The Student Success Movement’s Next Push: Career Services: A Q&A with Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance

Earlier this month, the University Innovation Alliance announced its next scale project, with a cohort of seven institutions teaming up to close the gap between college and the workforce. This next scale initiative, which received $2.4 million in funding from Strada Education Network, will involve career services professionals developing innovative concepts to pilot both on and off campus. Off-campus incubation and pilot testing will pull in a national Employer Working Group, which will also help to define what robust  campus-employer partnerships look like. The ultimate goal is to leverage the Alliance’s method of scaling promising practices across their member universities and redesign the way institutions prepare and support their students in finding gainful employment after graduation.

Insights & Outlooks: The goal of the Alliance is to increase the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States, and you’ve chosen to do this by establishing a partnership of 11 large public research universities. Can you share more about the UIA and what makes it unique?

Dr. Bridget Burns: The 11 presidents and chancellors of our campuses founded the UIA in 2014, united around a sense of urgency that higher education was not producing enough high-quality degrees to keep our country economically competitive, and higher education was doing an especially poor job supporting first generation students, low-income students, and students of color. While each campus was innovating and making progress on its own, the presidents and chancellors believed they could move faster and more effectively together — benefitting all our students.

The UIA is unique because of our deep network strategy (our campuses have real relationships with each other to the point of sharing lessons from failure), the fact that these 11 campuses are some of the largest and most innovative in the country (with 400,000 students and 120,000 Pell students, we can test ideas at scale), the level of commitment of our campuses (they set ambitious campus goals, hold each other accountable with data transparency, and have skin in the game by matching philanthropy raised with their own funding), and, importantly, because our collaborative work is laser-focused on redesigning the university around student success.

The 11 universities that comprise the UIA are Arizona State University, Georgia State University, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, Purdue University, Ohio State University, University of California, Riverside, University of Central Florida, University of Kansas, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Insights & Outlooks: What are some of the UIA’s student success accomplishments to-date?

Dr. Bridget Burns: Since our founding, the UIA’s 11 campuses have increased their low-income degrees awarded by 29 percent (producing an additional 27,000 low-income graduates). We’ve also adapted and scaled several significant innovations across our campuses — things like predictive analytics, proactive advising, completion grants, and our fellows program. When we first launched, we set a public goal to produce an additional 68,000 degrees by 2022 (at least half of which would be low-income degrees), and we are currently on track to produce 94,000 in that same time frame.

Insights & Outlooks: Thus far, the Alliance has focused on barriers to graduation, but you recently announced $2.4 million in funding from Strada Education Network to power a new scale project to redesign the college to career transition. What caused you to take on this challenge?

Dr. Bridget Burns: I hear skepticism about the value of a college degree as actually being criticism about the lack of an intentionally designed “handoff” between education and employment. The need for an intentional, integrated, and effective transition from college to career is the natural next step in student success. Treating the career services office like it’s a box to check prior to graduation is shortsighted and ineffective for our graduates. We need a more integrated and creative approach to what we at the Alliance believe can really make the difference for social mobility.

Insights & Outlooks: How is this initiative different from others that have tried to bridge the gap between colleges and the world of work?

Dr. Bridget Burns: For this project we were very intentional about giving career services professionals the time and space to do deep thinking on redesigning the transition from college to career. They are the experts, and the ones doing this work every day, but we realized that too often they are being set up to fail — occupying offices in the basement somewhere and provided with minimal funding. Alongside the career services leaders’ work, we’ll also be establishing a national Employer Working Group — drawing on the experiences of a diverse cohort of employers. Members of the Employer Working Group will help to develop a definition of what it means to have an effective college-employer partnership, and they will be piloting within their companies the innovations they co-create with career services professionals. Leveraging the collaboration, process mapping, design thinking, curiosity, vulnerability, trust and humility, which are integral to the UIA, this a truly unique scale effort, and we can’t wait to see where it goes.