Spotlight on Innovation: Colleges and Universities that are Making a Difference


In late 2014, the US Department of Education awarded $75 million in “First in the World” grants to twenty-four colleges and universities, to fund initiatives to improve college access and completion, particularly for lower-income or first-generation students.

Since then, we’ve interviewed those leading the First in the World initiatives at each of the twenty-four institutions to learn how they’ve begun putting these new funds to use and to find out what other institutions can learn about the initiatives.

Though the First in the World programs cover a lot of territory—from a game-based approach to moving students through the admissions process to a living-learning community designed to study the issue of first-generation student success on its own campus—we have been excited to see several common threads through most of these efforts.

These emerging trends may be among the first signs of a sea-change in higher-ed leadership, as change agents at colleges and universities recognize that to address the complex problems of today and the future, colleges are going to need to take a different approach than in the past. Questions of access and completion for first-generation or academically under-prepared students can’t be addressed by a single department operating within its own silo on campus. These issues require the marshaling of ideas and resources from across campus—and even, in many cases, the sharing of both costs and benefits across multiple institutions.

Also, as student demographics continue to shift away from a majority of traditional high school graduates with a family legacy of college attainment, college and university leaders are going to need to test and assess new ways of working, and more rapidly identify what is actually contributing most to access, student success, and completion. In the past decade, most institutions have taken a scattershot approach to student success, adding an array of programs, offices, and initiatives in the hope that some will pay off. Yet, without a clear sense of which efforts are making a difference, it is difficult to know what to scale up and what to scale back.

Many of the First in the World initiatives are taking a more measured approach, piloting, measuring, and then scaling. These twenty-four institutions have recognized that they can turn their core expertise—learning and research—to bear on their own challenges. They are operating not only as educational institutions but as learning organizations.
For example:

  • Western Michigan University is developing learning communities in which students, faculty, and administrators will be coequal participants in research projects to identify and study barriers to student success and persistence on their campus.
  • The University of Minnesota is spearheading a forum of six institutions. These six will pool their knowledge and resources to conduct six case studies on how to engage first-generation students in active learning projects. These projects connect classroom learning to the experiences and issues of the students’ home communities.
  • Arizona State University is developing “project-based modular learning” or “ProMod” majors and general studies courses designed to engage students in interdisciplinary, real-world learning projects.
  • Bay Path University is piloting an academic resource collection that crowdsources course-related content, inviting students to share notes, resources, videos, and additional reading materials, and rate and recommend resources for their peers.

In each of these cases, institutions are relying on their ability to learn, study, and adapt to a problem or challenge. And in each example, institutions are sidestepping traditional silos or boundaries in order to leverage the shared learning potential of students, faculty, and staff across the institution or even across multiple institutions. It will be exciting to watch these twenty-four initiatives move forward over the next few years—and discuss ways to apply these new approaches to your own campuses.

In this member exclusive paper Spotlight on Innovation, we highlight these learning organizations – what challenges they’re addressing, how, and what you can learn from their example.

Read the full report.