What is the Frontier Set?

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we’ve long held the belief that education is the key to economic empowerment and social mobility. Over a decade of work, we’ve underscored the fact that education after high school is vital, and that far too many students of color and low-income, first-generation, and working students are missing out on this critical opportunity, in large part because institutions have not adapted to serve them.

But, as we explored this systemic challenge we did spot groups of institutions and state systems that were innovating around advising, digital learning, and developmental education; making strides in improving student outcomes; and committed to sharing and learning with others. In this, we saw an opportunity to not only bring these innovators together as peers, but more critically, to observe and learn from them in order to generate knowledge that could accelerate institutional transformation across the field.

A diverse group of colleges, universities, and state systems working together to go further and faster as a group, generating big ideas that can ripple outward and transform the postsecondary system as a whole—this is the foundation of the Frontier Set.

Through our investments leading up to the Frontier Set, we learned that individual interventions could indeed improve student outcomes. But we were also beginning to observe and hear from institutional leaders that taking a more integrated approach to transformation, one encompassing a broader and deeper range of cultural and programmatic changes, could have greater impact. This led to a broadened view of transformation, one that encompasses solutions such as redesigned advising, but also recognizes the importance of key capacities that make change possible, such as institutional research and strategic finance. The question was how to dig deeper and better understand this complex process of institutions transforming for student success. The foundation wanted to support both the acceleration and documentation of this work in order to show the field what’s truly possible.

The Frontier Set members—29 colleges and universities and two state systems—were chosen for this work because they were making strides in improving outcomes, aligned with existing foundation focus areas, and, importantly: they had a demonstrated history of working collaboratively with other institutions. Once they came together, the Frontier Set members were charged with continuing their equity-focused work and piloting new strategies, all the while reflecting and sharing insights into strategies and tactics implemented to drive real change—supported by a structure of intermediaries and support partners.

Frontier Set Support Partners





Supported By:

frontier set intermediaries & sites

Six intermediaries identified and led groups of like institutions who would make up the broader initiative. For example, The Aspen Institute selected 12 community colleges and the University Innovation Alliance selected three large research universities. The network provides a structure for sites to share and collaborate, supported by a group of organizations that facilitate and study their transformation efforts journeys, working toward packaging and sharing insights and lessons learned. This collaboration is a differentiating factor of the Frontier Set, setting it apart in a field that has historically been very competitive.

It has been rewarding to witness the emergence of this meaningful coalition of these formerly unlikely partners. … By adopting a ‘community over competition’ approach, they have discovered opportunities for collaboration and partnerships with colleagues they may never have met outside of the Frontier Set … They appreciate these relationships as the perfect opportunity to learn new best practices, avoid pitfalls, increase their professional networks, and help their institutions grow.”

Kathy Thompson, Frontier Set HBCU Intermediary

Over the life of the network, intermediary and support partners have captured and shared back ideas from the network to the network, sparking the generation of more ideas with the potential to accelerate transformation. In this way, the Frontier Set is setting new standards and building a body of knowledge that will lead the way for others. A spirit of open collaboration has been a hallmark of the Frontier Set, supported by a shared goal of increasing student success by eliminating race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of that success. 

The Frontier Set provides permission and resources to be creative, try new approaches, and succeed—or fail and learn—in new ways, and share those experiences and outcomes with peers. Our campuses are eager for deeper sharing, learning, and support around change management and institutional strategies.”


The network started with a shared commitment increasing student success by eliminating race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of that success. Over time, the focus on racial equity has become more explicit, a change driven by the growing understanding of systemic racism and current events that have pushed our society to be both more clear-eyed about racism and more meaningfully, actionably dedicated to anti-racism. The Frontier Set members have supported each other in this reckoning, humbly sharing resources, challenges, and ideas—and together, generating momentum to keep transforming for a better future for their students.