Colleges across the country are designing academic and career pathways, improving student transfers between institutions, or reforming how they provide remedial education -- all to improve student outcomes and increase graduation rates.
In Houston, some of the region's two- and four-year institutions have taken those efforts one step further. They are partnering to create pathways across sectors as a way to improve graduation rates not just at individual colleges but throughout the entire metropolitan area. The University of Houston System, which is composed of four institutions; Texas Southern University, a historically black college; Houston Community College System; Lone Star College System; San Jacinto College District; Wharton County Junior College; Victoria College and College of the Mainland have all signed on to the initiative, called Houston GPS, and teamed up with Complete College America to achieve that goal.
The initiative was started four years ago after Tom Sugar, the former president of Complete College America and now vice president of partnerships at EAB, a research and technology services company, had a conversation with Paula Short, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Houston System, about guided pathways and other college initiatives to increase student success.
The two decided that focusing on how students go to college and putting the interest of students ahead of the institution was the way to go.
"Ultimately that bet will be good for colleges, too," Sugar said.
Guided pathways are traditionally designed to set an academic course for students from the time they enroll until they graduate. While many of those initiatives decrease the amount of time it takes students to earn degrees, the programs have shortcomings, Sugar said.
He and Short wanted to address those weaknesses. What if they approached guided pathways in the same way as students approach attending college, they asked.
"That may mean supporting students when they change community colleges or transfer from a community college to a four-year school, whenever they do it, either after the first year of community college or transferring after a degree," Sugar said. "That's how students go to school these days."
Sugar then drafted an agreement that would encourage colleges to not only pursue guided pathways but also to align their math courses to specific careers and majors so programs that don't require calculus would not force students to take requisite entry-level algebra classes. The agreement included other popular reforms that colleges have been pursuing separately, such as meta-majors, which are broad, career-oriented content areas that help students identify the major they want to pursue. Colleges would also agree to corequisite remedial or developmental education that requires students to enroll in college-level gateway English and math courses with additional support.
The agreement also includes seamless transfer between two- and four-year institutions so students would be granted junior-level status once they complete their associate degrees. Colleges would agree to track student progress, using predictive analytics and intrusive advising, and to revise college schedules to make attending classes easier for students who work.
Meanwhile, Short started digging into UH's data and was not pleased with what she found. She learned that students earned 151 credits on average toward a bachelor's degree, although the typical bachelor's degree program requires only 120 credit hours to complete. Researchers have found that excess credits often don't lead to college completion and place students in more debt. As a result, she started having conversations with the community colleges about improving student outcomes. Houston GPS was established soon after.
The agreement calls for combining remedial education with credit accumulation, helping students balance work and college responsibilities, and providing technology to support these efforts.
"They're working with the partner institutions to design academic plans and degree maps that align, and that's nirvana," Sugar said of the college leaders. "They never had conversations like that. It's always been them designing degree maps within their institutions and not looking down the street at … a competitor school and asking, 'What are you doing down there?'"
Last week Houston GPS institutions met with officials from EAB, which is providing the predictive analytics tools and software colleges will use to offer easily accessible degree maps to students and provide early warning systems of students at risk of failing and real-time tracking of students' success to faculty and advisers. Houston GPS will fully launch across the colleges this fall.
"Technology is the next phase of the pathways work," Sugar said. "Proactive advising requires technology, makes it scalable and more sustainable."
Making the software available to students will also better connect them to advisers and coaches who can help them when they're struggling academically or need support from the financial aid office, for instance.
"We spend a lot of time and energy communicating with students in ways they don't want to communicate," said Wendell Williams, a special adviser to the president at Texas Southern, one of the newest universities to join Houston GPS. "If you make a phone call, 90 percent of our phone calls are not answered, or the number is not correct."
By using the new technology tools, students will get "nudges" to meet with advisers and have access to their degree maps.
The colleges participating in Houston GPS have traditionally been competitors often going after the same types of students. But Houston is growing and remains the country's fourth most populous city, behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The region added more than 95,000 people between 2016 and 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released earlier this year. That means there are plenty of students for each of the institutions to pursue.
There were about 300,000 students in all Houston GPS institutions, Williams said. "But there could be 700,000 students who should be in these institutions."
Getting students to enroll is one thing, but holding on to them and making sure they leave with a degree is another, he said.
The Texas Legislature has also called for colleges to improve their outcomes. In 2015, the state set a goal for at least 60 percent of the state's 25- to 34-year-old residents to have a college degree or certificate by 2030. Currently, 42.3 percent of that population has a degree or a certificate, according to a 2018 report from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Not every institution participating in Houston GPS is operating at the same level; others are further along than their peers in launching the initiative. Sugar said competition between the institutions has helped create less resistance to change. Administrators at one college, for instance, were embarrassed that they weren't further along in using corequisite remediation, which places students in college math and English courses with additional supports, after seeing the results from a peer institution, he said.
"That soft accountability advances the work," he said.
The colleges are not just sharing ideas and programs, they're also sharing data; eight of 11 of the Houston GPS institutions are using the same EAB software.
"It was important for us to share data across sectors, across community colleges, universities and governing boards," Short said. "That's almost unheard-of."
The Houston area is also incredibly diverse, with the region ranking as the fifth most diverse metro area in the country according to a Bloomberg analysis of 2010 and 2016 Census data. Sugar and Short believe the work the colleges are doing with Houston GPS will have an impact on closing equity gaps between white and underrepresented minority students.
"When we succeed in Houston -- and we will -- we will have achieved a great outcome in furtherance of equity and social mobility in America, because that's the nature of Houston," Sugar said. "These are urban institutions predominantly serving students from underrepresented populations. Many don't make it to graduation day. Many are first generation. If you want to see America of the future, look to Houston today."