Why is transformation important?

College is a bridge to opportunity. As the most reliable path to career fulfillment and financial empowerment, higher education has long driven social mobility and economic prosperity in our country.

But despite Americans’ overwhelming belief in the value of education after high school, we know that for many students, navigating the path to graduation is too complex, challenging, and costly—especially for students of color, low-income students, and those who are the first in their family to attend college. This must change: Institutions must transform to better serve students and achieve more equitable outcomes.

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While still strong overall, the United States has fallen behind other countries in terms of the portion of the population that holds a college degree, especially with young people ages 25–34. One critical reason is that our institutions are not doing good enough to get students of color to graduation. As the total populations of black and Hispanic Americans rise, so do their numbers in higher education: 42 percent of students are non-white, according to the U.S. Department of Education, but they are only about half as likely to get a postsecondary degree as their white peers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Similarly, Third Way found that Pell Grant-receiving students have graduation rates that are, on average, 18 percent lower than non-Pell students. Today’s students look different than they have in the past: They are more likely to be working, raising children while in school, the first in their family to go to college, or from a historically underserved population. They need different supports to succeed.

And their success is critical. Making education more accessible to more people creates preferable outcomes for everyone, in the form of a more vibrant and equitable society and economy. Diversity is good for everyone: A study in the journal Growth & Change found that students benefit from learning in a diverse environment, companies benefit from a diverse workforce, and more diverse regions may experience higher rates of economic growth.

Plus, our world is changing—the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that in two years, by 2020, about 65 percent of American jobs will require some college education. This is a significant jump; in 1973 only 28 percent of jobs had that requirement. A degree means more opportunities and better wages—it also means more tax revenue and better social outcomes, as increased levels of degree attainment have been associated with less crime, better health, and higher levels of political engagement.

Despite all the clear benefits, student readiness, cost, and graduation rates remain persistent barriers, and not just for a few students at a few institutions—these challenges are pervasive and systemic.

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This has led to a public concern about postsecondary education in our country. For the past two years, New America has found that only one-quarter of Americans think higher education is fine the way it is. Another survey from Pew Research Center suggests that though most Americans see value in higher education, many are concerned about the future: Six in 10 believe higher education is generally going in the wrong direction—and lack of affordability is often at the heart of that belief.

It’s clear that major change is needed to improve equity, access, and student success. This is critically important at both the level of the individual student and at a national socioeconomic level. Unless we dramatically improve access and student success in higher education, thousands of students, despite their best efforts, will be failed by the system, and our nation will suffer from a shortage of the skilled workers needed to ensure global competitiveness and national security.

Many scholars and practitioners have been working to uncover why and how students don’t graduate—and how the system can be transformed to keep students on track. Researchers, policy groups, organizations, and postsecondary institutions themselves have all been instrumental in developing an in-depth understanding of what it takes for schools to be more student-success-driven, effective, and equitable.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believes postsecondary education is an essential and promising area for making progress toward the goal of a more equitable world. The foundation’s mission in postsecondary education is to close attainment gaps—the gap between white and non-white students’ graduation rates—and improve student outcomes, meaning more students graduating across the board. This is why the foundation brought together the Frontier Set.

The 29 institutions and two state systems that make up the Frontier Set are committed to tackling these same goals. They are pursuing promising approaches to transforming how they operate in order to create radically different outcomes for students across the country, and they will lead the way toward a better, more equitable future for our country.