Insights & News

How Can CA Support Higher Ed Innovation? A Message from the College Futures President

Dear colleagues and friends,

It has been two years since Governor Jerry Brown earmarked $50 million of the state’s budget for a set of Awards for Innovation in Higher Education. The purpose of the awards: reward public colleges and universities that were experimenting with ways to eliminate barriers preventing students from getting their bachelor’s degrees in a timely manner.

From the time the awards were approved, College Futures Foundation has invested in supporting this bold idea to encourage and reward innovation in higher education. Through our work, we knew of the many educators who, even in the time of dramatic budget cuts, kept a focus on ways to do things differently, making changes to make the educational system work better for this generation of California students. We saw the awards as an opportunity to celebrate and publicize their work, learn from them, and ultimately expand their good ideas and practices.

Two years later, I remain as enthusiastic about this idea as when it began. California faces a major challenge meeting projected workforce demand for bachelor degrees in the next decade. Our public colleges and universities are key to doing this successfully. What we witnessed during the years of fiscal crisis, and what the Innovation Awards capture, is that dedicated educators are committed to the success of their students. We believe California needs to find more ways to incentivize, recognize, and reward this response to the challenges ahead.

Not much is generally known about the Innovation Awards, so we at College Futures recently commissioned a freelance writer and journalist to speak with some of the players, including those who provided input on their structure and goals, public champions, and award winners at college and university campuses. What follows is the result of that exploration.

Here are our main takeaways:

  • Those on the ground and closest to the action know what works. The good ideas and effective practices from those who work every day to ensure that more of our students get their degrees need to be documented and shared. This will help others understand that this work is possible and can be adapted to their context. With no more resources than anyone else, these people make the system work for some of our least prepared students and those who typically face the toughest barriers to success. The Innovation Awards have helped call attention to such efforts, not just for the winners but for the dozens of other educators who used the application process to reflect on their own efforts and practices.
  • Educating today’s students requires breaking down silos within and among educational institutions. The winners exemplify a sense of common purpose: ensuring student success among those who dream of becoming college graduates but who are first in their families to enroll in college, are low-income, and graduated from high schools that did not prepare them well for the rigors of a college education. This profile fits the majority of students in California’s public high schools today.
  • Current higher education funding systems and practices do not encourage innovation, with all the inherent trial and error and risk taking necessary to discover what works and what doesn’t. Some have criticized the Awards for rewarding work that has already been done or is small in scale. I, on the other hand, applaud the determination that these winners showed to make a difference despite the odds and obstacles.
  • As the state thinks about ways to use scarce dollars to greatest effect for public higher education, it should do more to put resources into the hands of people who can show us how change can happen. Rather than dictating specific activities or earmarking funds for specific programs, California should consider how to seed and incentivize innovation.
  • Awards have been thoughtfully invested with an eye to improving student outcomes. Since the Innovation Awards were announced, many of the awardees have thought carefully about investing the rare gift of unrestricted funds in ways that will allow them to scale up their strongest approaches or seed new innovations. Receiving and reinvesting the awards has resulted in new partnerships, replication of effective programs, and development of tools and skills that will allow schools to analyze and improve their student success strategies.

The Innovation Awards did not include funding to capture lessons, track progress, or share lessons. College Futures is making a small contribution to this effort by commissioning case studies and supporting a network of the winners who meet and discuss their progress, challenges, and victories.

I welcome any thoughts you might have about the piece that follows on supporting innovation in higher education. Thank you for all you do on behalf of California and its students.

Click here to read “A Bold Vision for Supporting Innovation in Higher Education” >
Download the article in PDF format >

Julia I. Lopez
President and CEO
College Futures Foundation