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The University of Texas System's Regents made a big bet in an effort to tackle public higher education's most pressing challenges: The completion challenge, the learning outcomes challenge, the equity challenge, and the business model challenge. If higher education is to make good on Barack Obama's 2006 college completion goal, we need more big bets.

In a recent blog posting on the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, Joshua Kim expressed a preference for “investing in faculty.” That was precisely what the ITL did, though not, I suspect, in quite the way he meant.

At many regional campuses in Texas, the six-year graduation rates are less than 40 percent, often substantially less. In certain high demand fields of study, particular in STEM disciplines, the failure rate is much higher.

Many factors contribute to the low completion rate. These include the total cost of higher education, including living expenses, books, and opportunity costs; insufficient public funding; and students' academic underpreparedness. But I would assert that many of the most pressing problems lie elsewhere and are under institutional control:

  • Schedules not well aligned with the needs of non-traditional students.
  • Inflexible syllabi that do not give students sufficient time to master course material.
  • Instructional materials that are too costly, discouraging students from buying required books.
  • Direct, whole group instruction techniques that aren’t as effective as active learning, inquiry-based pedagogies.
  • A lack of bilingual content.
  • A lack of real-time windows into student mastery of course materials.
  • A lack of windows into career options (crucial if students are to recognize a clear value proposition to their education)

What, then, is the best solution?

Is it add-ons, such as mandatory orientations and advising sessions, summer bridge programs, and supplemental instruction sections?

These might work if the challenge was confined to a small fraction of the student body, but not when the challenges are much more pervasive.

The ITL’s “all hands on deck” approach sought pull every lever we could think of, drawing on best practices found elsewhere:

  • A data infrastructure to identify students who were at risk of failure
  • Block scheduling
  • Bilingual content
  • Learning cohorts who took courses together
  • Structured curricular pathways
  • Academic and life coaches
  • Frequent diagnostic testing and performance based assessments

Curricular redesign was a big part of the ITL approach. It involved redesigning entire 120 credit hour pathways -- bringing faculty together to align courses, map learning objectives, and provide input into the development of interactive courseware.

A substantial portion of ITL spending involved financial incentivizing faculty and departments to take part in design sessions and creating rich instructional resources that faculty across campuses could include in their courses.

But “investing in faculty” means much more than establishing a teaching center or a team of instructional designers to assist faculty members in integrating new technologies into their courses.

Faculty need tools: learning dashboards and highly interactive instructional materials, as well as coordination with colleagues and training in new pedagogies (including team-based approaches and differentiated classroom techniques).

And institutions need infrastructure. Currently, data are siloed and not readily accessible. Data-driven decisionmaking is at a rudimentary level. Because of infrastructure problems, it is often impossible to offer courses that aren't 3 credit hours in length.

Institutions also need to build capacity. Many of our campuses were forced to rely on third party vendors, at enormous cost, in crucial areas like data analytics and distance education. Many institutions have serious problems with procurement and strategy development.

I consider development of teaching resources, dashboards, infrastructure, and institutional capacity to be investments not only in faculty, but in students and in institutions.

The problems facing the broad access institutions that educate the vast majority of students -- and a grossly disproportionate percentage of low income and underrepresented students -- can only be successfully addressed, I am convinced, through new models of student lifecycle management services, new curricular models, new pedagogies, and new student support structures.

The ITL’s job was to work hand-in-glove with cross-functional teams of faculty, information technologists, student service professionals, and the Registrar’s office to update incumbent practices, policies, procedures, and infrastructure.

We had to do this at not one campus but at many simultaneously -- while meeting a mandate to become financially sustainable. I think we demonstrated approaches that were workable, cost-effective, and successful -- but which conflict with existing ways of doing business.

The chief problems facing higher education aren't a shortage of tested, rigorously evaluated ideas. it's an implementation problem.

I fear that many of our best funded, most selective institutions have decided largely to wash their hands of the problems facing mass higher education. These resource-rich institutions decided to increase their student bodies only modestly, failed to enroll a student body that truly reflects this society's diversity, and haven’t even sufficiently trained their doctoral students to teach effectively in teaching-focused institutions.

These institutions have become walled gardens.

Meanwhile, the ITL was working with the Texas Workforce Commission, the state’s leading business associations, and the public community college and university systems to create an unprecedented statewide credentials marketplace.

I personally think the sums that the UT System invested in curricular redesign, pedagogical training, infrastructure development, student service improvements, analytics, and educational research were precisely the kinds of investments that higher education needs to make if we are to truly move the needle on student success and reach the goals that then presidential candidate Barack Obama set in 2006.

There's a lot of ferment occurring across the higher education landscape, but the pace at which we are addressing our pressing completion, learning, and equity problems remains far too slow. We need more big bets if we are to bring more students to a bright future.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin.

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