Why is transformation important?

Higher education has long been a key driver of social mobility and economic prosperity in the United States, a reliable path to career fulfillment and financial empowerment. For those fortunate enough to earn a degree or certificate after high school, a postsecondary credential represents a bridge to opportunity. But despite Americans’ long-standing belief in the value of education after high school, we know that for many students,  education is out of reach. Exclusionary practices and patterns of structural racism in our country, within and beyond higher education, prevent many from attaining a postsecondary degree or credential.

The higher education field, and the institutions within it, must transform to better serve students by reforming and realigning the policies and practices that impact equity and student success.

The prevailing institutional status quo is not serving Black, Latino, and Indigenous students, low-income students, and those who are the first in their family to attend college. Despite this fact, we know that an inclusive, equitable future is possible: the Frontier Set is helping show the way. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested in creating the Frontier Set to explore the why and how—the strategies and tactics—of institutional transformation, and the 29 institutions and two state systems that make up the Frontier Set are part of a growing movement to expand access, persistence, and completion for those who have historically been excluded from the benefits and value of higher education. The Frontier Set sites have spent the past several years working closely with researchers to capture their respective transformation journeys so that other institutions can learn from them and accelerate their own transformations.

What is institutional transformation?

Understanding institutional transformation in all its complexity begins with defining the term. For years, the field has gravitated toward the idea of transformation, but has yet to coalesce around what it really means in practice. A strong definition, developed with and by higher education partners, can help keep transformation from becoming an amorphous buzzword.

The development of the transformation definition below puts a stake in the ground about why we need to reimagine higher education, and for whom. A definition helps to signal critical facets of transformation for the field, and helps the foundation and its partners create and evaluate an innovation pipeline of tools, methods, and resources. The hope is that this definition serves as the standard for innovation and excellence, paving the way for others.

This is where we are still learning, gathering and synthesizing insights about the critical solutions, capacities, and tactics that are required for effective and meaningful transformation. The Frontier Set is joined by a growing number of institutions and higher education organizations across the country in their exploration of the why and how of transformation, with the shared goal of achieving equitable student outcomes.

Let’s unpack this:


“Realignment” means redesigning foundational elements, such as institutional planning and strategic finance, of the institution to deliver a high-quality educational experience that meets today’s students’ unique needs.

Read more about realignment here.

Student experience

“Student experience” encompasses entry, progression, and completion—made possible with meaningful support that creates a sense of belonging.

Read more about the student experience here.

Equitable increases

“Equitable increases” means that as overall student success increases, race, ethnicity, and income are eliminated as predictors of that success.

Read more about equity here.

Educational value

“Educational value” refers to the costs and benefits of a credential, and ensuring the benefits (personal, economic, and societal) demonstrably outweigh those costs.

Read more about value on the Postsecondary Value Commission page.

Joined by a growing number of institutions and higher education organizations across the country, Frontier Set colleges, universities, systems, and partners are all dedicated to exploring all aspects of transformation, large and small—all of which is ultimately about equity.