Gates Foundation expert: 3 challenges facing today's colleges

One expert's take on the rapidly changing higher ed landscape

Julia Haskins, staff writerJulia Haskins, staff writer

Higher education has come a long way, pivoting from a focus on enrollment numbers to student outcomes as the mark of postsecondary success. But where do we go from here, and how can we continue to keep students at the forefront? 

At a fireside chat during the CONNECTED 2016 conference, Dan Greenstein, director of postsecondary success for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, discussed innovations that are pushing higher education forward—and areas with room for improvement.

1: Supporting diverse students

Higher education leaders must acknowledge that the industry now serves an increasingly diverse student population, Greenstein said, which means that colleges and universities must adapt to better serve students from nontraditional backgrounds.

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"We have to dig into pools of students that we have never served well," Greenstein said. That begins with administrators conducting a "realistic assessment" of their student body to determine its unique pattern of needs.

Not only that, Greenstein said, but it's important to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting students—what works at one institution will not necessarily succeed at another. 

2: Seeking new business models

The discussion surrounding innovation in higher education has become heightened against the backdrop of declining state appropriations across the country.

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It does not appear to me that there is going to be a massive restoration of public funding," Greenstein said. "We're going to have to look at models that deliver higher education on a profoundly different basis."

In spite of the pressure to innovate, Greenstein warned higher education leaders against new trends that aren't based in evidence.

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"Our community is subject [to] faddishness," Greenstein said, noting, "None of these innovations are actually worth trying without getting basic internal mechanics in place."

He pointed to the early hype over MOOCs as an example of the ways in which higher education can get a little too excited about innovation without taking a hard look at available evidence regarding what works.  

"There are tremendous benefits to be had in online education when it's done well…but it's a particularly heavy lift," Greenstein said.

3: Using data to make decisions

Greenstein pointed out that students and their families also have a wealth of data at their disposal to make better sense of the value that a college education can offer, such as reports from PayScale, the College Scorecard, and now, insights from Google searches. In such a climate, there's more pressure on colleges to invest in proven strategies.

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Greenstein encourages colleges to experiment, but look for solutions that are backed by evidence. "Colleges on the whole stand to benefit" from better data collection and analysis, Greenstein said. Sharing and analyzing data will help administrators make informed choices when implementing interventions. That leads to the question, "Are there opportunities to capture and canonize what those practices are?"

 While challenges persist, Greenstein remains optimistic about the direction in which higher education is heading. And for an industry that is still undergoing major growth, there is already much to applaud.

 "We spend so much time worrying about our present, worrying about our future, I think we sometimes forget how successful we have been," Greenstein said. 

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