‘The Most Important Work’: Increasing the Number and Diversity of College Graduates

Learn how the University Innovation Alliance’s mission to redefine the purpose and utility of a college degree for the next generation of students.

66 minutes
By: Higher Voltage
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If you asked a higher education professional if they believed creating a diverse, inclusive, and student-centered environment was important, they would probably respond: yes.  But if you asked that same professional if creating a diverse, inclusive, and student-centered environment is easy, they would probably respond: no. The truth is, most universities are navigating the unknown with the best intentions. But what if there was an alliance that connected higher-ed professionals across the country to use data and proven best practices to create positive outcomes for students?

On this episode of Higher Voltage, we sat down with Bridget Burns, the executive director for the University Innovation Alliance (UIA).  Listen as she and Kevin Tyler, Higher Voltage host, discuss how the UIA is using data, process mapping, design thinking, and a university alliance to increase the number and diversity of college graduates through a student-focused approach.

Here’s a preview of the conversation:

Read the full transcript

Kevin Tyler:
Welcome to Higher Voltage, a podcast for higher ed marketers. I’m your host, Kevin Tyler. And I’m the director of communications for UCLA School of Nursing. Today, we’re talking to Bridget Burns, the executive director for the University Innovation Alliance about their work to increase the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States. Let’s get started. Higher Voltage is brought to you by Squiz. University websites are filled with great information, but oftentimes a simple internal site search does not give users the information they’re looking for. Funnelback the site search product by Squiz changes the way people engage with content by revolutionizing search. It delivers relevant and comprehensive search results for users, which is key for business objectives. Visit www.squiz.net, to see how Funnelback by Squiz can create a smarter site search option for your institution’s website today.

Kevin Tyler:
I am so excited to talk to you, Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance. I have to say that I first was introduced to you in the Unlikely film, and after that, I completely stalked you about coming to my former employer Ology and coming to conferences and speaking and meeting, and finally we are here. I’m super appreciative of your time. I’m excited to talk to you. Before we dig in, if you could just introduce yourself, the UIA and what you do there, that would be really, really great.

Bridget Burns:
Well, I’m honored to be your guest. And so who I am, Bridget Burns, Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance, which is a consortium of large public research universities who are innovating together, scaling up what works and broadly diffusing everything we learn, as we transform our institutions to be more student centered to eliminate our achievement gaps. When I describe my work to a person on the street, I say that I run essentially a Weight Watchers group for universities to be good at something they’ve never been good at. And that is probably a more accurate description.

Kevin Tyler:
I think that’s a great analogy. It makes perfect sense. Can you talk a little bit about the origin story of the UIA, what needs you were seeing at the time and what the plan was to meet those needs over the course of the last, however long you’ve been, well, how long have you been in existence?

Bridget Burns:
We started, we went public in 2014, but we worked in private for a year and prior to that, so 2013, so like eight.

Kevin Tyler:
Eight years, two Olympics. Great. Can you talk about the origin story of the organization?

Bridget Burns:
Yeah. So a group of university presidents and chancellors were having a conversation about what they had in common and the challenges they shared and whether or not they might be able to work together to accomplish a big goal. At the time American higher education was simply not producing enough high quality college degrees. I’m not talking for-profit degree. I’m talking about rigorous where our graduates are leaving and they feel they are well equipped for the workforce. They are well equipped and they feel they got a great value. We were simply, for the economic competitive star of our country, we were not simply doing the job. We were millions short of where we needed to be. So we need to increase the productivity of higher education institutions, but we also were doing a terrible job with low income first generation and students of color.

Bridget Burns:
These institutions shared a commitment to work on those issues and essentially challenged the question of whether you could be big and good. In the process of working together, could we actually try and achieve a big goal and could we share ideas? Could we scale them up? Could we try and figure out this method of scale stuff? There was a lot of challenges that they were wrestling with. I would say that the big ones that stood out for me are that ideas were not spreading in higher education. The diffusion of innovation, the diffusion of solutions was super slow. All higher education actually needed to do, needs still to do a much better job becoming student centered and being student centered is hard, transforming your institution is hard and if you go it alone, best of luck, but it’s actually really difficult. And so I would say those are the two challenges that we really have scaffolded our work around.

Kevin Tyler:
I have so many questions just based on that one response, but we’ll get to most of those in a minute. I just want to see, could you please just describe or define what student centered means for UIA? Just for people who might not be familiar with what that means in the higher ed context.

Bridget Burns:
Well, I mean, most of us have a lived experience with higher education. That if you grew up low income or first generation or a student of color, you often, your lived experience with higher education is running into things that don’t work for you. Systems that were designed for the administrator or the faculty or the institution, but not actually designed with the needs of the student in mind. We know that empathy is the first step of design and the truth is that American higher education was never designed around students. And by that, what I mean is, when it comes to anything, whether it’s our enrollment process, our admissions process, helping you get a job, internships, whether or not you’re actually learning, how we assess things, it’s all designed around the institution’s needs. It’s not actually putting the needs of the student first.

Bridget Burns:
And if we put the student first, we would design things very differently. The example I often use is around graduation, that everyone has graduation as a thing, I hope, at their campus, and no matter where I go, the process is pretty similar, which is, the student doesn’t know when they’re ready to graduate, and the institution doesn’t know either, right? It’s often who’s going to figure it out first. But the campus in particular is not aware. And when a student is ready to graduate, they then have to let the institution know, they have to fill out a bunch of forms and paperwork, and then they pay a fee to be able to graduate. That is the opposite of student centered design. If you think about checking out at Amazon, why it’s so seamless, think about anything that you experienced that is user design focused. It’s almost effortless, right?

Bridget Burns:
Most of the steps that I will describe for a lot of the process that we expect students to go through, the word effortless simply does not come up. And when we’re talking about students who are working multiple jobs, when we’re talking about students who don’t have advisors and coaches and lawyers and all these things in their cabinet to make sure that they’re successful, or if they’re dealing with institutional racism or any of the other things that we know our students are experiencing daily, having on top of it, that the institution is actually difficult to navigate. That becomes a real problem. It becomes a barrier to graduation, a barrier to success and a barrier in life.

Kevin Tyler:
Thank you for mentioning all of those points. I think that it’s so often, the every day of a campus I think it becomes easy to miss all of those points that you’ve just raised, because you’re so busy doing the everyday tasks of running a campus, right? No matter where you sit in an organization, educational organization in higher ed, there are so many things that try to take our attention away from our main goal and our target audiences, which are the students, of course, that it feels it just gets forgotten. My experience in higher ed has been that it’s always very hard to start a new conversation about a much needed thing. And becoming student centered is really a hard thing to do, to turn on a dime for a university, especially a large public.

Kevin Tyler:
How did you start to break down some of the bureaucracy that made universities not student centered so that they could end up being student centers, especially the members of a University Innovation Alliance?

Bridget Burns:
I don’t really do any of this. Right? My job is, it’s like Seth Godin’s to notice things. What I do is I observe institutions who have figured things out, and they are not all the way there, but they’ve figured out enough that it’s a bit further ahead of another institution. And we draw anecdotes. We see examples stories, et cetera, to help institutions recognize that they are not alone struggling with this issue and that they also don’t have to figure it out on their own. I would just start with, not me. But what I picked up from institutions is, I don’t think of it as needing to break down administration to make it student centered. What it is is really awareness generating. I experience that people who work in higher education genuinely care about students, and they are frustrated and disappointed when they see the ways that bureaucracy does not serve students.

Bridget Burns:
It’s just that changing your role, changing your organization is a whole other job on top of a job. Everyone else has their inbox filling up every day, back to back in meetings. So when is the time going to happen and when are we going to have the authority and the resources and the space to actually work on the design of our institution so that it really makes sense? That’s really more the question, is like, it’s awareness, it’s helping folks. It’s like leading them to water on this, because many of them already know, right? They see the problems everywhere. But how we do it, I would say the best example that has served this work is the example that originally was born out of Georgia State and was replicated at Michigan State.

Bridget Burns:
We typically would start with process mapping and at Georgia State that’s really what began their journey, is they started by first understanding the process on the campus. How are things actually, not just the fantasy of what they are. Most people assume that your systems, your process, your protocols, they’re great. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. When the truth is, it’s not fine. In fact, we have to really put it up on the wall and see it objectively. And so at Michigan State, they did that, borrowing that concept from Georgia State, which we didn’t come up with this, Georgia State didn’t come up with this, but it’s about applying process mapping as a tool, and doing it with a wide collection of student affairs professionals. Long lead-up, Michigan State gets all, everyone who works on student success in one room and they decide that they’re going to map out from the day a student gets admitted to the day they show up on campus.

Bridget Burns:
It’s a three month window of time. Process mapping is literally putting a post it note up on the wall for every step, every message, every email, everything. And when they all stood back at the end of that day after process mapping, just that three months, they saw that they were sending 450 emails to every Michigan State student. And that there were 50 types of holds that a student could have on their account that the university didn’t know about. That’s an example of a time when a group of people all well intending get together and because the right people are in the room, they’re all, you don’t need to get anyone bought in on that. Everyone’s becoming aware together of just where the problem is, how it’s showing up, how it’s impacting students. They also become very clear to see all the places where we have blinders on.

Bridget Burns:
That’s one example of that anecdote, that story really has gone viral. Other institutions, we apply process mapping, whether it’s about your whole policy, major change, anything. First start by getting a sense of what the students actually experiencing and try and do it with as inclusive a group as possible, so that you get everyone on the same page. And then you start tipping away. That’s actually how you do this work. It’s not, as much as people want it to be a robot or a chat bot or AI, something fancy, many of those things are very useful and are critical, but you got to start by knowing actually how problematic your system is.

Kevin Tyler:
Right, right, right. I love that idea that looking at everything on a wall altogether, because of all the silos that tend to exist in higher ed, housing sending this and financial aid is sending this and whatever else, it’s hard to see the entire picture. I’m curious about how the membership and the folks that you work with, A, started to have this conversation, what it looked at the very beginning and how their behaviors or practices have changed since doing these exercises, especially in terms of marketing communications, because obviously that’s part of how they distribute the message. And if they process that the message is distributed by is messed up and sometimes the message can get mixed up as well. How does that conversation start for your campuses, especially around process mapping to get everyone on the same page?

Bridget Burns:
When you ask about how we started originally in terms of our thinking about this work, we actually had a pretty I think at the time, it’s adorable now, but I see the flaws of it. We came in thinking that each institution would either be a mentor or a mentee, and that there were certain promising practices that had been proven unequivocally with data, we knew worked. And then all we would do is take that idea and plug it in at another campus. We would transplant it. What I was supposed to do, is just pay attention to the transplant process and see over time, can we do it faster? Can we do it easier? Can it cost less money? Can we share insights from implementation that make it easier? And to some degree that last part has happened.

Bridget Burns:
But what we soon learned is that nobody wants to be a mentee. Nobody wants to, and yet everyone is. In fact, every institution has got something that’s working that they could share with another institution, but every institution has a lot more areas where they need to learn from other campuses. And so that’s where our role of facilitating and matchmaking, it starts with me listening for what are the primary challenges on X campus, Y campus, getting a sense of all of them and then saying, okay, well, great. Ohio State actually has a program in that area that really does help African American males in their second year. Awesome. That’s going to solve. Let’s set up a space where you can this other campus learn from what challenges they overcame, what was their process? Have they come up with that? What advice would they give? Just really kick the tires.

Bridget Burns:
Part of this was understanding just that figuring out who’s got what problems, what solutions, but it was also about unpacking and creating a new way for institutions to learn from each other, because it turns out that all we do is tweet at each other and make announcements and broadcast and brag and that’s really off putting and does not engender trust. And what really was necessary was us creating a space that vulnerability and failure and sharing from failure were going to be okay. And in fact, the vulnerability and trust piece were huge. We had to make it so that these institutions had reasons to drop their guard and not just be bragging, but actually talk about, listen, I know that you that program, and yeah, the data is good. But what you got to know is it’s actually cost us way more money than people realize.

Bridget Burns:
And in fact, it was a huge headache and we actually figured out along the way that we probably could have done something that would have done it a little bit better. But we did that because one dean was really committed to that idea and it was their legacy and so we just let it happen. Right? That kind of stuff you need to know, because otherwise we fall in love with these headlines and these stories and this tweet or this meme about an institution being awesome at X or Y. We really miss the texture and we miss that, actually most interventions you can break them down, we need basically separate some of the storytelling around them and get to the nuts and bolts of, how many students are you serving? Talk to me actually what you do and what I can borrow, what I can scale.

Kevin Tyler:
I think that’s great. I’m going to switch gears just a little bit to touch on just obviously, how could we not, the pandemic, both pandemics, right? The racial tension pandemic, the global pandemic, et cetera, around COVID. Has the mission of UIA broadened, or have you seen the mission getting some momentum because of the things that surfaced or that America may have learned, quote unquote, over the last 16 months?

Bridget Burns:
I am fortunate that my presidents and chancellors understood and actually reached out and suggested that we move in a direction that included talking about and addressing systemic racism in 2019. Our campus, the presidents and chancellors actually decided to, originally started we had four goals, more graduates, more graduates across the socioeconomic spectrum, innovating together, holding each other accountable with our data transparently, and then lastly was holding down our costs. Those are the four and they added eliminating disparity. And that includes race, income, all of it. Anywhere there’s an equity gap on your campus, our work is now focused on eliminating disparity. That was November of 2019. I would say in the past year especially with reckoning systemic racism and racial injustice, it’s fortunate timing that our campuses has already begun this work in terms of identifying, what did we mean in terms of eliminating disparity?

Bridget Burns:
We had already identified and crafted data sharing agreement of how we were going to hold each other accountable in that, how are we going to set goals around these topics? Because we always begin by making sure that the work is real and not just feel good announcement work, which there’s a lot of in higher ed, where we just like, yay, we’re going to tell everyone we’re going to do something and then nothing ever happens. We started there and by February, actually it was February was our last meeting before everything happened, that was going to be our core focus for the next year. And then starting in June, which coincides with the murder of George Floyd, we’ve reached the point of recognizing that our work really has to move to identity conscious redesign. We have to figure out how to identity by identity.

Bridget Burns:
We’ve already been working on student centered design and making things more student centered. But whether we’re talking about student parents, whether we’re talking about LGBTQ, whether we’re talking students, whether we’re talking about transfer students, whether we’re talking about black students, in general each identity you have to do this work of identity conscious redesign work. We realized there wasn’t really a process for that, a collaborative process. And so what we decided to do is move forward that our first area of focus has been the Black Student Success initiative, which we started last June and have just wrapped our third convening, where our campuses are going through a process of integrating their quantitative and qualitative data historically, to understand what have we already been told about what’s wrong with our campus, in terms of the experiences of black students and what are the best practices, what data should we actually be much more vigilant about and then building out an intentional plan to eliminate that disparity.

Bridget Burns:
We started with Black Student Success, and while we’re doing it, we’re figuring out how we do identity conscious redesign work, because next students and every other student population we need to move on from here. So we’ve learned a great deal about that, but I would say this is a place where it’s much more innovation, figuring it out. I know there are a lot of fantastic who are leading on this work, and we’re just trying to sit at the feet and benefit from their wisdom. We also separately had been on a path to expand the Alliance for years. We started two and a half years ago, identifying campuses, winnowing, bedding, can talk to you about all of that, but we separately had added University of Maryland, Baltimore county and North Carolina A&T, last November and kept it secret this whole time.

Bridget Burns:
This is a position, it’s a great opportunity because we’re talking about predominantly white institutions, somewhat sitting at the feet of institutions who have historically been exemplars on serving black students and helping them succeed all the way up to the PhD level. And so we’re trying to set up, figure out our process of how we learn from them going forward.

Kevin Tyler:
I love that. I love it a lot. It was major news recently, in the last few months I think, that your member institutions graduated an additional 73,000 graduates on top of the 68. Did I explain that right? Is it on top of?

Bridget Burns:
Beyond, we exceeded our goal, yeah.

Kevin Tyler:
By 73 or by five?

Bridget Burns:
By five. But also five years early.

Kevin Tyler:
Right. Which is awesome, both of those things are awesome. I’m curious, you listed some of the interventions that made some of your member campuses successful. I’m curious about A, this notion of transparency and collaboration between higher ed institutions just feels so not the norm. Talking about how did you have to sell that and say, listen, we’re all going to make an agreement to share successes and protocols, et cetera, was that a hard sell to do, to reach these incredible numbers? What are some of the ancillary benefits of these successes that your institutions are realizing because of it?

Bridget Burns:
First I would say it was their idea.

Kevin Tyler:
Oh, wow.

Bridget Burns:
All of the Alliance, all of this work was their idea. This was founded by 11 presidents and chancellors. I came in, I was free labor as an ACE fellow following Michael Crow around during this whole year of really iteration of figuring out how we were going to do this work. But this was their idea. These campus leaders, this was important to them, almost all of the presidents and chancellors in the UIA who founded the UIA were former first-generation low income or students of color. This is personal to them. But when it comes to this transparency and data sharing piece, I think it was useful that we have a broad coalition of funders. And we also had really fantastic support in the White House.

Bridget Burns:
James Kvaal was at the Domestic Policy Council at the time, and there were a variety of other players involved, but when we were first forming, one of the first meetings we had was with James in the west wing about, it was a big idea at the time, collaboration was not sexy or cool and student success wasn’t even really talked about. Everything had been about graduation rates and access. This was a different idea that we were bringing. And so they liked the idea and they were very useful along the way, in that at one point they were coming up with holding another College Opportunity Summit. A lot of campuses, I don’t know if you are familiar, but when the Obama administration held the first White House College Opportunity Summit, it was a lot of elite institutions, quote unquote.

Bridget Burns:
The fastest way to tick off a lot of universities is not invite them to a party. Early on, I was just like, if you’re going to do this again, I can’t stop hearing about everyone who wasn’t invited to this, why not use these powers for good. I was certainly not the one that came up with that idea. But what we did brainstorm was, if the White House College Opportunity Summit could be a vehicle to galvanize institutions to form things like the Alliance, to incentivize collaborative, big, ambitious goal setting. And so, because they did that, we announced that we were in existence in September. We had already signed our data sharing agreement, but it was really critical that I had this outside carrot to dangle. The fact that everyone wanted to go to the College Opportunity Summit and that they were going to require that we actually submit a goal.

Bridget Burns:
There was some work behind the scenes to make this happen, but because of that, our campuses committed and it was like pulling teeth at the time to getting specific, because that’s really hard, getting campuses to commit to a very specific goal in the future, because it’s hard for them projections and all these other things and for good reason. What we did is we shared the data from a couple of campuses, including Georgia State of here’s what they were able to do when they actually did all of this work. Here’s the gains they were able to achieve, get their IRR offices at the other campuses. Okay. Well, if you had this transformation and you were able to make these kinds of improvements, then what would potentially be possible at your campus?

Bridget Burns:
They came up with this number for each campus that was above their current and stretch capacity. It was a stretch goal, that was part of the behind the scenes. Our total number was 68,000 additional graduates that we were going to produce beyond current and stretch capacity. And at least half were going to be low-income, and we’re going to do that by 2025. And that is how we got them to sign off on everything and that’s how we got to go to the College Opportunity Summit. And then ironically James and Roberto, and Ajita at the department of ed and in the White House, they didn’t believe us when we gave that number, because it was a really high number, they thought it might’ve been just thrown out there. And so we actually had to prove that it was physically possible. So that just to share that it sounded really ambitious at the time, it was, and yet here we are.

Bridget Burns:
And in 2020 we have exceeded that goal and increased our low income graduates overall by 36%. And our graduates of color by 73%. We’re going to probably hit 100 in I think 30,000 in the same timeframe as we were going to try and hit that first goal.

Kevin Tyler:
Oh my word.

Bridget Burns:
This is like a lot more than you asked for.

Kevin Tyler:
Right. No, but it was perfect because I think that, first of all, I think that this is such important work. I firmly believe in what higher ed can do. I tend to be challenged by the way higher ed does it. And so I think that the work that you do with your member organizations about keeping things students centered and creating solutions for the student experience, so that everything that happens on campus funnels into the priority audience. Again, it just, it’s so easy to get lost in the day-to-day. And so I just think it’s important work that you’re doing at a very important time, at a time when higher ed is facing a bunch of obstacles from many different fronts, but especially for low income and students of color. And so I’m just super, super grateful for the work that you’re doing here and who you’re doing the work on behalf of.

Kevin Tyler:
I’m curious about, based on the last eight or so years, what are some things that come to mind in the ways that higher ed could evolve itself to be a bit more inclusive to the same audiences that the UIA prioritizes?

Bridget Burns:
In terms of admitting, recruiting, becoming-

Kevin Tyler:
Actually any of it.

Bridget Burns:
Any of it. Well, there’s so much, it’s like how much time do you have? In terms of there’s so much work that we have not done to show up and sit with people in their communities and listen to what they need from institutions of higher learning. We have been doing similar things for a very long time, and there is a disconnect at times between people’s understanding of what higher education is and what they should expect from it, why they should go, we need to do a lot more work, I think, really connecting and communicating with audiences in a conversational manner that is not just broadcast, not just marketing and not just bragging. I think, you have almost 4,000 colleges and universities who are all talking about how they’re the greatest at this, or they’re the blanketing length of blank, right?

Bridget Burns:
It just becomes noise and it’s really off putting and hard. And I’m thinking in particular about first-generation students, because I’m a big with big brothers, big sisters, and my little, when they were going through their process of figuring out where, college, question mark, growing up in a low income, first generation family, my priority was to get them away from their family as far as possible. But in a supportive space, right? To make sure they would be successful. And here I am, I have a doctorate in higher education, leadership and policy, and I had a very difficult time helping them navigate this space. We don’t make it easy for a lot of communities to understand, how to be successful, how to make this decision. What is good? How would we know? How do you find the right good for you? How do you find the right fit?

Bridget Burns:
And why should you go to college and how can you assess personally success or failure? I think that we’re too defensive about, yes, college is the way, and we are defensive about any critique and we don’t actually listen and understand that what we are taking as a criticism is really a request for us to do a bit more listening and to understand that some of our processes could be improved. In particular, I think a lot of the, and again, when we’re talking about that disconnect and that I think a lot of the narrative in the public space that says college isn’t worth it, or that you shouldn’t go, or blah, blah, all of that. Yes. I get just as indignant and upset when I hear it. But what I actually hear is a very justified criticism that are thinking about college to career was ineffective and insufficient for the task.

Bridget Burns:
When we created career services offices, we thought that would be good enough. We thought, okay, you want us to help now? We’re not just about the awakening of the soul. We’re not just about the preservation of democracy. We’re not just about, all of these important things that higher education is about. We’re also supposed to make sure you get a job and people are saying, we’re not doing a good enough job with that. And we just took that on and said, okay, great. We’re going to just create an office for that. And at no point did we think about how that’s not sufficient, stopping off to get your resume looked at, as you head out the door in your last year that is insufficient for task, that most Americans are actually really asking about, which is, how do I know that, explain to me how a conversation in an English literature class is going to help me be able to feed my family? Am I making the right choice? Right?

Bridget Burns:
I think there’s a really thoughtful dialogue that should be happening, that is less defensive, that is less shut down immediately where we can understand where there are small, minor changes that need to happen to our institutions to make them a bit friendlier to audiences who I think we should be friendlier to, and to make sure that people understand really the true value of what we’re doing.

Kevin Tyler:
I love that. The soapbox I often climb up on is the one about higher ed vernacular and how it’s just by the words that we use in this space can be alienating to some who might not be familiar with words like endowment and faculty tenure and all these things for a first gen or a low-income student would whoever they are, even if they are not a first gen or low income student, there are just words that don’t connect and resonate to people a lot of times. And so are there ways that we can talk about that promise of higher ed and use just using different words, different lots of things actually. I’m curious about the conversation, if it even comes up at all among your members about rankings and if the work that they’re doing, will they suffer a hit in the rankings based on being more students centered, or do they not care about the rankings as much because of the work that they’re doing on their campus to be more student centered, or is it a non-starter for all?

Bridget Burns:
We already know that when Georgia State doubled their graduation rate, that they went down in the rankings, right? We already had that example that I don’t know had the impact we were looking for, which was to help people understand that rankings are in themselves, they are noise, and then that perhaps we were valuing the wrong things. We already know that that’s possible, and what I try and do with my work is, it’s about in the public town square of higher ed, do as much as I can to draw attention to the need to shift our values and creating, call it marketing, whatever, but I’m trying to make student success sexy to the point that institutions will value it at the same level as athletics, as anything else that they do. Right?

Bridget Burns:
Because I understand, you have to know that these people are trying to keep their jobs while they’re also driving change, right? It’s important. And especially in this moment where you have policy makers, you have elected officials who have very strong perspectives and there are certain things that people value. And so you have to understand that it’s not like I have a president who walks in and is like, it’s going to be student success or nothing. I don’t care about anything else. I know that I’m going to have to be a part of those other conversations, so I have to just make sure that student success is at least acknowledged and elevated to some degree of importance that can help me. And then we also try and create somewhat manufacturing our own incentives, because rankings have not sufficiently rewarded the work that I think is the work of the day.

Bridget Burns:
And is the work that really the future of America demands, which is serving more low income first-generation and students of color, especially rural low income Americans. You think about January 6th, what does higher education need to do? Step up for those people. And I am one, I grew up in rural Montana, so I’m keenly sensitive to the responsibility of higher education in this moment. I think rankings are, yes, our campuses have a very real example of, that they could be dinged for doing this work. They think it’s important regardless. And a lot of my work is about making sure that there are enough positives associated. That’s raising $30 million that the vast majority of which has been transferred to our campuses. So they can actually do this work. Generating PR, media attention, getting them on 60 Minutes, getting in the documentary, Unlikely.

Bridget Burns:
Getting, as much attention as possible for the good work we’re trying to value what we think really should be valued and shift the attention of our sector, so that even if rankings don’t step up in the way that we hope that campuses will not take their eye off this.

Kevin Tyler:
Do you think COVID and everything else that happened in the last 16 months is helping that argument dig in a little bit or get us hooked in, or do you see some shift in the way the campuses that you work with or other campuses that you don’t work with yet talk about student success and its importance at all?

Bridget Burns:
I think there’s definitely been a shift and I would say, we’ve been at this eight years, student success was getting sexy. We were starting to really get some headway. We also, one of the messages we carry, is that, don’t go alone, right? 11 heads are better than one, and we’ve seen a lot more collaboratives form and this is just about that diffusion problem. We need institutions to work together. It’s such a waste of time, energy, and money if they don’t. So that’s been great. COVID in particular, I think everyone having a classroom in their living room, they became keenly aware of a lot of the challenges of education in general, everyone became an administrator in their living room. I think whether it was higher education or K-12, people started forming very strong opinions about education, valuing it. Remember that early COVID conversation where it was like teachers are saints, they’re heroes. Right?

Bridget Burns:
Well, where is that today? Right. I think people need to remember. Okay. I think that this last year in particular as we watched students struggle, it’s impossible to not see the need for a real focus on designing their academic experience around their actual needs. And watching what happened during COVID, there’s just so many examples of it, but yes, I would say is the answer. Yes. One of these times you’re going to ask a question and I’m going to answer it short. It’s going to be real quick. So I would just say my answer is, yes.

Kevin Tyler:
Okay, perfect. This is a question that just came to mind because of what you were just talking about. In our last episode, we were talking to historically black college and university HBCU marketing professionals. Part of the conversation that we had with those folks was about how these large gifts at HBCUs, to wipe out student debt or Wilberforce, they wipe out student debt for their students that had grants from the school, other very wealthy people making these announcements at commencement ceremonies about wiping out debt. Does it equip you or your members with more information to start to sell this across higher ed? Why do we need to have celebrities or wealthy people do what they’re doing for colleges?

Kevin Tyler:
Does it help what you’re trying to do in your mission, to have those big news stories talking about low-income students needing these kinds of jackpots essentially? It just makes it feel interesting.

Bridget Burns:
I want to say yes, because I want more people to give, so I will say unequivocally, yes. More people should give, if you have a pocket book, please do, and give to the institutions in need and give to HBCUs and give to public institutions. And we’re focused on the students that we care about. That’s fine. But I don’t know, look at the architecture of those headlines, they’re not really actually elevating the stories of the students, they’re elevating the heroic behavior of a benefactor, which I think, at the end of the day if that’s what it takes to get resources, to leave your pocket book and go into the right place, then yes, I would say that could be the answer. But I do think that sometimes it can be problematic. There’s this big discourse right now about whether student loan forgiveness across federally.

Bridget Burns:
I think that too often higher education, the conversations in the public space are, they lack nuance. And so you end up with people having soundbite debates that I don’t think really serve us as a sector, as a country. When we’re talking about student debt, we should have a real conversation about student debt, not just, you’re either someone who doesn’t care about low-income students or you’re a benefactor. There’s more nuance. There’s actual data that when you put money towards something you value it more, that you’re going to actually apply yourself more. So how are we going to make up for that? If we’re absolving past debts, what are we going to do for the students of today? Knowing that really the cost driver is state disinvestment, then let’s have a real conversation about what kinds of things we can do to hold policymakers accountable, to not just talk a good game about caring about communities, but actually show up for them on the days that matters.

Bridget Burns:
I just think higher ed is a space where a lot of people feel they are an expert because they went to college. And just having a K-12 experience does not make me a K-12 expert. It sometimes can be very difficult. I don’t think that marketing stories like that, which I would say is a marketing story, always add the level of nuance that I think is needed for us to have a really thoughtful dialogue about what I think is really, for me, higher education is the most important thing, because we’re talking about the preservation of democracy in a time where it is never been under greater threat. And that is literally the purpose of higher education. And in the marketplace of ideas, we need everyone to be more well-informed and more articulate, whatever their perspective is, we need people to respect science.

Bridget Burns:
This is a moment when I think higher ed couldn’t matter more. We also need social mobility. We need equity. We need all of these things that I see higher ed is the gateway to. I take it very seriously and-

Kevin Tyler:
Totally.

Bridget Burns:
… love the headlines, but would love a real meaningful discourse.

Kevin Tyler:
Conversation. Yeah. Yeah, totally. I think I agree with you 100% on that, and I probably think too critically about higher ed just in terms of why do we do it? Because I work in higher ed now, and so why can’t we do it this way? Let’s listen to people and talk and whatever else, but understanding that I am one person in a very large institution or organization, lots of other things have to be taken into consideration. But I think at the end of the day, if we understand who we’re here for, and let it be about how many things are attached to the brand of an institution, it’s not just about the number one ranking. It’s also about how well we serve our students, how many people are eating, have access to food and are passing test, all the other things that occur in a higher ed brand.

Kevin Tyler:
It’s not just the tweet, and it’s not just the video that you make, and it’s not just the view book. There are some other very substantive things that you have to deliver in order for those messages to even resonate or be relevant. I think that’s the part that I get challenged by, because it feels more a beauty contest at times than it does a hard work contest, I guess. I really appreciate your comments there. It was really helpful for me to refresh my train of thought on that, because you’re exactly right. You’re exactly right.

Bridget Burns:
It is a beauty contest though. As you were talking, I’m thinking about, this space matters so much and when you were earlier talking about how grateful you are that UIA does this work. Well, imagine the strike of lightning that this work exists for someone like me. I grew up in poverty in rural Montana and higher ed changed my life. I get to every day actually work on helping institutions to do the work that I actually know inherently is the most important work that there is. I feel like I would do this work for free. Don’t tell my boss though. But I also think that I use competition at times, right? I frequently have found that jealousy is one of the most powerful forces in higher ed. That praising an institution in front of another institution about a certain behavior can actually get them to do that. That’s what I do. I don’t want to give my playbook away, but that’s it.

Bridget Burns:
And so I’m not any better than any of the rest of the incentives out there and the trappings, the rankings, because it’s all a part of that. Right? And I do think that that excessive focus on competition is problematic because what we need is someone to lift our chin up and recognize that there is actually a point, there’s a moment for us to have sector wide, I don’t want to say American exceptionalism, but we need to tap into our competitive juices that the future of our country is at stake. In order to get there, we have to think about things in a competitive perspective, other countries are going to eat our lunch. We are leaving behind the communities that we really need to serve, and we really need to change our practices and stop being so obsessed with the beauty contest, and instead think about the communities that we are leaving behind and the economic devastation and all the other things that we should be working, right?

Bridget Burns:
Like sustainability. There’s a lot of noise, actually higher ed from my perspective has all the smart people and we have problems that are worthy of all the smart people working together. I would really love for all the researchers, all the faculty. It’s a very simplistic analysis, but I do think that some of this inside game competition, beauty contest stuff prevents us from actually ever recognizing that we have a huge problem that we need to work on and the only way we’re going to get there is together.

Kevin Tyler:
Agreed. Okay. What does the future of UIA look like and how can folks get involved who are listening to this?

Bridget Burns:
Well, if you have a huge pocket book, I will accept checks, visa. I don’t take American Express.

Kevin Tyler:
Venmo.

Bridget Burns:
No, I’m just kidding. If you’re a funder, yes, we raise resources. Right now we’re in an expansion space where it took us eight years to finally add new campuses, that’s been a huge part of this work. We wanted to find who the right campuses were, figure out how we could make that decision. And then for the last few months, I’ve been figuring out how do you bring on a campus as an equal partner when the others have been hanging out together for almost eight years. And so what the UIA is going to do, is we will expand up to 20 campuses total. We will never get bigger than that. We know the intimacy of the network that trust, that vulnerability, that confidence in each other, there needs to be, I think there is a limit. And so we hope to help other networks form.

Bridget Burns:
We think that state systems, perhaps the future of state systems might be doing work like this, and we would be well positioned to guide and coach them to do the work in the right way. But my job is to help these campuses actually eliminate their equity gaps to actually eliminate disparity and to do it working together. And so we’re going to continue advancing this work to the point that we have multiple campuses who illuminate their achievement gaps and that in the process we have made it frankly difficult for you to work in higher education and not know their story. I’ve been talking about Georgia State and ASU and UC Riverside and University of Central Florida and all of our other campuses and their exceptional work.

Bridget Burns:
I’m noisy as can be, because I want other institutions to know that innovating is possible. In fact it’s a lot easier than people think, and that this is the work that you should be doing. It’s the worthy work that is most essential. And no, we don’t need to say things like, they have different students than us, that wouldn’t work here. If those two things died, if the phrases, they have different students than us, or that won’t work here. If I accomplish nothing else in my career, those would be a worthy accomplishment. I want to make it so that people that our entire sector, ideas spread faster, the right that we serve all students, regardless of their identity, and people leave with a meaningful degree that helps them support their families, and that higher education is actually designed around the needs of students. That’s the future, is we’re going to get bigger.

Bridget Burns:
We have also created something called the University Innovation Network, which will make it so that if you’re not a member, you can still have a lighter touch experience with us. We have developed something called the University Innovation Lab, which is an online ecosystem in which you can peruse and share templates, materials, et cetera. So you can actually borrow ideas quickly. And yeah, our goal is to make this work as available as possible. So we’ve just released our first playbook. We’ll be releasing another one shortly, and that’s just 2021, so we’ll see.

Kevin Tyler:
I’m just going to slide in, I also can’t help, but think about member institutions and their participation in the University Innovation Alliance to be better equipped and more well prepared for the inevitable demographic shifts that are going to be coming into college campuses. You will be more equipped to talk to these people who are coming in, not all kids of course, to talk to them because you have a playbook, you have a plan, you understand what the needs are a little bit better maybe than other institutions who might not be getting this kind of experience. Is that a fair assessment to make?

Bridget Burns:
I would hope so. I don’t think that we have everything’s so figured out. But yes, I think for my institutions, what I hope is that my presidents feel a sense of confidence and peace that they know that their campus is doing the actual right work and not just the work that they are being sold. A lot of the time, people who are mid to high level administrators, we should do X or Y. Great. What we’re doing is the best, because you want your boss to think you’re doing your job. It’s actually really hard for presidents to know if they’re doing the right stuff. They don’t have very much attention that they can give to this, so they need to have a lot of confidence that their campus is doing the right work, that their professionals are getting the right professional development, that they’re part of the right network or whatever that ensures that they are on the cutting edge.

Bridget Burns:
And so my campus leaders definitely know that. They know that I will give them an honest assessment of what’s really going on and also position that when they do the right stuff, that they get credit for that. And they are also moving on a path to holding each other accountable to actually doing, achieving a very big goal that for each of them is very personal.

Kevin Tyler:
Excellent. Before I ask you where people can catch up with you on social, is there anything else that I did not ask about that you’d like to mention or reference or talk about?

Bridget Burns:
Well, I would just say that if folks want to connect with us, we did as one of our in the pandemic. Pre pandemic I started live streaming weekly three years ago because we knew that the way that ideas were spreading was too slow and I needed to develop that skill, to feel comfortable doing something that felt very unacademic. And now thankfully we had that capacity and have actually launched shows. We do live stream shows every week on Inside Higher Ed and on our own YouTube channel as well, on a variety of platforms. On Twitter, BBurnsEDU. UIAinnovation is our Twitter, and you can watch our shows. We have a new president or chancellor every Monday on a show called Weekly Wisdom about leadership.

Bridget Burns:
We also have shows every month called, about Scholarship To Practice, which is elevating scholars who are doing exemplary work on student success and have figured something out that the rest of the sector to know, and actually having a conversation about debunking it and bridging that gap, making it easy for an administrator to implement. Those are two things that are really intended to help the field. And then if otherwise, I hang out on Twitter probably more than other social media platforms. We hope to someday be back in-person and have another UIA national summit, which is, imagine if a conference was actually awesome and designed with pedagogy and actually designed to have you achieve an objective before you leave. You actually will develop work, develop a strategy, a plan, develop skills, and leave with a new consortium or a new alliance, new allies to work with.

Kevin Tyler:
All that at a conference? That sounds great actually. That’s useful information to have. I have to say that your conversations that you have on social are incredible. There’s great guests. It’s great questions. It’s great conversation. And they aren’t long. It’s not like a whole afternoon or anything. It’s a very digestible amount of content. And I really, really appreciate you doing that work.

Bridget Burns:
Thank you. And the secret behind that is, those were created because I needed to find a way to interview presidents we were considering for our expansion list without signaling that they were being vetted, because I’m a hashtag innovator.

Kevin Tyler:
Bridget got secrets. She is letting you in all the secrets here. Oh my word. I have to thank you very much for your time today, I know you’re super busy. Again, I’m a huge fan of you and the work that you do. I’m so glad we’ve been able to keep in touch. I appreciate the time you’ve given me today for this conversation and I hope we can work together again soon in the future.

Bridget Burns:
It’s an honor. And thanks so much for having me.

Kevin Tyler:
That’s it for this week’s episode of Higher Voltage. You can find us on Twitter @volthighered, and follow me on Twitter @Kevinctyler2. Thanks so much for joining us, until next time.

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage

Higher Voltage is the podcast of Volt, a publication that covers all aspects of higher ed marketing.

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