A View of Higher Ed Innovation After 8 Years in Government

A Q&A with David Soo -- whose work on educational innovation spanned the Obama and Trump Education Departments -- about spurring change in higher ed and differences between the two administrations.

January 30, 2019

For the last eight years, David Soo has played a key -- if usually behind-the-scenes -- role in the approach taken by Obama and now Trump administrations to encouraging innovation in higher education.

As an adviser to former under secretary of education Ted Mitchell and within Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's Office of Educational Technology, Soo has helped to craft policies and programs designed to improve access to high-quality postsecondary education and training. As a career staffer rather than political appointee, Soo was among the rare senior-level officials who bridged the two administrations, giving him an unusual perspective.

Soo's most visible projects to stimulate experimentation with technology and other forms of innovation included the EQUIP Program, the First in the World Program and, more recently, the Higher Ed Ecosystem Challenge.

He will begin a new job in February as chief of staff to Maria Flynn, president of Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that focuses on aligning the education and work-force systems to promote equity.

Soo answered questions via email about his time at the Education Department.

Q: What would you characterize as the biggest success you had a role in during your time at the Education Department? And your biggest disappointment -- something you didn't get done or that fell short of your goals for it?

A: EQUIP was probably both our biggest accomplishment and disappointment. The experiment was designed to give students access to new providers of education, but also to change the national dialogue, spotlighting the ways new players could contribute to the higher education ecosystem and challenging us all to think differently about quality assurance. Over the years, we’ve heard that EQUIP stimulated conversations -- on campuses, with providers and about how to do quality assurance -- that would never have happened otherwise. The implementation has certainly been slow and full of roadblocks, though I think we can learn a lot from where hurdles emerged (in addition to at the department): on campuses, between universities and providers, and with accreditors.

Q: A general impression exists (including from our coverage) that there's a perpetual and long-standing tension between the federal interests in encouraging innovation and in protecting students and taxpayers. Do we and others overstate that tension? How did you feel that the Obama administration mediated the tension during its tenure? And the current administration?

A: I believe that innovation can be encouraged and fostered without exposing students and taxpayers to undue risk. Innovation necessarily means some risk, and when it comes to students, this is obviously very sensitive. But we are not going to get dramatically better outcomes without trying new things, and to fail to meaningfully change the status quo year after year in the name of “student protection” fails to protect students. The question is how to empower those acting in the best interests of students to try new things and to quickly correct when issues arise.

Unfortunately, there are many people in the policy sphere that are openly hostile to innovation, suspecting that it’s a Trojan horse to allow profiteers to rip off students. While protecting against bad actors, there must be more of a middle ground, and policy makers should be much more open to allowing educators and other innovators to experiment with new ways of educating students. In the previous administration, there were people on both sides of the debate, though more innovation skeptics than champions. In the current administration, there is a risk that the pendulum might swing too far in the other direction. We need more voices that advocate for responsible innovation and have specific, actionable ideas to add to the discussion.

Q: How would you define the federal government's role in encouraging the use of technology and other tools for innovation to improve and/or expand access to higher education? Are there obvious things that might be done -- or are most of the potentially transformative things really hard or controversial?

A: The federal role in encouraging innovation can be expansive or narrow, depending on the vision of Congress and leaders within the department. While the department should never pick technologies or specific approaches, it has funded a wide array of approaches at traditional colleges and universities to new start-ups through the Fund for Improving Postsecondary Education (and its most recent incarnation as First in the World), through Small Business Innovation Research program and by funding research through the Institute for Education Sciences. Regulatory flexibility, including through experimental sites, can allow for experimentation.

The bully pulpit and convening power is an underappreciated tool (especially by the current administration), whereby the department (and the White House, when it sees education as a priority) can set an agenda and drive conversation and spur action. You saw this through the Obama administration’s College Opportunity summits and in higher education innovation summits, and our most recent challenges were another attempt to spur idea generation and action. These activities allowed the department, without spending money, to highlight an agenda and lend the imprimatur of the department and the White House to legitimize conversations about innovation.

Q: What are your overall impressions of college and university leaders after your years interacting with them from your perch at the Education Department?

A: Higher education continues to be a dynamic sector, and I always gained energy and renewed enthusiasm after visiting campuses and meeting with leaders and students. And almost universally, these campuses were trying new things and seeking to better prepare and serve students. The question is how fundamental these changes are and should be.

A handful of campuses are fundamentally reshaping what it means to be a college or university, while others are infusing change throughout but largely keeping structures intact. Still others are simply tweaking around the margins. Each campus will have to determine for itself what the optimal amount of change is, but I’m afraid that too many leaders are closer to the tinkering end of the spectrum.

Q: Tell us a little about what you're going to do at Jobs for the Future. How do you envision your role there being similar to and different from what it has been during your stretch in the government?

A: JFF is a great organization, one that has a 35-year history of respected leadership and advocacy. Yet it’s also positioned at the center of some of the key trends of our time: If we are living longer, working at more jobs, and those jobs are rapidly being transformed or replaced by technology, how should our work force and education systems respond? How do we ensure that people are trained not just for their first job, but for a lifetime of evolving skills needs? And how do we build a dynamic system for continuing to boost the full complement of skills over someone’s lifetime?

Answering these questions will require a multisector response and bold thinking that isn’t afraid to challenge entrenched interests, and JFF, JFF Labs and its leadership are well positioned to lead that change.

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Doug Lederman

Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. He helps lead the news organization's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003. Before that, Doug had worked at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles, first as an athletics reporter and editor. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one in 2009 for a series of Inside Higher Ed articles he co-wrote on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug lives with his wife, Kate Scharff, in Bethesda, Md.

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