ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Blueprints for Reform: A Q&A on ACTA’s New Guide on Cost, Efficiency and Innovation

May 5, 2017 by Kara Brounstein

How can colleges do more with less? Bold Leadership, Real Reform 2.0: Improving Efficiency, Cutting Costs, and Expanding College Opportunity, is ACTA’s newest guide for trustees, describing innovative ideas that colleges across the country have successfully implemented in order to improve student success and increase accountability. Kara Brounstein, one of the primary contributors to the publication, sat down with the Forum to discuss what makes this trustee guide so unique and interesting. Here are excerpts of that conversation:

The Forum: What makes this guide different from other ACTA publications?

Kara Brounstein (KB): We know that trustees are tasked with making complex and difficult decisions related to improving their operating efficiency without sacrificing quality. While there’s no one-size-fits-all, this guide provides a playbook and an overview for governing boards looking to understand the new rules for the road for institutional effectiveness.

 Bold Leadership, Real Reform project was built around 12 best practices—such as program prioritization, space utilization, partnering with community colleges, etc.—with a few examples of schools effectively using these innovative approaches. In 2.0, ACTA revisits some of the programs highlighted in the first edition to follow up on their successes, and we identify a number of additional institutions that have begun new initiatives. The guide also takes an in-depth look at three leading campuses through longer case studies profiling Purdue University, Arizona State University, and the University of Colorado.

2.0 provides an in-depth look at initiatives at a variety of universities and state systems, providing the context of the problem each institution was facing and how they used creative and innovative approaches to solve it.  Trustees were instrumental in helping to launch or support many of the programs profiled in the guide, many of which could not have happened without the support of the board working with administrators. University of Colorado Regent Steve Ludwig, for example, played a pivotal role in the creation of an innovative community college transfer program in Colorado and the creation of their three-year online bachelor’s degree. Our hope is that trustees can engage with this material and test out similar initiatives at their own institutions

The Forum: Are there any pitfalls trustees should avoid if or when they move to implement some of these ideas?

KB: One consistent pitfall for trustees and administrators is letting competition or being territorial get in the way of collaboration and innovation. Steve Ludwig noted: “Higher ed culture across the country is very insular—there is not a lot of incentive to encourage faculty to collaborate across institutions”—a sentiment also expressed by the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a group also featured in the guide. But sharing good ideas is how institutions can innovate and grow with the shared goal of helping students succeed.

The Forum: Why did the universities featured in this guide decide to try something new?

KB: The old adage is true that necessity is the mother of invention—often, schools embrace innovation when dealing with the realities of economic strain, declining enrollments, and decreasing endowments. The need for efficiency often conflicts with the goal of access and opportunity—Bold Leadership, Real Reform 2.0 highlight why that doesn’t have to be the case. The Shared Course Initiative, for example, began as a bottom-up initiative powered by strong faculty and student interest in less-commonly taught languages. Through inter-campus cooperation and technology, the initiative now provides live, real-time courses conducted through video-conferencing to an ever-growing number of students. The program now offers instruction in 19 languages across over 40 courses.

Another example of increasing access to higher ed more generally: UIA began as an effort across 11 public universities to raise graduation rates. This is important because of the socioeconomically diverse student bodies at these schools—one-third of the students who attend UIA schools are Pell Grant-eligible. And UIA schools are closing the graduation gap for low-income students!

The Forum: What is your favorite “best practice” outlined in the guide?

KB: I’m currently studying to receive my Master’s in Special Education at American University and hope to work with students with learning disabilities, so I’m very interested in the intersection between high school and college success. One exciting initiative from our Purdue case study is the Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis (PPI) High School—an urgently needed opportunity for underserved students. Beginning in the fall of 2017, PPI will welcome its first cohort of students. Funding for this school comes from the state (through a partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools), alumni donors, PPI’s K-12 budget, as well as an initial planning grant provided by Strada Education (formerly known as USA Funds).

PPI’s vision is to enhance the K-12 academic preparation essential for STEM careers and readiness for entering demanding higher education programs. The school will utilize a 100% competency-based learning and assessment program and students will engage in projects designed to give students real-world experience. Teachers address knowledge gaps as they surface in the course of each project, and students will have work-based learning and internship opportunities in the STEM fields throughout high school.

Purdue’s goal is to prepare a highly diverse student body for success in today’s economy. These Indianapolis public school students will have “direct admission” to Purdue, meaning that they are guaranteed admission after graduating from high school, assuming they meet appropriate admissions requirements. 


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