Brian Mitchell, Director of EDVANCE and former President of Bucknell University
photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Note: This interview is part of a collection of articles about social innovation changing the face of Boston and is a build up to Tech Gives Back 2012.  Join us on 9/21 from 5-10pm at the Estate to meet EDVANCE Foundation and vote for them using TUGG’s open source philanthropy model.

Tell me the story of why Edvance came to be:

During my tenure as president of Bucknell University, we ran a pilot program that was designed to create stronger pathways to higher education success for exceptional low- to moderate-income community college students. Currently, only 16% of U.S. students who begin their education at two-year colleges ultimately go on to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to an average 60% graduation rate among students who matriculate at four-year institutions.

Our experience with Bucknell’s Community College Linkage program, reinforced by our recent research, shows that early identification and sustained mentorship of transfer candidates, coupled with a rigorous assessment protocol, are key to ensuring that community college graduates who transfer to selective four-year colleges and universities complete their baccalaureate degrees at rates equal to or better than those who enter as members of the freshman class.

Sean Fortney, who graduated from Bucknell in May 2012, credits the Community College Linkage program with helping him make a successful transition:  “I didn’t receive a lot of support [before]; coming here and asking for help and seeing the accessibility was shocking and unexpected. I didn’t feel like I deserved the attention until I came to Bucknell as a Community College Scholar.”

After leaving Bucknell in 2010, I helped establish the Edvance Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing American higher education through the development of bold, sustainable solutions to the most pressing challenges of the 21st century. Beginning with the Nexpectation Network – which is modeled on the Bucknell pilot – Edvance is developing a portfolio of programs aimed at boosting access to quality higher education, increasing collaboration among public and private institutions, and sharing best practices.

What is your objective for the Nexpectation Network?

By 2018, our goal is to have in place the national infrastructure and support mechanisms to enable at least 50,000 students a year to transition successfully from two- to four-year institutions.  Later, when public colleges and universities are invited to participate, we hope to expand the program to cover at least 100,000 students annually.

The Nexpectation Network will provide the full range of academic, financial, and personal counseling that transfer students need to break down the social, cultural, and economic barriers to higher education.  We will deliver these services through state and regional hubs located across the country.

In the Edvance Foundation’s first year, we undertook rigorous planning to determine what it would take to build and launch the Nexpectation Network on a national scale. We also conducted a major research initiative and national listening tour examining how students navigate the process of transferring; how they fare before, during, and after this critical transition; and what higher education institutions do to support or hinder their success.  Both of these critical efforts were made possible with generous support from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (which also funded the Bucknell pilot), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Pfizer Foundation.

We are now compiling our research into what will be the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind – to be released in mid-November, in conjunction with the Fall Leadership Conference of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU).

What have been your core findings from your work?

Our most important finding was this: Independent institutions that are most successful at retaining transfer students are those that take transfer policies most seriously, work those policies into their financial aid modeling, and provide active counseling for transfer students. Although nearly all independent four-year colleges and universities have transfer programs in place, there’s a dearth of robust national data regarding transfer policies and practices for community college graduates.  We need a much more systematic approach to understanding what’s working well and what isn’t so we can set benchmarks to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of higher education.

Here are some of our other key takeaways:

  • There is significant underutilized capacity at four-year independent colleges and universities that could be tapped both to provide advancement opportunities for high-achieving community college graduates and to remedy overcrowding at public four-year universities. At the same time, admitting more graduates of two-year programs would help four-year institutions diversify their student bodies.
  • Internal inertia and the failure to see two-year transfer students as an institutional priority appear to be the biggest reasons for the failure to execute on the transfer arrangements already in place between two- and four-year institutions.
  • Independent colleges and universities typically see transfer applicants as a way to round out a class, rather than as essential building blocks of a thoughtful admissions strategy. For many, the decision to accept transfer applicants driven more by financial considerations than by strategic or cultural goals.
  • With overwhelmed community college counselors unable to support the level of potential transfer traffic, it largely remains the responsibility of the student to navigate through transfer practices. There is a dearth of programs designed to involve families in the decision on whether and how to transfer.
  • At most independent colleges and universities, institutional aid is readily available – yet the bias tends to be toward supporting traditional freshman recruits rather than transfers.

In what ways has the technology sector helped you grow?

Technology has been a critical component of our planning and development phase: through our online survey and national webinars, we were able to contain costs while gathering input from thousands of higher education leaders, including 400 college presidents.

Looking forward, our business plan calls for a “high-touch/high-tech” approach, integrating technology with a personal, relationship-driven approach to working with students.  Technology will provide the backbone linking our national office in Boston to as many as 20 state and regional centers across the country, facilitating the capability for community college students to learn about and link to four-year colleges far beyond any perceived geographical barriers.  This technology backbone will integrate student unit record data, student e-portfolios that will provide the basis for applications to four-year programs, tracking and assessment data, and a national longitudinal analysis.

Where is EDVANCE heading and why?

The Nexpectation Network will be developed in four phases over a six-year period.   In Phase I, we will be looking to develop the network in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and six other key states.   In Phase II, we will roll out the network to private institutions throughout the rest of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the upper Midwest, and West Coast.  Phase III expansion will reach the South and lower Midwest.  And Phase IV will bring public colleges and universities into the network.

What are your biggest challenges that need support today?

The Edvance Foundation is at a seminal moment in its history.  With our first project, the Nexpectation Network, we have a big idea that will dramatically transform the delivery of higher education.  We have the experience of a five-year pilot study at Bucknell, and valuable learnings from our comprehensive research study and listening tour.

Now, as we move to implementation, our biggest challenges are:

  • Establishing the national office in Boston;
  • Creating the technology necessary to move successfully into the Network’s Phase I states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut;
  • Developing the detailed organizational, human capital, technology, outreach, and communication strategies needed to implement our business plan; and
  • Establishing an assessment protocol.

What are you most looking forward to about Tech Gives Back’s Social Innovation Bash on 9/21?

We are looking forward to the opportunity to share our vision with 700 individuals who can “imagine the possible” with us, who understand the value of creating systems change from within the “academy,” and will become enthusiastic about how the Nexpectation Network can help meet the national imperative for a skilled, highly trained workforce that can power the American economy in the 21st century.

We also plan to listen carefully and learn from those assembled at the Social Innovation Bash.  There are lessons that can be applied from outside the academy to make the program more nimble, creative, and entrepreneurial.

Finally, we hope to make contacts who can help us address some of our organizational, technology, and human capital challenges.  A president who served as a mentor to me once said:  “Always remember that you don’t always have to be the smartest person in the room.”  Our assumption is that the 700 guests will be smart people who have much to teach us.