytics as an example of a key initiative that gained rapid traction despite initial reluctance from campuses that had already tried solutions without much success. “At least two UIA campuses went from saying no to predictive analytics to a full-scale implementation in about 18 months,” said Burns. “In that time, they transferred 10 years of data, got their algorithms rolled out, and piloted the projects. Prior to UIA, it took campuses years to reach the same point. We’re seeing an acceleration, and the vehicle is these relationships and this collaborative approach.”

But anyone who’s worked in higher education knows that collaboration is sometimes easier said than done. Many universities are themselves divided into jealously guarded fiefdoms, so how has UIA managed to forge such productive relationships across 11 large institutions?

(Next page: How UIA universities collaborate to boost 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)

Among the 11 institutions, several solutions have emerged as big winners. At Arizona State University, for example, its eAdvisor program has improved freshman retention rates by 9.5 percent and the six-year graduation rate by 19.3 percent.

While the biggest gains to date have come as a result of member schools adopting solutions from one another, the universities are also collaborating on new initiatives intended to bend the retention curve further. For example, Georgia State University was recently awarded an $8.9 million First in the World grant to conduct a four-year, cross-UIA study to evaluate the effectiveness of advising in improving retention and graduation rates among low-income and first-generation students.

Ultimately, UIA plans to make all of its solutions and findings public. “We want to give it all away,” said Burns. “We’re only 18-19 months in, but we’re trying to document everything we do and create templates and examples.”

Although, UIA does not plan to expand its ranks lest the coalition become too unwieldy, it is actively encouraging other schools to form partnerships of their own. UIA is also in the process of establishing a way for universities to “observe” the work. “We’re trying to create a drumbeat that going it alone is a waste of time, energy, and money,” said Burns. “We want to keep pushing for more collaborative alliances. We want to give them our strategy for collaboration. It’s a playbook and we’re trying to assemble it right.”

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