Letter from the Foundation

Celebrating Momentum, Looking Ahead

When we launched the Frontier Set in 2015, there was no existing place where leaders from high-performing, high-potential institutions could come together to share and improve together. At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we were learning about what individual institutions were doing to improve student success on their respective campuses, but we wondered what would happen if they came together to collaborate. So we set out to see if a network of diverse colleges and universities, state systems, and supporting organizations, all committed to equitable student success, could show us how they are transforming to improve the student experience—and, in doing so, raise the bar for what’s possible.

It has never been clearer than it is today that transformation is not a “nice to do”; it’s a “ must do.” Amid a global pandemic and renewed, resounding calls for racial justice, colleges and universities have an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility to accelerate their transformation and better deliver on their promise for Black, Latino, and Indigenous students and students from low-income backgrounds.

Over the past five years, the Frontier Set has helped us better understand what institutional transformation is, what it looks like on different campuses, and what it takes to realign institutions’ structures, cultures, and business models to create a student experience that results in dramatic and equitable increases in outcomes and educational value.

Throughout the content on this site, we highlight progress we’ve made in understanding transformation that accelerates equitable student success, and lessons our Frontier Set institutions, systems, and partners have learned, all with the hope that it might serve as examples and inspiration for the field.

There’s plenty to celebrate:

Most Frontier Set sites increased the number of degrees conferred over the course of the initiative, and some have made significant progress toward eliminating outcome disparities by race, ethnicity, and income while maintaining access—proving that it can indeed be done!

Some Frontier Set sites have demonstrated improvements in their ability to implement whole-institution redesign with students at the center. They’ve strengthened key operating capacities such as leadership, institutional research, information technology, and strategic finance, and leveraged the power of structures such as silo-breaking, cross-functional student success teams and routines such as robust continuous improvement processes.

Despite COVID-19 disruptions, all Frontier Set sites were resilient, able to pivot operations quickly without compromising their commitment to equitable student success by building on pre-existing equity-based values and student-centered cultures.

There’s also plenty to reflect on:

Thanks to our deepened understanding of the commitment and action needed for colleges and universities to transform and be truly student-centered and equity-focused:

A strong foundation makes a difference

2020 taught us that integrating a student-centered culture with innovative solutions that facilitate equitable student access and success, plus key operating capacities, enabled colleges and universities to respond with decisive action and make the most of a very difficult situation. It’s clear that anchoring an institution’s transformation journey in continuous improvement increases capacity to address unexpected challenges and to adopt innovations more seamlessly.

There’s more beyond the surface

A culture of evidence and inquiry is more than just disaggregating administrative data by student race, ethnicity, and income. It’s about looking at students holistically—combining summary numbers with nuanced student stories—and then actually using those data to reform racist policies and practices that have gone unaddressed for too long.

Institutional transformation is a team effort

People make up institutions, and an institution’s commitment to equitable student success comes from all employees on campus working together and rowing in the same direction. It takes leadership across all levels of the institution—administrators, faculty, and staff—to turn a student-centered vision into reality. We've also learned the importance of investing in people; for far too long, the field has underinvested in human capital to drive and sustain change.

Transformation is not a one-and-done

While we are proud of the progress Frontier Set sites have made, we know that progress can be stalled or threatened. Enrollment, retention, and completion challenges—especially for Black, Latino, and Indigenous students and students from low-income backgrounds—will persist unless we continually realign our institutional structures, cultures, and business models toward equitable student success.

The work continues

Finally, we recognize that the work of equitable student success—and our resolve to support the field in fully realizing it—must continue in the months and years ahead.

The past year caused us to reflect on the original purpose of the Frontier Set: to bring institutions that are transforming for equitable student success together, to form a cohesive network of peers to accelerate their respective work and contribute critical learning to each other and the field. What we found is that they could indeed do this, even while weathering the challenges brought about by the pandemic and renewed calls to dismantle structural racism in higher education.

In short, our Frontier Set partners created for themselves and each other greater capacity to address the next crisis, and the next one after that—all while keeping equitable student success at the center of what they do.

Thanks to their commitment, hard work to demonstrate what is possible, and willingness to learn in public, we have momentum on which to build.