178: Gates Foundation’s Daniel Greenstein on Equity, Sustainability, and the Road to Opportunity

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Dan Greenstein says our focus on student success is on the cusp of finally paying dividends. Now... will it scale?

Dr. Daniel Greenstein serves as director of Education, Postsecondary Success in the United States Program, for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Before joining the foundation, Greenstein was Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Programs at the University of California Office of the President. In his current capacity, he oversees work to substantially increase the number of students who acquire a post-secondary degree or certificate.  Dr. Greenstein frames the conversation for us around the following key points:

  • How do we address the significant gaps in our workforce development needs as we head toward 2025? 
  • What is the role in seeking business efficiency in building a sustainable institutional future?
  • Are we doing enough to be genuinely disruptive? 
  • How may our emerging divide in civil dialogue impact student enrollment patterns and the diverse makeup of our institutions? 

Dr. Greenstein takes on these questions in the context of student success, and as powerful factors in the sustainable financial success of our institutions. This is a conversation about innovation, disruption, and engaging in an effort to take on bold ideas in support of our own future as educators. Supporting our conversation today, Dr. Greenstein has submitted the following editorial for our listeners. We look forward to your comments.

Equity, Sustainability, and the Road to Opportunity

by Daniel Greenstein

Over the past several months, I have spent a good deal of time talking, reading, and thinking about the subject of opportunity. From conference panels to deep conversations over coffee to long bike rides through a cold, damp Seattle spring, I continue to wrestle with the question of how well – or even whether – higher education is poised to expand opportunity in the nation that is unfolding. 

After dozens of discussions, thousands of pages of reading, and countless early morning miles, I am left with a peculiar mix of alarm and hope. Alarm, in that higher education’s two gravest challenges – equity and sustainability – only seem to be deepening. Hope, in that I see both opportunities and the skill and will to address them. 

First, sustainability. In several respects, our enterprise is on a trajectory that will narrow opportunity rather than expand it. The most obvious dimension of this is financial. At the institutional level, the rich are getting richer, and the rest are increasingly scrambling. According to new data from Moody's, the 20 wealthiest private universities hold 70 percent of the wealth in that sector. Less than half of community college presidents surveyed (43 percent) are confident in the financial stability of their institutions over the next decade. And at regional conferences drawing together the leaders of small independent colleges, I’m told that the ambient sentiment is one of mounting concern – in some cases bordering on fear. 

This is clearly impacting students. At public colleges and universities, tuition’s share of operating revenue has jumped from 38 percent to 48 percent over the past decade. The cost of room and board and books and fees has grown even more dramatically. Student aid funding in all its forms has made heroic efforts to keep pace but with disturbing consequences as institutional and some state aid begins to favor middle-income students who are able to foot a higher proportion of the growing tuition bill. This has kept college costs flat for middle- and upper-income students (measured as a share of family income). 

But these trends are disastrous for students from the lowest income quartiles, who are experiencing growth of about one percent a year in terms of the share of a family’s income required to attend college – and college expenses are already consuming 40 percent of their income.

For our lowest income students, a crisis is unfolding. They are not just choosing between institutions; they are choosing whether they can go at all.

The depth and severity of the college affordability issue is hotly debated, with some depicting a full-blown crisis requiring wholesale reform of the system and others calling those claims overblown and suggesting more modest tweaks. I believe the reality lies in between. But about one thing we can be certain. For our lowest income students, a crisis is unfolding. They are not just choosing between institutions; they are choosing whether they can go at all. And for too many who do go, they are making difficult trade-off choices having to do with college costs on the one hand, and the basics having to do with food and shelter. That is why we are focusing our efforts on strategies like simplifying the process of applying for federal aid, which currently serves as a barrier for up to two million low-income students every year. That is why we are investigating improvements to institutional aid packaging strategies – the process by which resource are directed to the students who need it most, when they need it and in a manner and combination that meets their specific circumstances. 

Second, equity. College attainment gaps by race and income have not improved over the past generation, and in some cases have gotten worse. Whites are more than twice as likely to have degrees by age 25 than Latinos. A high-income student is five times more likely than a low-income student to have a degree by age 24. These numbers are unacceptable. And they could deteriorate further as individual colleges, seeking to maximize tuition revenue in ways outlined above (including, in the public sector, admitting more lucrative out-of-state students), contribute to an environment in which there are proportionately fewer affordable places for low-income students or where low-income students are increasingly concentrated in the institutions least equipped to meet their needs. 

Unless we take action to face and reverse these trends, there will be real and damaging consequences for our economy and our communities. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, our workforce in 2025 will require 11 million more people with some higher education than our colleges are on track to produce. Meeting that goal will require expanding not contracting opportunity for low-income students. Not meeting that goal will leave our country less prosperous and more divided than ever. 

So what do we do? What are the glimmers of hope that emerged from my journey? Three in particular rise to the surface: 

Focus. The University of California at Riverside has demonstrated how, by using good financial data and activities based costing, it is able to make the difficult budget trade-off decisions it needs to make to accommodate and properly support more students – in particular, more low-income students. A recent publication on that effort shows it is doing this based on informed debate and discussion about the relative cost and benefits of different educational and student support options. 

Leaders, faculty, and staff at these colleges have made it their business to know what it costs to educate and support a student, and to make decisions accordingly.

Similar efforts have shown up at Sinclair Community College in Ohio and at Delaware State University. Sinclair took a hard look at the myriad of student success programs that had taken root over a number of years, and made the difficult choice to end several that had outlived their usefulness or were not showing strong outcomes. Similarly, Delaware State opted to discontinue 22 low-enrolled programs – a quarter of their inventory – to free up resources for stronger academic and advising support for students.

Leaders, faculty, and staff at these colleges have made it their business to know what it costs to educate and support a student, and to make decisions accordingly. Increasingly, leaders at the most innovative colleges – the ones that are able to outperforms their peers with regard to the success of their low income students and students of color, are demonstrating (actively gaining) and effectively using this detailed level of financial understanding. 

Additionally, using data and analytics, colleges are also able to pinpoint which of our students need help, where they need help, and what kind of help will be most effective. This is the heart of the story at Georgia State University, one of the few institutions in the country that has successfully closed completion gaps. Their journey started with a hard look at the data, which revealed that the path out of college for many students started with something as simple as a registration mistake or an unplanned repair bill. So the university took steps to address those issues, implementing stronger, technology-aided student advising and creating an emergency aid program that helps students with unexpected expenses. 

Subtract as well as add. Efficiency is a much-maligned word in higher education, with many arguing that it is just a dog whistle for those who want to cut funding for colleges and universities and student aid. It can be. And yes, I will be the first to admit that colleges cannot simply cut their way to financial sustainability (it is particularly troubling that the leanest sectors which serve the highest need students, may have already taken many of the possible efficiencies). But taking efficiencies does buy time and can free up resources – both of which are necessary to engineer more sustaining innovations. This will require more aggressive use of technology; the development of shared or even cloud services; taking cost out of critical business and (harder still), academic - functions; rethinking how critical functions are organized, especially where departmental structures entail unproductive redundancy; and in some cases deep resource sharing between and across campuses or even campus integrations. 

One thing we can do is to support and even catalyze truly new thinking that can nudge our systems into more of an innovation mindset.

Support creative disruptions. The literature about disrupting college is less popular now than it once was. While it has offered useful insights, it also has assumed unrealistically that the timelines that applied in industry – for example, to steel – could be similarly applied to higher education. It has failed fundamentally to grasp the slow trajectory of change in our enterprise – a trajectory that governed by the highly imperfect nature of the marketplace, the regulatory environment, outmoded data systems and system sensitivities, and by the terms and conditions of faculty employment and governance. 

But make no mistake. Disruptions do happen – only at a considerably slower pace. One thing we can do – and I think have done reasonably well – is to support and even catalyze truly new thinking that can nudge our systems into more of an innovation mindset that is essential for education to meet the needs of more low income students and students of color sustainably and at scale. 

There are numerous examples of these innovations at the enterprise level. National Louis University – a spunky, Chicago-based, social justice oriented independent college with roots going back to Jane Addams’ settlement era – is making headway with a quality bachelor’s degree whose $10,000 tuition is pegged at about the level of the total federal and state-based aid dollars that can be available to low-income Illinois students. Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors Universities are demonstrating scaled capability with adult-oriented highly affordable competency based programs.

We’re seeing programmatic gains as well. A good example of this is remedial education. A system that has failed too many is being redesigned so that students are being placed in credit-bearing classes and given the help they need on the side, rather than the other way around. Working with our peers in the foundation community, we are proud to have supported the work of groups such as Complete College America and the Dana Center, who have led the way in developing and evaluating new models in this area. Today, a growing number of institutions and states are signing on to remedial redesign. 

I’m an historian by training and an optimist by nature. American higher education has risen to the challenge before, and I believe it can again. It must. But we will do well to start with an honest assessment of how we are failing as a bridge to opportunity and what we can and must do to correct that.

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