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A relatively small number of colleges and universities punch far above their weight.

Despite resource constraints and high proportions of historically underrepresented, low-income, first-generation and transfer students, these institutions are upward mobility machines, with outsize graduation rates and striking records of graduates who climb the economic ladder.

In contrast, too many of their peer institutions leave far too many students saddled with debt and without a degree.

What is it that distinguishes these engines of economic mobility from the laggards?

If you’re looking for an answer to this $64,000 question, you’d do well to read Stephen C. Ehrmann’s newly published Pursuing Quality, Access and Affordability, which draws upon six institutional case studies, as well as his own experience at Evergreen, GW, MIT, the University System of Maryland, Annenberg/CPB Projects and FIPSE to demonstrate that it is indeed possible for institutions to break the iron triangle, and simultaneously enhance access, affordability, quality and attainment.

At the risk of oversimplification, here are some of the key ideas I take away from Ehrmann’s book:

1. Necessity is a key driver of innovation.

Faced with state funding cutbacks, enrollment challenges, rising costs and hard-to-serve student populations, the most successful institutions -- unlike many of their peers -- train a laser focus on retention, completion and time to degree.

These colleges and universities realize that increasing student persistence will do more to strengthen institutional finances than any other step that a broad-access campus might take.

2. Campus leadership makes student success the institution’s raison d’être.

It’s not that these trendsetting institutions eschewed research, athletics, construction and other campus improvements. Rather, their focus is first and foremost on student learning and postgraduation outcomes.

Of all the missions that an urban or regional college or university can take to maximize legislative and public support, nothing beats bringing students to graduation with a marketable degree.

3. These campuses recognize that innovation is a process, not a one-time improvement.

To be effective, innovation requires implementation across multiple dimensions. It involves implementing a new data infrastructure, undertaking course redesign, developing new structures of faculty and student support, shifting incentives, and transforming campus cultures.

All these initiatives require time and iteration. Without a commitment to a long-term strategy, success inevitably flounders.

4. Faculty buy-in is essential.

Threefold gains in student success -- which is Ehrmann’s goal -- require active faculty support for and participation in the student success initiatives. Without buy-in, success initiatives will inevitably die or remain confined to small niches.

Thus, it’s essential that senior administrators sell the mission, galvanize the faculty, articulate a compelling vision, publicize successes and put their money where their mouth is.

5. Success hinges on engaging and motivating students.

Faculty buy-in is not enough; students, too, must believe that the initiatives benefit them. This requires undergraduates to feel that their education will pay off and that its value exceeds its cost, both direct financial costs and opportunity costs.

A big part of the answer lies in active learning: in activities, problem-solving exercises, real-world projects and authentic assessments that students find meaningful. Another key to success lies in scaling high-impact practices, for example, by funding undergraduate research assistants, institutionalizing an annual undergraduate research day and providing incentives to faculty who mentor undergraduate research.

6. Innovation must be institution specific.

Not every best practice can be transplanted and thrive. Campus cultures differ dramatically, and initiatives that work well in one context might fail in another. A college or university must ask itself whether, for example, it is capable of instituting block scheduling or greatly expanding the number of hybrid and fully online courses.

Listen to every stakeholder and attend to the issues that they prioritize, such as equity, flexibility, career preparedness or something else.

7. The ability to scale is the key to breaking the iron triangle.

Scale is not, Ehrmann is at pains to argue, the enemy of quality. Scale is innovation’s friend, not its foe.

Resource-constrained institutions can take steps with genuine payoffs. Campuses can deploy undergraduate learning assistants at a significantly lower cost than graduate assistants and can adopt hybrid modes of instruction that make it possible to offer more classes without expanding a campus’s physical plant.

Sometimes simple, scalable, cost-effective and time-efficient steps can make a big difference. For example:

  • Requiring students to respond to frequent low-stakes multiple-choice questions, including questions that focus on higher-order thinking skills, that can provide immediate feedback.
  • Assigning fewer lengthy papers, while requiring students to complete more steps: submitting outlines, giving and receiving peer critiques, and getting faculty input before handing in a final draft.
  • Establishing curriculum maps that guide students through their degree path, reduce the number of wasted credits and expedite degree completion.
  • Instituting first-year learning communities and meta-majors to instill a sense of belonging, impart academic success skills and introduce students to major and career options.

The most successful institutions engage in a large-scale process of course redesign, targeting the large-enrollment foundational, gen ed and gateway classes with high DFW rates. Like Carol Twigg, Ehrmann demonstrates that course redesign can enhance quality while cutting costs.

He cites examples that show how technology-enabled instruction can improve pedagogy, increase student-faculty and student-to-student interaction, facilitate collaborative problem solving, make it possible to scale peer evaluation, increase opportunities for active learning, and provide support for differentiated instruction, diverse forms of assessment and prompt feedback.

As the pandemic has made clear, the flexibility and accessibility of technology-mediated student services can greatly benefit time-stressed students. At the same time, data-driven advising can identify students at risk of failure in near real time and prompt appropriate nudges and other interventions, while data-driven decision making can optimize course scheduling and inform resource allocation in ways that can contribute to student success.

Breaking the iron triangle is higher ed’s toughest nut to crack. But stabilizing costs while advancing access, affordability, attainment and quality is essential if broad-access institutions are to thrive. Nor is this a mission impossible, as institutions like Central Florida, Central Oklahoma, Georgia State, Governors State, Guttman Community College and Southern New Hampshire make clear.

Many of the trends in higher education -- especially the intensifying stratification of institutions in terms of resources, prestige and student preparedness -- are deeply discouraging. But today’s atmosphere of foreboding over student and parental debt, state funding cutbacks and increasing reliance on adjuncts makes Ehrmann’s book all the more heartening and inspiring.

We not only must do better. We can do better.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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