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Part 2: The 16 innovators in high-ranking institutions


Washington Monthly features a growing list of innovators advocating for reform in higher education.

[Editor’s Note: For Part 1 of this story that delves into the measures that should be included in the rankings of the future, read here.]

As the higher education landscape evolves and new institutional rankings take into account alternative data, such as low-income student enrollment and a focus on STEM, innovative individuals within these high-ranking institutions have also come into the spotlight.

As more institutions explore how they can help the most students achieve their goals of earning degrees with as little financial burden as possible, these sixteen higher-ed stakeholders are rising to the challenge and are brainstorming new ideas and approaches to make those goals a reality. These efforts also are shaking up the traditional college rankings system.

Recently, Washington Monthly released its annual college rankings, which are based around three pillars: social mobility, research, and service. The rankings also include loan repayment information and student earnings years after enrolling. Overall, the methodology helps highlight institutions focused on innovation by virtue of their dedication to one or more of the three pillars.

In addition to the rankings, Washington Monthly also published a list of the 16 most innovative people in higher education, from those advocating for progressive policy to faculty members and nonprofits.

(Next page: What members of the list have to say about higher education innovation)

Forecasting Higher Education Innovation

During a Sept. 15 event, some members of that list shared their thoughts about higher education innovation, where it stands, where it could go, and what it will take to get there.

There are two threats to higher education innovation, said Amy Laitinen, director for Higher Education, Education Policy program at New America.

One threat is that higher education will remain the same, which doesn’t help the students who need higher education to achieve their goals. The second is that higher education will change, but in doing so, will hurt the students it needs to help the most.

“How do we thread those two things?” she asked. “We have to rethink our concept of innovation. We can’t afford to think that you’re either in favor of innovation or you’re in favor of consumer protection.”

In her work traveling across the country to observe colleges and universities, University Innovation Alliance Executive Director Bridget Burns said most of the institutions she visited pointed out innovations that were not innovative at all.

“Many were doing things they didn’t even realize were innovative,” she said. “And others, a small group, were engaging in experimentation, were comfortable with failure, and were learning from it.”

In an institution’s quest to sustain innovation, “faculty have to buy into what you’re doing,” said Charles Isbell ‪, professor and senior associate dean at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “They have to be able to participate.”

“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,” writes author Gilad Edelman. “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.”

Innovators in High-Ranking Insitutions

Following are 5 of the 16 people included in Washington Monthly’s ranking. Click here for the full list.

1. Karen Stout, Achieving the Dream: Stout spent 14 years as the president of Montgomery County Community College, and in 2014 she earned accolades from President Obama for her work in revamping graduation and retention efforts. She is now president of Achieving the Dream, which this fall will lead an effort to offer complete degree programs using OER.

2. Dan Porterfield, Franklin & Marshall College: In the time that Porterfield has been Franklin & Marshall College’s president, students who are eligible for Pell grants have moved from 5 percent of the student body to 19 percent. The college’s Next Generation Initiative aims to boost its socioeconomic, racial and geographic diversity by eliminating merit aid and doubling spending on need-based aid.

3. Linda Johnsrud, University of Texas at Arlington: During her time in the University of Hawaii system, Johnsrud devised a plan to change her institution’s definition of full-time from 12 credits per semester to 15 in order to reduce the amount of time and money students spent earning 4-year degrees (more than 5 years). The effort increased the number of students taking 15 credits as well as the number of students who graduated in 4 years. Now as interim vice provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington, Johnsrud has launched an online portal helping 2-year students move to 4-year schools.

4. Tim Renick, Georgia State University: Student demographics are changing rapidly, and state investments in higher education are declining at a time when university officials, with fewer dollars at their disposal, are trying to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student body. But the university’s Student Success Initiative includes a multitude of different programs, curriculum re-designs, grants, and predictive analytics.

5. David Laude, University of Texas at Austin: Laude’s efforts focused on helping improve outcomes for the nearly half of UTA undergraduates who did not graduate in 4 years. UTA’s system identifies students with the greatest statistical risk of not finishing on time, and those students are placed in smaller first-year classes and given other assistance. The program and its related efforts also have caused a cultural shift on campus, Laude said.

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Laura Ascione

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