American colleges and universities are known throughout the world for the innovations they nurture and produce, from breakthroughs in solar power, chemotherapy research, and touchscreen technology, to the creation of the spreadsheet. But when it comes to innovating internally—by changing their structure and design to better serve their students—they are notoriously hidebound. For example: nearly 30 percent of all undergraduates are now over the age of twenty-five, but the vast majority of college classes are still held during the workday, not on weekends and evenings when adults with full-time jobs can take them. This is one of the many ways in which colleges have not adapted to the changing needs of the average student.
That said, there’s growing pressure on them to change. Students and parents are outraged by exorbitant tuition costs and the high levels of debt they have to take on; employers are frustrated by a mismatch between the skills they’re looking for and the ones newly minted college graduates have cultivated; and policymakers are increasingly concerned about the huge number of students, mostly from modest backgrounds, who start college but don’t finish, and are left with no credential that could help them get a good job to pay off their student debt. As a consequence, there’s now more oxygen for higher education leaders who want to start doing things differently.
A few years ago, we began profiling in our annual College Guide the institutions and individuals—be they college presidents, academics, researchers, private-sector entrepreneurs, or lawmakers—who were coming up with innovative ways to make college work better, rather than helping universities increase their endowments and climb up the U.S. News & World Report rankings. This year, we take stock of how those ideas have progressed and spread, and what policymakers are doing to advance them.
One of the biggest challenges facing higher education is the need to not just enroll more students, but keep them. Only around 40 percent of the students who enroll in college each year graduate in four years. (For students of modest means, the odds are even worse.) With such a high number of dropouts, institutions are under increasing pressure to help students persist until they earn a diploma. It turns out that the emergence of Big Data can help.