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SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah President Taylor Randall reflected on his experiences as an undergraduate at the school and those of current students.
"I came here as a college student in 1987 and there are too many things that look and feel exactly the same as 1987," said Randall, the first U. alumnus to lead the state's flagship institution in 50 years.
"But you look at the way the world is changing, we have got to make sure that our students are prepared, that we're preparing them to have really, really different outcomes."
Randall made the comments Wednesday during a fireside chat with Bridget Burns, CEO of the University Innovation Alliance, of which the U. is one of its newest members. The alliance is a national coalition of public research universities that is committed to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States.
Founding alliance universities are on track to double their 68,000 degree goal by 2025, according to its annual report.
Burns, keynote speaker at the U.'s Student Success Summit held Wednesday at the Cleone Peterson Eccles Alumni House, said the alliance is intentionally small — likely never to exceed 20 members. The intentionally small board helps members — presidents and provosts of universities — develop sufficient trust that they are comfortable sharing their successes and shortcomings.
Peers hold one another accountable to their shared goals, which Burns likens to a Weight Watchers meeting model. Member universities consent to a transparent data-sharing agreement and equity gaps are measured over time.
"It's not a space where you can say that you care but not actually do the work," she said.
Some students face 'backpack' of challenges
The alliance limits comparisons to equity gaps, examining completion rates of students who are the first generation of their family to attend college, students of color, low-income students, as well as students who don't require financial assistance to attend college.
Students of color and lower-income and first-generation students carry "an extra backpack of challenges," Burns said.
If colleges and universities center those students in their design, "the changes that we will make are going to raise the water level for everyone."
Improving college completion rates is not only the best way out of the poverty cycle, it helps ensure the U.S. economy and workforce can compete internationally, she said. Roughly half of students who enter colleges or universities nationwide do not graduate, she said.
While there are a host of reasons students who start college do not complete their degrees, the alliance has launched initiatives intended to help students persist in their studies and earn their degrees.
One effort involved providing students facing modest financial hurdles with "completion grants." Among 5,000 students who received the grants, 83% were retained and completed their degrees within two terms, according to the annual report.
Overcoming graduation hurdles
In 2017, the UIA launched a three-year completion grants initiative to support students facing modest financial hurdles that restrict their ability to enroll, persist and complete their degree. Some students needed as little as $1,000 to get them back on track.
Another program involved a "predictive analytics initiative focused on increasing student outcomes by leveraging institutional data to identify early alerts that generate proactive interventions," according to the institute's annual report.
Proactive advising — reaching out to students for regular degree planning — has also proved effective in increasing retention and graduation rates.
An alliance trial demonstrated that students who received proactive advising had increased credit accumulation and higher GPAs when compared to the control group, according to the report.
Burns said the alliance works because the university leaders invited to participate are personally committed to the work.
"The reason we waited in Utah's case, we were waiting for President Randall. We were waiting for Provost (Mitzi) Montoya because we know the right leadership is key. You can't do anything without the right leadership and it was really the moment in time," she said.
To a large degree, the challenges public research universities face are not special or different, Burns said.
But reform is challenging because "it's like the 'Hunger Games' of institutions competing with each other. The broader incentives and trappings in higher education, whether it's rankings, how we get funded or how we get attention, it's always based on institutions positioning and talking about themselves and focusing on themselves," she said.
The alliance is a "learning organization," which means it is a safe space where educational leaders' interventions don't have to be perfect the first time.
"We're OK with messy first drafts," Burns said.
Succeed together, fail together
T. Chase Hagood, the U.'s senior associate vice president for academic affairs, said the invitation to the University Innovation Alliance means "we succeed together. We can fail together, learn from those challenges and opportunities and really see that every student at the University of Utah is set up for success from day one to graduation."
The university is currently working on reimagining undergraduate education, he said.
Hagood, who was a first-generation college student, has experienced the transformative impact of higher education — seeing one's self, seeing the world, and seeing one's self in the world in a different way.
"That's our goal," said Hagood, who is also dean of Undergraduate Studies.
"The power and the impact of higher education is it changes lives. It changes the trajectory of lives that haven't been born yet and generations that haven't been born yet," said Hagood.
The university's commitment to every student is to ensure their success "no matter their major, no matter where they hope to go next in life, that we are really the partner in their education with them," he said.