The Big Plans of Postsecondary Breakthrough Models

NGLC’s Breakthrough Models for College Completion initiative challenged the field to employ new academic, organizational, and financial models in order to provide a degree program that enhanced quality and improved completion rates while serving a large number of students.

The grant recipients rose to the challenge. In the spirit of Mr. Burnham, they went “big.”

The innovations led by these pioneers are unprecedented, but also grounded in what we know about how people learn.

And as we observe what works in the new degree programs, what obstacles limit their success, and what systemic shifts need to be made in order to be successful, these breakthrough model builders are examining what it takes to scale their innovations and sustain them over the long haul.

What measures of success support program sustainability?

Rio Salado College, for example, has seen that their “breakthroughs”—which focused on leveraging technology to provide high-touch interventions—have resulted in increases in course completion, improved course grades, and greater persistence for its targeted student population: students with Pell grants. At a grantee convening last month, Rio Salado’s Shannon McCarty shared that previously, this student population had high rates of “swirling;” they were cycling through stop outs and re-enrollment without making progress toward a degree. The new model is designed to put an end to swirling and focus on completion.

As Rio Salado College looks to sustain these effective tools, strategies, and practices, McCarty says they are asking: What measures of success support program sustainability?

Here are some recommended measures of success for a breakthrough model discussed by the breakthrough model builders at that convening:

  • Students complete the degree program.
  • Students persist from course to course or from term to term, which is as much a measure of success as degree completion. The Rio Salado model is not competency-based, but several of the convening participants from competency-based education (CBE) programs pointed out that measures of persistence may take the shape of “progress toward mastery” or even “stick-with-it-ness” since time is not the critical factor in CBE.
  • At an even more granular level: Students demonstrate productive learning behaviors, measured through low-stakes assessments embedded within a course or learning experience.
  • And beyond completion: Graduates gain employment or continue on to a bachelor’s or graduate degree.

How can breakthrough degree programs afford their innovations long-term and at scale?

Some educators shy away from financial questions. They want to do what’s right at all costs. But the money has to come from somewhere and when funding does go away for an innovation, it’s not unusual for the innovation to disappear, too. Even an innovation backed by years of evidence.

But by looking at costs and revenues and making strategic decisions from the very beginning, breakthrough model builders are planning ahead to maximize the benefit of the limited resources they do have, extending their program’s life and ultimately its total impact on students.

Here are some of the financial recommendations in support of sustainability that grant recipients discussed. Rick Staisloff of rpkGROUP, a guest expert at the convening, also contributed to these ideas:

  • The innovations themselves may drive revenue in terms of tuition when students supported by the innovation enroll in and complete more courses consistently. That revenue may then be reinvested into funding the innovations.
  • At scale, a triage approach is more sustainable than a blanket approach. In triage, the level of investment—financial, human resources, technical resources, time—varies for different student groups based on their needs. Predictive analytics and early alert systems might help educators determine how to vary the investment toward the greatest benefit for the most students.

What breakthrough models have scaled most successfully?

I have to thank Northern Arizona University’s Fred Hurst for sharing the Burnham quote above (among others—see below). At the convening, Hurst reminded us that when you talk about “big plans,” scalability is what you have to talk about.

The big plans of NAU’s Personalized Learning involve a competency-based non-term program: students are able to learn “all you can” for $2,500 per six months. It was the first program at NAU that didn’t follow the traditional terms of the university and launched in the spring of 2013 with many manual processes—in enrollment, admissions, and financial aid. NAU’s Rebecca Garrett said they wanted to see which processes most needed automating before making the investment in automating them. But now those manual processes and the mismatch with the university’s term-based systems represent challenges to scalability.

As NAU examines which manual processes to automate as they prepare for scale, they asked their colleagues: What have you scaled most successfully?

Here are some of the ways that grant recipients described the role of scale and automation in their breakthrough degree programs:

  • Columbus State University: Ramesh Rao related the two approaches to scale for the Degreein3 program: scale in terms of the number of students served, and scale to additional colleges in the University System of Georgia. They are working to develop the processes to achieve both.
  • College for America: As a new college that is independently operated by Southern New Hampshire University, Yvonne Simon and Cate Kazin found that they were able to design almost all of processes “from scratch” and for scale. But some processes are still managed by SNHU, most notably financial aid. Also, while they forecast that efficiencies would emerge as the program scaled, they are watching to see how those efficiencies pan out over time.
  • New Charter University: The systems behind the New Charter model were designed from the ground up to be scalable, said Emily Chiu. One of the first bottlenecks they discovered, however, was enrollment. It was designed to be consultative, along the lines of the “Apple Genius Bar,” but it took a lot of time for students and staff. Lynnette Garetz pointed out that enrollment was identified by students through surveys as an area of challenge. They decided to redesign enrollment to be automated and modular so that students now move through the five required parts on their own and in a non-linear way. The results: Enrollment can take as little as 15 minutes. And those student surveys now show enrollment as a strength of the institution.

Quotes to Inspire “Big Plans”
When we are in the wrong place, the right place is empty. –Longfellow
If everything is under control, you are going too slow. –Mario Andretti
Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there. –Will Rogers
Everything has changed but our ways of thinking, and if these do not change we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe. –Albert Einstein

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