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University Innovation Alliance

Bryce Nelson, a marketing major at the University of Central Florida, had a full class schedule and worked 35 to 40 hours a week at jobs on and off campus, to make ends meet.

By his sophomore year, Nelson was about to drop out of college. The university stepped in, helping Nelson find more flexibility through online courses and a new major that was better suited to his goals. Financial-aid counselors helped him secure additional financial support.

Thanks to university advising, the ending to this story is a happy one, and Nelson is on track to graduate next May.

These kinds of supports are changing the lives of thousands of students. Up to 40 percent of students at four-year institutions do not complete their degrees in six years. That’s why the University Innovation Alliance, a group of 11 public research universities serving 400,000 undergraduate students, decided to collaborate instead of compete with one another.

Related: Some colleges extend scholarships and other help to rural high school grads

It’s a concept with potential for higher education, but it may require a shift among leaders conditioned toward competition. Institutions may share a common mission, but they often toil in isolation.

Universities compete with one another for students, funding and rankings. But colleges and universities now face a crisis of their own, rooted in changing demographics, declining state funding and soaring student debt. The imperative to do things differently is convincing some of higher education’s greatest competitors that collaboration may be their most powerful competitive advantage.

“The imperative to do things differently is convincing some of higher education’s greatest competitors that collaboration may be their most powerful competitive advantage.”

Across the Alliance, for example, officials at the 11 institutions are working together to better understand the roadblocks that students encounter on the way to graduation. Together, they’ve worked to replicate one another’s progress and scale the impact across many more institutions. They’re learning that relatively simple changes, like forgiving tiny debts, could unlock outsized improvements in retention and completion — and draw support from all parts of campus. For example, as Iowa State University scaled these small grants across their campus, the athletics department was so impressed by the impact that they donated $1 million from their own budget to grow the program.

Today, the 11 institutions — Arizona State, Georgia State, Iowa State, the University of Kansas, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oregon State, Purdue, the University of California at Riverside, the University of Central Florida and the University of Texas at Austin — have increased degrees awarded to low-income students by 29 percent, and they are on track to graduate nearly 100,000 additional students overall by 2020.

Related: Switching majors is adding time and tuition to the already high cost of college

Even the leaders of the Alliance institutions hesitated at first, concerned that any failures born of innovation might be held against them. But they’ve found that coming together on neutral turf can help to create an environment that promotes trust and lets universities explore new ideas together.

They’ve found that peers, more so than vendors or academics, are best positioned to think through tough questions about their individual responsibility for collective outcomes. Faculty and administrators at different universities can motivate one another to see problems from new angles and get creative about solutions.

They’ve also learned that philanthropy has to play a critical role in encouraging collaboration and the sharing of successful practices among institutions. Cash-strapped institutions have trouble re-allocating resources from today’s overstretched budgets, even when solutions have the potential to generate academic improvements, economic returns or efficiencies in the future. Philanthropy can champion innovation in ways that institutions might not be experienced with or have the resources to kickstart.  A recent ECMC Foundation grant facilitated a ripple effect by funding new collaborations among public institutions that span eight states and impact more than 150,000 undergraduates.

Related: At 150, Land Grant universities struggle to return to roots

Institutional leaders have discovered that creating a culture of collaboration starts best at home. Institutions ready to work with one another often begin by giving faculty members and administrators more time to be creative, to reflect, to challenge conventional methods — and to share and build on one another’s ideas.

The most innovative companies in the world, after all, give their employees time to work on projects that are all about the future.

Savvy university leaders are making it clear that building successful careers at their institutions will require creative thinking and collaboration across departments and campuses. Their experience can inspire a new paradigm for collaboration throughout higher education.

Sharing simple ideas can have profound effects on outcomes. Many more current students will graduate from college if colleges and universities begin conversations with one another today.

This story about higher education completion for low-income students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Peter J. Taylor is president of ECMC Foundation and a funder of the University of Innovation Alliance, and he serves on the Board of Trustees of the California State University system.

Bridget Burns is the founding executive director of the University Innovation Alliance.

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