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The Real Disruptive Force in Higher Education? Collaboration

December 7, 2015

Almost exactly a year ago, l joined a group of university presidents and provosts at the White House pledging to graduate an additional 68,000 students by 2025. Our University Innovation Alliance, comprised of 11 public research universities, was forged because we believe in expanding college access and success to students from all backgrounds, including low-income and first-generation college students. Earning a degree is not only good for the students, but also a boon to our national economy and the accelerating need for an educated workforce.

That goal and egalitarian principle inspires much of my work as a university president and our school's focus on innovation. But what underlies this is my growing conviction that the real innovation of today is not a tool or a technique or a device. The real disruptive force in higher education is and will be collaboration.

Just as we look for ways to innovate throughout our school, we also are constantly on the hunt for imaginative partnerships that can expand our capacity to drive change and close the achievement gap. (Students from low-income households are about ten times less likely to complete their college education than students from upper-income households.)

In July 2014, Starbucks employee Allison Hills was the first to successfully enroll in our Starbucks College Achievement Plan, tapping back into her dream after dropping out of school and becoming a little despondent that she would ever complete her degree. Now she is one of over 4,000 Starbucks partners who have signed up to earn a bachelor's degree from our online campus with full tuition reimbursement. We are expecting nearly 5,000 enrollees by the end of this year and more than 200 graduates by May next year.

This is good news—a sign that our public-private collaboration has tapped into pent-up demand. What would have happened to these workers had we not sought a partnership with Starbucks? How many might never have decided to return to college, so critical to raising their income potential and landing jobs increasingly dependent on a college degree and advanced skills?

If the answer were only one, that would be one too many. If the answer were many, that would be an even greater challenge to find innovative approaches to creating more opportunity. 

So we are continuously searching for collaborations that can make a meaningful difference in expanding access and driving excellence—not only additional partnerships like ours with Starbucks, but also with other academic institutions and enterprises committed to accelerating change.

This impulse drove our engagement with 10 public research universities to create the University Innovation Alliance and make use of predictive analytics, intensive advising and other new strategies to improve outcomes for students of all backgrounds.

Back in our nation's formative years, there was talk of creating a national university, an idea that failed to gain traction at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Its absence gave room for state universities to emerge and thrive.

Yet for too long the driving impulse of these schools has been competition—and not just because of football. In our ongoing race for students, faculty and research funds—as healthy as that can be—we often impede or block our capacity for shared impact and its potential for even greater success.

Our alliance is already demonstrating that by intense and innovative collaboration, we all win. Operating as an innovation cluster, we are developing and testing new initiatives, setting metrics to measure progress, and sharing data and best practices. We are making use of research on conditions needed for collective impact, including establishing a common agenda, shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and a ”backbone support organization."

One key goal is producing innovations that are sharable and scalable so that other institutions can benefit from what we have learned. That's how we all really will win: By working together, we can create systemic, needed changes in higher education. By producing a better-educated workforce that captures talent from every zip code, we lay the foundation for continuing prosperity for all Americans.