An Educated Guest

S2 E5 | Innovating Through Failure

Guest: Dr. Bridget Burns, Founder and CEO, University Innovation Alliance

Higher ed was never designed around students. But Dr. Bridget Burns is determined to disrupt that. 

In this episode of An Educated Guest, Todd Zipper, EVP and GM of Wiley University Services and Talent Development, welcomes Dr. Bridget Burns, Founder and CEO of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). Together, they explore how empathy, design thinking, accessible data, trusting each other to fail, and the UIA’s six policy areas have innovated scalable solutions for student success. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Why tools like predictive analytics and proactive advising are fundamental to diagnosing students’ problems and providing immediate support 
  • How chatbots can resolve students’ issues and help staff be more effective 
  • Why career services need to become part of every classroom experience 
  • How $1,000 grants have ensured students graduate on time  
  • How creating the social safety to fail is key to innovation 

Guest Bio

Dr. Bridget Burns is the founder and CEO of University Innovation Alliance, a multi-campus laboratory for student success innovation that helps university leaders implement scalable solutions to increase the number and diversity of college graduates.

In 2020, Bridget was recognized by Diverse Issues as one of “35 Leading Women in Higher Education” and named one of the “16 Most Innovative People in Higher Education” by Washington Monthly magazine. In addition, her work has been highlighted in national outlets like The New York Times, Fast Company, and 60 Minutes. She was also featured in the documentary “Unlikely.” 

Bridget received her bachelor’s degree in Political Science and master’s degree in Public Policy from Oregon State University and her Doctorate in Higher Education, Leadership & Policy from Vanderbilt University. 

Podcast Transcript

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Speaker 1:

You’re listening to An Educated Guest, a podcast that brings together great minds in higher ed to delve deeper into the innovations and trends guiding the future of education and careers. Hosted by the Executive Vice President and GM of Wiley University Services and Talent Development, Todd Zipper.

Todd Zipper:

Hello, I am Todd Zipper, host of An Educated Guest. On today’s show I speak with Bridget Burns, founding CEO of the University Innovation Alliance. This multi-campus student success innovation lab dramatically accelerates university’s pace of scaling solutions to increase the number and diversity of college graduates.

As the leader of the UIA, Bridget is on a mission to transform the way institutions think about and take action on behalf of low income, first generation and students of color. In 2020, Bridget was recognized by diverse issues as one of 35 leading women in higher education and has been named one of the 16 most innovative people in higher education by Washington Monthly Magazine.

The key takeaways from our discussion today, first, why higher ed was never designed around student success and how empathy and design thinking are the keys to change. Second, why tools like predictive analytics and proactive advising are fundamental to rapidly diagnosing students problems and providing immediate support.

Third, when chatbots are best suited to resolve students’ issues and how they can help staff be more effective. Fourth, why career services needs to be part of every classroom experience. Fifth, how $1,000 grants have ensured students graduate on time.

And lastly, how creating the social safety to fail is key to institutions innovating successfully. Hello Bridget, and thank you for being here today on An Educated Guest.

Bridget Burns:

I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Todd Zipper:

Same here. And I’m really excited to learn all the work that you’ve done in building the University Innovation Alliance. But first, tell us about yourself. What led you into higher education and to ultimately create the University Innovation Alliance?

Bridget Burns:

Well, I am very fortunate to be one of those kind of Exhibit A kids that is exactly like the students that we’re trying to serve. I grew up in a low income family in rural Montana and had a very difficult time getting to and through college.

And so at some point I got bit by higher education in general because it was so transformative for me and trying to help other students navigate that and make it so their life was a little bit easier than what I experienced was something that as early as when I was in college and I was student body president, I then got appointed to the state board of higher education.

And so at 22 years old and on the state board overseeing the seven institutions in the state of Oregon, all these really profound opportunities flow from there. But I would say that’s a big part of my story is that I came in as kind of exhibit A of what not to do because it took me seven years to get my bachelor’s degree.

And when I did graduate I had 50 extra credits that didn’t count, $50,000 in student loans. And it was because the institutions are not really designed around students and I was not given a guidance or advice or support. And so I just wanted it to be easier and better for other students because it really did profoundly change the trajectory of my life.

And I also serendipitously get this opportunity to experience and engage with higher ed at this super high level where I’m involved in the hiring of college presidents at 22 years old, involved in the firing of presidents at 23 and then later go on to become a senior policy advisor and chief of staff for the university of system years later.

And at a point I was ready for kind of a change and I was looking to understand higher ed more broadly because while I’d worked with seven institutions in the state of Oregon, I kept hearing and seeing all this stuff about innovation and I wanted to know if it was real.

I wanted to know if it was just marketing or if there were institutions in this country who were doing things fundamentally different. And I wanted to just understand that. And so I fortunately got to go on an ACE Fellowship to Arizona State University where I shadowed Michael Crow for a year, which is a pretty profound experience.

And during that experience, he had already had conversations with other college presidents about forming something that would really be about scale, that would be about taking ideas that had already worked and seeing if we could work together to spread them from place to place and serve far more students.

And so I showed up when that conversation had started and I was free labor. So as an ACE fellow they don’t really pay your salary, but you’re just there. And so I had a weird skillset of having had to advise and represent and advocate and in some cases tell presidents of colleges what to do.

And that’s a good skillset when you’re trying to build a collaborative. So that’s when it started is in the midst of my ACE Fellowship where I was kind of there to provide support.

Todd Zipper:

Excellent. So I know you’ve said in numerous talks that higher education was never designed around students. First, what do you mean by that? And second, what does changing that look like?

Bridget Burns:

Yeah. So I mean, my backstory gives a little bit of that in that when I was 18 years old, I had been socialized like a lot of American children and youth to respect my elders. And we have these really respected institutions. Higher ed has this halo effect around it. We look up to higher education as this is where the smart people are.

And at 18 when I’m socialized to believe that I should go to college and I wanted to go to college, but I was navigating on my own. I fill out all these forms and paperwork and I send them in, I do FAFSA, I do all of that and I get to my institution and it is like no one read any of it.

And it is like none of the data systems are connected. And I don’t know that at the time, but I’m 18 and I think of course trust them. The grownups are going to be watching. If I get off track, they’re going to tell me what to do. I should just do what…So if they send me a letter that says that I should take out $5,000 in student loans, even though that is more money than I’ve ever seen in my life and I know that they know that because I filled out really complicated forms and paperwork, I’m naturally going to trust that higher ed is telling me what to do and I’m going to follow that.

So that’s what our students think is that we have this customer service mentality, we have this respect your elders mentality. And in the midst of that you have systems that historically never centered the experience of students, never actually were designed around the success of students.

And one of the many ways that we know that is that our data systems are not connected. The people who would need to know to reach out to me and tell me that I was off track, they wouldn’t have that information. I assume that an advisor would tell me that I was off track. How would they know that?

Most of our data systems, all of it was never designed around students. I say that and I give good examples. The most obvious one beyond my own personal experience is graduation. That at every institution of higher learning, when it’s time for a student to graduate, the institution doesn’t know. The student has to tell them.

Our students then have to fill out a bunch of forms and paperwork and then they have to pay a fee. And by the way, most of the information that’s on those forms and paperwork, the institution should know, they actually have that information. And then we make you pay fee.

That is literally, if you were trying to check out your card to Amazon, if you had to do all of that, you would very clearly get the message they don’t want you to do that. So what’s what’s happening is not only was higher ed historically designed originally in this country around the faculty, because that was our intellectual capital at the time, you also have this uptick in user-centered design.

You and I can pick up our phone and get food delivered. We can pick up our phone and have a car pick us up. We know what it’s like to have our experience considered in design. That is not at all what higher education, that’s not how it is. And it’s not because people don’t care.

It’s not because people are lazy. It is a design problem. And when you think about things and you understand that they are a design problem, you can remove motivation and attention and you can actually work on the design solution because that’s how we have to do it. We have to actually listen.

We have to actually focus on what are our systems to capture empathy and perspective of the student experience. The first step of design is empathy. We can then come up with rapid prototypes, we can do all of this. But long answer to your question, no, it was never designed for students and you can see it everywhere.

Todd Zipper:

I love that. First off, there’s a recurring nightmare that I have that I didn’t graduate from college. I think you just shed some light on why that might be the case. I never filled out the forms. So talk to us about this idea of scaling at empathy.

It’s a really interesting word because like you said, I’ve met so many faculty and so many administrators and I think largely they’re there because they love education, they love the students and yet it does not feel that way from the perspective of so many students. So can you give us a little sense of what do you mean by this empathy thing and scaling?

Bridget Burns:

Yeah. So for folks who dabbled with design thinking, the edict is the first step of design is empathy. If you look at the process, if you’re going to create anything for anyone, you actually have to understand that person. You have to understand their needs.

You have to be genuinely curious, not judgmental. You have to lean in. And one of the problems that exists in our universities is that we don’t have a vehicle for empathy. If you think about it like if a university’s a body, where is the ear? Where’s the place that we actually are set up to just listen and study and understand what our students are going through?

There isn’t one. The closest thing we have to an ear is advising or a help desk, but both of those are designed to tell the student what they are doing wrong to fit into our system. They are there to advise students on how they can change their behavior to accommodate into our systems.

But there is not a space where universities to just open-ended understand in real time what’s going on in the lives of our students. What do you need? What’s not working? What’s working? And we see evidence of that. One of the most obvious for me is that it took us this long to take hunger and homelessness seriously.

When I was in college 20 years ago, I knew people who were living in their cars. And yet the enterprise like broadly higher ed has only recently woken up to this because of a lot of the work from the Hope Center, but that’s just one example of it.

But I also see this, I mean, we really became aware of it in COVID because universities were all of a sudden, we’ve always been flying blind, but we got lucky. Students would say something and maybe that faculty member knows how to move things up the chain of command or maybe they asks someone and they know how to navigate.

But generally we use surveys, every once in a while we’ll do a focus group, but that’s it. And if you are in the room when that focus group results are read, you are lucky and it goes on a shelf. And survey fatigue started to set in midst of COVID. Students stop responding.

And so we didn’t know what was going on. We were like, I mean, we know you need hotspots. We were trying to guess and it exposed this huge vulnerability that is, again, I think a relief because it justifies and explains why our design has been so poor for so long.

And the way that you can see that design being problematic is you look at our outcomes, that more than half of the people who walk in the door don’t graduate. That’s not because people don’t care. You’re right, people care in higher ed. The reason why they work, it’s because it changed their life and they want to pay it forward.

But if you have no meaningful way to consistently listen to your user or if you’re an ed tech, to your customer, then of course you’re going to not do a good job. You’re not going to be able to deliver on what you need to.

Todd Zipper:

Awesome. So before we jump into some of the work that you’re doing specifically at the Alliance, can you just give us a sense of who the members are? You mentioned Arizona State, I know there’s 14 members. Who are these folks? Because I know there’s some of the best public universities in the country.

Bridget Burns:

So this might be breaking news. I’m trying to remember if it’s all public. I think we have 15 right this second that’s ready for primetime. So it was started by 11 institutions who are all large public research intensives, typically over 25,000 students.

And we recognize that one, we needed to increase the diversity amongst our institutions and representation geographically. So we expanded some of the institutions types to, so some are not fully 25,000 students, but generally speaking you’re still looking at institutions who believe in serving a lot large number of students and a disproportionately higher low income and students of color.

And that’s because what we’re trying to prove here is that you can be big and good. And that you can prioritize the needs of low income, first generation and students of color and actually raise the water level for everyone. And we can do this by working together.

So the institutions themselves are Oregon State, UC Riverside, ASU. We just added CU Denver, so that’s new. One of the founding institutions was UT Austin. They are no longer, but they were for a significant period of time.

We have Georgia State, University of Central Florida, UBC, North Carolina A&T, Iowa State, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State, University of Illinois Chicago. So yeah, across the top of my head, I think.

Todd Zipper:

That’s an eclectic group with a lot of great representation there and gives a sense of how you’re trying to implement some of these innovations and best practices. I want to really get through the areas that UIA is focused on in terms of the different policies and results that you’re seeing.

And I know if you go on your website, they talk about some of these major areas of focus. To achieve these major goals of really increasing outcomes. That’s what you’re here trying to do, right? Get tens of thousands of more students, especially ones of diverse backgrounds, low income, through the coursework and graduation.

So I’m just going to pick out the first one that really resonated with me, which you hear so much about in business, which is around predictive analytics. I think you guys have been doing work there for quite some time. So I’m going to ask a bunch of questions around these solutions that you have. Tell us about what you’re doing there.

Bridget Burns:

So the goals of the alliance are more graduates, more graduates across the socioeconomic spectrum, innovate together, hold each other accountable, hold down our costs and eliminate disparity. So not super easy, but the premise is that we can do it by working together.

So ideas that spread from place to place, which is important about predictive analytics. So a big part of our work is not like, I mean, frankly a lot of institutions come to me and say, “I’d love to join the alliance. Let me tell you all the great things we’re doing.” I couldn’t care less if you have done something yourself.

I only care if you have done something that’s you have helped someone else replicate. That’s an important threshold because we have too many boutique adorable ideas that don’t go anywhere and there for very specific reasons why they work at that institution. And that’s great, bless their heart.

But what I’m interested in is how we can serve millions more students, specifically the students who were born into poverty, who are students of color, who are first generation because the future economic competitiveness of our country is at stake.

So with that as a threshold of kind of a really high BS meter, we first look at the country and we look at what institutions are really seeing the results change over time. And Georgia State comes early into the lead because they managed to eliminate race and income as a predictor of outcome.

And that one of the first ways they did that was by getting their data systems to actually function and work by making sure that it actually flowed so that you could be anticipatory instead of playing defense, which is at best how higher ed works.

Most of our data is in nine dirty boxes in the basement, totally disconnected, not speaking the same language. The right people who need data don’t have access to it.

We design it for people who are high up on the org chart when the people who need the data are the academic advisors. They’re the folks who are actually going to be applying interventions. In many cases, faculty, they need access to information.

So predictive analytics, there’s a bunch of vendors out there and we’re vendor agnostic because if we were with one vendor, there is always, no matter what technology we talk about, I could bring up a campus who says, “We tried that vendor and it didn’t work for us.”

Which means if it’s vendor specific, that campus is never going to do the intervention. And with analytics, which is such a critical component of long-term success for students, you just can’t have that. So we have a lot of our campuses who have tried a variety of vendors.

Georgia State worked with the AB and it’s not really about the vendor, it’s about so much more. It’s in terms of what your institution does once you purchase the product. Do you staff and support a new intervention like that?

Do you actually give people the access, the ownership and the permission they need, the project management and the onboarding to get it to be successful and how do you actually know it’s working? So predictive analytics, I would describe for that coupled with proactive advising, which is another one of the interventions we scaled.

We started, we had two campuses who were using it. It was ASU and Georgia State. ASU’s model was built by them. So it can be scaled because it’s for their own, the build it or buy it discussion. So all the other campuses, they have initial 11 scale predictive analytics, they use a different variety of vendors.

And we basically are trying to figure out how do we make it faster? How do we make it easier? How do we make it less expensive? Every time that we scale something, it’s not just can we? It’s how does it need to be adapted into this different ecosystem, this different leadership structure, this kind of your governance or all these things.

Some of them have strong unions, some don’t. So I need as much complexity and variety as possible, which is why the UIA institutions being different matters. Because if they were all the same and we all just copied and pasted from Georgia State, we wouldn’t have learned anything.

And it’s unrealistic to think that that’s the goal. So what we learned along the way are ways that institutions can scale predictive analytics that are easier. Frankly a lot of the time we learned how not to do it, because there have been plenty of errors.

Todd Zipper:

I might need a little definition on predictive analytics for the audience. So what is it and how does it get implemented? And what kind of results then are you expecting to see? And then we can get into the leap into proactive advising.

Bridget Burns:

So normal data, you’d be like, okay, if I look at my bank account this month, I could make decisions based on what I have available to me and I could try and make some guesses. But if I look at my historical data of how I have spent my money each month for the past year, you could make some pretty smart bets about how I’m going to do things.

Well, same thing with students and with our institution. So you want to run your data for your institution, who drops out? Who makes it through, who doesn’t? When do they drop out? What do they do right before they drop out? Look at the last 20 years of data, look at the last 10 years of data, you want to actually synthesize all of that.

And that’s what these systems do is try and go through and see what inferences can we draw? What can we learn? And when I’m coaching an institution, I think what they’re looking for is you want to figure out what your booby traps are. You want to figure out what are the landmines that exist on your campus.

And when I say that, I mean, you’re looking for the things that students did right before they dropped out. What happened right before they dropped out for the last 10 years? What types of students were the ones who dropped out? Okay, so that’s going to tell you that historically in many of our institutions, it’s a low income student.

They get a financial aid hold and they, boom, gone, but there are other predictive behaviors that lead up to that. And if you just looked at the data, if you actually ran through and saw historically, what could we have learned so that we could start anticipating and actually trying to guard the landmine or the booby trap or whatever word you want to use.

And so a lot of these things are things like you register for the wrong classes. A lot of financial aid holds, academic holds that prevent you from registering. You try to change your major and it doesn’t make, or you do things that are a little anomaly that are a red flag that say, I need someone to talk to me. Someone should actually reach out and talk to me.

And that’s what advisors are often the ones who apply the intervention with predictive analytics is they’re the ones who can say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” And we can actually try and help them. What happens right now is that we lose students sometimes by the thousands and we find out much later and there’s nothing we can do about it at that point.

But if you have predictive analytics that’s fully integrated, all your data systems are firing and the right people have access to that data, then the following happens. At Georgia State they have, it’s like 800 to 1000 indicators depending that they’re monitoring at all times.

So card swipe data, what student, registration, financial aid, all these things. And every Monday they get a printout of the students who have just hit a red flag or a trigger that indicates that they’ve got something going wrong.

And that week alone, they spend 3000 advising hours to talk to those students. They reach out to them. What happens in most other institutions is that the students who walk in the door at the advising office are often looking for, “Am I doing the right thing?” Okay. Yeah.

Most of the time it’s like it’s the students who actually don’t need triage help. And otherwise we just find out a student hit a red flag because they drop out and a few months later we find out about it. So it’s literally defense versus offense.

Todd Zipper:

Right. I love that analogy. And so can you talk about some of the results that might come out of this? Whether one of the institutions, I think I read on your website that there was a 21% increase in Pell graduates due to your predictive analytic measures. I mean, can you bring this to life, how this drives more better outcomes essentially?

Bridget Burns:

Well, so for our institutions, I would say predictive analytics is like, it’s a data solution that is best mobilized when it’s connected to proactive advising, which is that description I just gave you earlier about what if your advisors weren’t flying blind?

So often when I go to a campus, I’ll ask advisors if they’ll let me talk to them. I’ll ask how many screens they have to go through before they can, when they meet with a new student, before they can diagnose the problem. That is the question to always ask because these folks at most have a 30 minute appointment and I’ve heard 10 screens before.

And so if you’re having to go through 10 screens to diagnose it, no, dah, that’s the reason why we’re not getting what we need. So I would say a lot of the outcomes and results that our institutions have had are not one specific intervention. It’s a combined effort of, first we did predictive analytics, so our data systems, we could even know if we were right.

Proactive advising, plus we had completion grants, plus we did the redesign of that last mile. So I would say we have a variety of data outcome improvements that have happened on all of our campuses.

The biggest ones that people know is that we have graduated additional 118,000 students above the number we were originally producing or expected to produce even the stretch goal of that with that original 11 institutions. We’ve also increased our graduates of color by 85% and our low income graduates by 46%.

Now do I cause all those things? No. I think there is something really powerful about a group of institutions, the presidents deciding they care about this stuff and being willing to every year kind of look at a dashboard in front of each other where they’re compared on their equity gaps and that they are publicly communicating consistently that this is a priority.

We’re always teeing up projects and initiatives that will help our campuses chip away at it. And so the long term results are very good, but I can’t say it was predictive analytics who caused this one thing. But with all of our institutions, there are stories and data points to share about each one of these projects.

So I don’t want to overstate that it’s not just one thing, but this is, I would say, the baseline. You got to get your analytics and your data systems working or the rest of it, you just can’t do the rest of it. You can’t do the rest of the stuff that needs to happen in innovation and higher ed.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah. So jumping into one of the innovations that I know has also been maybe worked on or started at Georgia State is the chatbot that you guys are working on. And that seems like once you have all those things laid out, then you can start to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to sort of answer students questions at midnight or something like that.

Can you kind of walk us through that innovation and how you’re seeing it? Can you get that to scale across multiple institutions? Because it seems really powerful from what I can tell.

Bridget Burns:

Yeah, the data coming out of Georgia State on chatbots is really impressive. I can’t recommend enough. And the thing is it’s consistently growing. And so whatever data point I’ll tell you, I guarantee it’s out of date because Tim Renick has probably got even better numbers.

So here’s the thing is there are people on every campus who are overwhelmed by repetitive questions and there are a lot of questions that all our students are going to have and they don’t actually need to talk to a person and in many cases they don’t want to.

We found that students often would prefer to talk to a, it looks like a text message on your phone is how a chatbot can be presented. Some are also on the website, but there are a lot of examples of how students are preferring to talk to a chatbot about highly personal things like my parents got divorced and how do I file my FAFSA?

I don’t want to talk to a stranger about that. I want to ask that question, I want to get facts, send me the right webpage, don’t make me do that. But the thing with chatbots is really about scaling up your staff. And especially in an age where we have consistent burnout, we’re having a really impossible time hiring people to do any entry level jobs at universities.

Having a chat bot is a financial saving. It’s a way for you to ensure that the people who work for you are actually able to use their best skills daily and not be spending all their time doing repetitive questions, but it is also a way for you to make sure that you’re capturing problems with students in real time.

If you have the predictive analytics background as well, chatbots are a great way for you to triage. So if you have a financial aid hold that gets triggered, a student can get a message about that and actually be coached through rectifying that financial aid hold like that.

You can also have them making sure that they’re talking with advisors if they register for the wrong, you can use it as an extension to some degree of advising. But it’s essentially, why would you not want this? Why would you want to rely 100% on your overtax staff who frankly may miss a sign with students?

Why wouldn’t you want to add this additional functionality? And if you find the right technology partner at Georgia State, they work with Mainstay, used to be called Admin Hub and their team is really more of a thought partner with them in terms of not just a vendor that hands off a product.

They engage in a lot of deep discussions about how to evolve and improve their AI so that they’re really capturing things in real time. And we have a couple campuses who work with them. There are a variety of other chatbot providers, but chatbots are super as important for, think of it as, again, if you wanted to design around students, what do these students these days want?

Well, they use technology and they experience chatbots actually in most things that we purchase. So why would you, again, want to rely 100% on humans only when there are questions that, especially when students would actually prefer in many cases.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah. It’s interesting to see how all these things are connected. And like you said, if you don’t get the data right, I’m glad we started there, a chatbot is probably not going to be that helpful.

Bridget Burns:

And I think that’s interesting that we look at things like this where it’s like, it’s kind of a little too, for some folks it might blow your hair back a little too wild, but I mean, I still see institutions that hand people a piece of paper that feels like choose your own adventure map and that’s how you’re supposed to advise yourself and go through and figure out what classes you’re going to take.

I mean, why wouldn’t you want to give yourself the benefit of the doubt of having additional ways to capture data about the student experience or additional ways that you could intervene in real time. It’s not going to replace the human connection, all these other things that we know are valuable.

But boy, I wouldn’t want to run an institution without a chatbot. And I would say the thing that people mistakenly assume is that it’s all in one place. They think it’s like admissions or financial aid or whatever. No. Look to where you are currently in your institution having overwhelm.

That we’ve seen it in career services, we’ve seen it in all these different offices. Chatbots, there are a variety of them and it’s really about making sure that you’re smart about looking for those repetitive questions. You’re looking for places where students need additional service and then you’re looking for where it would actually be helpful to be able to capture and address some of these things.

Todd Zipper:

So I want to feed off of your reference to career services and one of your recent policies around college to career. I know that this is to address the mismatch between universities and employers, which is near and dear to my heart. So can you walk us through what you’re trying to do with this initiative?

Bridget Burns:

Yeah. So we actually just released our playbook. So for folks at home, just so you know, everything we do is an experiment amongst my institutions at first. We’re figuring out can we scale it and what do we learn from scaling it? Oh, ideally there’s a method for scale in our sector.

And what do we wish we’d known before we started and what breadcrumbs can we leave for others so they don’t have to learn those hard lessons. So we release public playbooks that are not, we’re not selling you anything. They’re free to download on our website.

And they are designed for a campus that doesn’t have a lot of resources but wants to be more technologically savvy or advanced and innovate, that they could actually do that themselves without any coaching. So we have released a playbook on completion grants, on proactive advising and now on college to career.

The college to career one is basically seven of our institutions came together in 2017 funded by the Strata Education Network to try and figure out, what if we actually had a handoff between college and career that was intentional.

What if it was actually well designed and not just accidental and a tiny office that’s shoved in a basement that’s disrespected, that’s not given any of what it needs to be successful. I mean, that’s how career services is. It’s not given what they need and we expect them to provide service for the institution in mass.

And it’s wild. So we wanted to figure out what if you actually position the career services professionals as with design thinking expertise. And actually we could build this based on our empathy listening to students. And so our institutions figured out how to do that.

How do you actually unpack what’s going on and come up with a better solution, build it for your students. We also created seven prototypes, seven ideas that we worked with IDO as an evaluative partner of different intervention solutions. So I can talk through a couple of them, but basically just know that all those seven institutions came up with their solution and then they didn’t scale their own idea.

They scaled a different institution’s idea so that people weren’t falling in love with their ideas because that’s a problem in design. You have a lot of companies that do that. So one of the, I would say the takeaways, are cool things like at UC Riverside where they work with the EPA providing virtual paid internships for students.

The students are working on creating clean energy technology solutions. They are environmental studies majors. So connecting the classroom with an actual meaningful career preparation activity that’s actually moving society forward. That’s the kind of stuff that we want is stuff that is not just you create a internship that’s not of value.

That’s one example, but I think the one that stands out to me the most is from University of Central Florida. And it’s essentially that the future of career services is inside the classroom, it is not in an office. And so career services professionals are repurposed as instructional designers to basically help faculty put career readiness into every single class. So think about your academic experience.

What if every single class you took you actually had a meaningful career readiness NACE competency kind of experience. And so by the end of your four years, or for me seven, I’d be super prepared, you would actually feel like this wasn’t an afterthought.

At the end of the day, when people ask what they should do, one of the things that comes out in the playbook is you have to be doing empathy interviews in sprints to go out and understand what your students are struggling with. We figured out that a lot of the relationships with employers are challenging, they’re not really robust at all.

How do you actually build those? Paid virtual internships, we tested those with Parker Dewey and a variety of other partners and basically the solution you’re going to come up with on your campus should solve your own problems, but there is actually a model which you can get in our playbook of how you do this. And in the end I think it has to be inside every classroom.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah, it’s so resonates with me and we’re working on some stuff. We call it right to left education where you’re really working with the employers and the jobs and the skills that are needed and sort of building that back into the educational experience, not just making an assumption that there’s a lot of people that need to be hired into nursing or cybersecurity or what have you.

So I want to talk about some of the research also that you’re doing. I think you’re calling it the doctoral research fellows. So what are you hoping to accomplish with this?

Bridget Burns:

Well, I just think it would be very self-serving if… So we always have an evaluator for our projects, but even then, I mean, those reports come to me. They come to me and my board. They’re more about like, did we do what we say we’re going to do? And so what we wanted to do is try and make sure that everything we do is making the field better.

And so we find doctoral students, which we actually give them our unrestricted data on our new projects. So completion grants, proactive advising. We did a 10,000 student RCT on proactive advising that was funded by The First in the World Department of Ed. And we give that data to students and they actually create independent research.

And so they can ask all kinds of questions. We’re not going to hold back on that. We just think that there needs to be a bridge between the innovative practice and scholarship and we think that we can’t wait for the lag of publicly available data. And so that’s what we’re doing is making it so that there’s an extra stage of inquiry happening.

Todd Zipper:

It makes a lot of sense. And you mentioned completion grants, which of course makes me think about the, I think it’s the National Student Clearing House that now has put the number at 39 million Americans with some college no credential. I’m guessing that’s what you’re trying to get out here to help people go that last mile or 10 miles.

Bridget Burns:

I think people could use that concept in that space. The way we did it is it’s an idea that came from Georgia State, which was basically you find students who are in the last year to maybe a year and a half of their education and they get a financial aid hold.

And what they found was happening is that students would get a financial aid hold in their senior year and they would just drop out and that would be it. And so you find those students. So a lot of campus are doing last mile approaches where they’re finding people who have dropped out and getting them back in.

But if you set this up, if you’re three semesters from graduating or two semesters from graduating and you get a financial aid hold because of parking plus late fees or whatever, it’s such a waste of money that we just let you walk out the door.

And so what you do with a completion grant is you just put the money in their account, up to 1000 bucks. And what they do, shocker with that, is that they register for classes and they pay you. It’s like a financially smart move for institutions and the vast majority of students graduate within two terms.

So if you think about it, for 1000 bucks a pop, that’s a graduate. That’s a whole degree that you wouldn’t have had. And so we’ve found that we’ve had 4000 students graduate as a result of these completion grants.

And it’s just a smart practice for institutions to be working their data regularly to find these students. We do find that states with really strong need-based aid, it wasn’t as useful for them, like in Indiana and California, but the rest of our campuses really found them to be profoundly useful.

Todd Zipper:

I want to talk about, because you’re working on so much innovation and entrepreneurship that you’re trying to inspire here. And I read about your distinguishing approaches to relationship building around collaboration, failure and trust.

And I want to get at failure because when I find and I interact with dozens and dozens of campuses, that sort of entrepreneurial spirited person that’s doing new programming or new types of best practices, it’s like a breath of fresh air because it seems like experimentation, the willingness to fail is not easily supported.

Kind of what are you seeing there and how are you inspiring more of an opportunity, a safe space to experiment, which often leads to failure? I mean, that’s kind of the nature of it.

Bridget Burns:

So I mean, this is messy for everybody, in higher ed especially. We would just say that higher ed in particular needs additional support when it comes to innovation work because we have a high scarcity culture and fear of failure and status culture where we’re all trying to seem like we’re the smartest people in the room and admitting you don’t know what you’re doing is really terrifying.

Well, the truth is most people actually don’t know and the dumb question is the right question, but you got to create safe space for that. So part of what we do is we bring folks together and we have failure sharing sessions where people are encouraged and incentivized to share hard things because the greatest teacher is failure.

And so we have rules, of course, you can’t share who said it, you can’t share their institution. But if someone’s willing to share with you something that went wrong and what they learned from it, that is such gold. We do that regularly and all it takes is one to two people doing it and all of a sudden it’s just like the floodgate.

I have to stop the session because it’s too many people. I have like, “Oh, you think that’s bad?” It’s like, “Hold my beer.” So what it is it creates space for people to realize that change management’s hard and doing new things is scary and difficult, but once you make it socially safe, you can actually learn from it and be able to do better.

So what we know is that the most innovative institutions from my perspective have to have a autopsy process because we have million dollar failures on each campus. We don’t talk about it, we shove it under the carpet, we move on, and yet we keep making the same mistakes.

So the same mistakes usually include doing a project or a solution for students and never talking to a student before you start. It’s super dumb, do it all the time. We consistently give projects to areas of the institution that are overwhelmed and exhausted and then we’re surprised that they’re not actually getting where they need to go.

We do all kinds of the same stuff. So I would say failure is an incredible teacher. I am not like the failure fairy who’s figured it out and I never fail or whatever. It’s more that I try and get institutions to trust me enough with the gift of their stories from failure.

That if they will let me, those are the ultimate act of generosity that help other institutions learn. So one example is the first step for the Georgia State transformation started with process mapping and it’s just very basic. You got to see how the system is for the students, not how you fantasize.

One of our other campuses took that idea, ran with it, got everyone a room together at Michigan State for one afternoon to try and map just the time from when the student gets admitted to the day they show up on campus.

And when they did, they found that they were emailing students, every student incoming 450 times in a three month window of time, which for most institutions, what I say is if you don’t know your number exactly, it’s probably 500. So that’s a huge gift that Michigan State gave to being willing to let me talk about that.

They also found that there were 50 types of holds a student could have on their account that the university didn’t know about. So that story of, wow, that could be a failure. It’s an incredible teacher for Michigan State. They ended up trying to make great progress.

They have made great progress on a variety of those things, but because they did that one thing that felt like failure in the moment, all of a sudden all my other campuses have mapped major change. They’ve mapped financial aid holds. They’ve mapped all these different experiences that students have, and they find that most of the time you’re doing stuff that’s terrible for the student. You don’t know about it.

So you got to consistently make it a part of your practice to look at what you’re doing and make it actually feel good to do it. And it makes it so you end up with momentum, low hanging fruit, you could actually get going. So that’s just one example of a failure review space that anyone could do, doesn’t cost you money, will over time totally transform your institution.

Todd Zipper:

So as we get close to wrapping up here, you know talked about earlier, impacting millions of more students. How do we think about, when I think about technology, the adoption of email, for example, when it happens, everyone has email.

So I think about how you talked about this predictive analytics to proactive advising to chatbot. Why doesn’t every single campus have chatbot? Is that the objective? Because you can see how something like that done the way Georgia State has done it, is going to lead to amplification of positive benefits.

Bridget Burns:

I’m open to being wrong and that there’s an institution out there that has set up their systems in a way that they don’t need technology. I mean, that’s possible. I haven’t met them, but I would just say if you look nationally at how higher education has failed our country in terms of the number of people walking around who went to college and the only thing they have is a student loan.

We have to do better as a sector regardless of your institution. And we have to normalize certain behaviors. Normalize considering the question, how might we at the institution level be the problem? Normalize the idea that institutions haven’t ever been designed around students.

So the fact that you’re failing your students isn’t because people hate them, it’s actually that you have a design problem and design is hard. And so you should probably not just do it alone, just team up with other institutions to try and get better. Normalize that there are some very basic things that it’s so insane that we aren’t using technology.

I mean, we are using paper systems still in many campuses and that is wild to me. So we have to normalize that the future of higher education, digital enabled, there are going to be different modalities, but you have to have technology involved because we’re dealing with consumers who have massive exposure to technology and they would expect it.

And at the end of the day, the scoreboard is what we need to focus on, which is right now the family you’re born into still predicts your life’s outcomes, the neighborhood you’re born into. And that is so messed up. And the only way we fix that is we help higher ed become better so that no matter your background, that you are likely to complete.

And when you do, it leads to your ability to support your family and to contribute to society positively. So I think that you have to have technology to do that. Yeah. I guess if you’re against chatbots, I don’t know who you are, but I would say it’s not that chatbots are the silver bullet.

It’s that institutions need to understand that there are tools in the toolbox that you would want. And it’s not the tool, it’s that you actually successfully implement it to solve your problems and you support that with systems and people and how you make sure you resource things over time.

But my exposure to this field has shown that the institutions who are doing the best and making the most progress do embrace technology at a level that is fairly significant.

Todd Zipper:

So you’ve definitely had a lot of success so far, but if you look out five to 10 years, what does success look like for the Alliance?

Bridget Burns:

Every time that we do something that years later people are using or talking about and they don’t even know that it came from us, that’s a win for me. When we first started talking about student success in 2014, that wasn’t even the language we used in the field.

They were talking about graduation rates and access. So the fact that we started talking about predictive analytics and scale and all these different interventions back starting in 2014 and now they’re normal and people who are not affiliated with the alliance are doing them, that is so awesome.

We want to normalize the kind of best practices that will help people do a better job for students. And it’s also, we would love to normalize that going it alone is stupid. It is a waste of time, energy and money. Institutions because of isomorphism, which is basically they’re all kind of designed similar.

Just like hospitals, they’re all pretty same. Means we have same problems and it means that solutions are scalable. So it is such a waste if we have thousands of universities in this country all tinkering in silos doing adorable boutique experiments. Students cannot wait.

It is too expensive and it is literally such a missed opportunity for all the smart people to get together and actually transform the future of our country. What we do is too important to not do it better.

And so for me that we would close our equity gaps as a country, we would make it so that you’re more likely to graduate from college from a low income background if you’re a student of color, if you’re first generation, to a degree that we can no longer predict your life’s outcomes based on the family you’re born into.

Todd Zipper:

That’s wonderful. Any other parting thoughts of wisdom or things you want us to remember about our talk today?

Bridget Burns:

Just that you can engage with our work in a variety of ways. We try and make it easy, accessible, free. So we have something called the University Innovation Lab that soon we’ll be opening up the beta for, which is a private password protected environment where all of our best templates and tools are available and you can be a part of a broader community of practice.

So that’s going to be something that you can find on our website, which is the We have a podcast called Innovating Together and we do shows on inside higher ed and the chronicle of higher ed. So we’re always trying to elevate the right voices and values that we think will help lead the sector towards what we think are the right outcomes, which is doing a better job for students.

And those don’t have to be our voices, but yeah, just that we’re here and we are so appreciative for folks sharing with us their best insights they find and you can find us through our website.

Todd Zipper:

Awesome. Last question, I ask this of all my guests. Part of what we love about education is that we all have learning champions. Who has been a learning champion for you and how has that person helped you in your life?

Bridget Burns:

Oh, Larry Roper from Oregon State University was the champion who made it so that I could actually go to graduate school, that I could actually focus on learning. He was the most kind and generous person and a lot of folks know who he is.

He was a vice president for student affairs and he gave me an assistantship to make it so that I could actually pay for grad school, which was like, that’s the linchpin moment for me between working three jobs while being student body president to all of a sudden being able to actually pay attention in class.

So my learning champion, and I think there are a lot of folks out there that are like this, people who’ve paved the way and make it so that you have a fighting shot. And so yeah, Larry Roper.

Todd Zipper:

Bridget, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I really loved your insights. I hope others will listen to them and find ways to implement them. So until next time, this has been An Educated Guest.

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