In May 2019, the Christensen Institute interviewed members of the Presidents Forum to identify challenges in higher education that require collaborative efforts and systemic change. A number of themes emerged that, already relevant before COVID-19 ravaged the nation, have only grown in importance and urgency. This is the first of four blog posts, all written prior to the pandemic, that address these themes and share insights from the leaders of some of higher education’s most innovative institutions.

Every time we do a handoff in higher ed, it’s a bad handoff.

– Joe May, Dallas County Community College Chancellor

Our education system is often critiqued as being “a factory model.” As Michael B. Horn has written, “Today’s factory-model education system, which was built to standardize the way we teach, falls short in educating successfully each child for the simple reason that just because two children are the same age, it does not mean they learn at the same pace or should follow the same pathway.” 

The worst factory ever

The imagery of a factory conjures standardized outputs coming off an assembly line. Tubes of toothpaste, boxes of cereal, lightbulbs, iPhones. Each the same size, weight, and color, with specified and measurable fluoride content, nutritional value, wattage, or battery life. 

The factory model of school uses one-size-fits-all inputs, but instead of creating standardized output, there is deplorably wide variation, as measured by student preparedness for life after college. The Nation’s Report Card shows that 12th-grade benchmarks in math and reading are met by a paltry 25% and 37% of high school graduates, respectively. Recent data from ACT, taken by 52% of high school students, shows rising numbers—now over a third—of test-takers meeting none of the test’s four benchmarks for college readiness. 

The majority of our students are not rolling off of the assembly line ready to succeed. But nearly seven out of ten will enroll in college immediately following graduation. This creates a significant cost for students: college completion rates are devastatingly low—four in ten students who enroll in college will not complete within six years. Low completion rates represent lost human potential and are a major driver of student loan defaults. But given the outputs of our K–12 system, completion is perhaps stunningly high. 

Colleges can’t address completion on their own

Completion rates have risen over time, about five percentage points over the past 15 years—even though academic preparedness hasn’t budged. And the future pipeline of students—based on recent data on 4th- and 8th-graders—shows even wider disparities in student achievement. 

Modular approaches, like remediation, have proven a tough—and expensive nut for colleges to crack. Substantively addressing college completion—especially at non-selective schools, which have the widest range of incoming student preparation, and where six-year completion rates hover around 30%—will require partnerships outside of higher education, especially with K–12 schools. 

Dallas County Community College District Chancellor and Presidents Forum member Joe May says, “For years, higher education, particularly community colleges and open-admission schools have expressed concern about the quality of students coming out of high school. In our case, we’ve said we will own the problem going back to 8th grade.” Dual enrollment programs are springing up across the country—and they are helping to bridge the unwieldy interface between high school and college. 

But the work in Dallas is going a step further. Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) has partnered with over 40 high schools to bring in industry partners and help students visualize life after high school. Each student who is dual-enrolled is assigned a success coach to help students understand and navigate college requirements and timelines. DCCCD has also partnered with Greenlight, who built a blockchain-based platform, which enables high school and college records to be written to the same record, and gives students visibility and ownership of their data. 

Chancellor May reports success—but also notes the challenges that they have faced. “We have built cross-institutional platforms. We have seen a real improvement in our partner schools. But everything we have used, we have had to build ourselves. There are no platforms. There are no pre-existing solutions that cross the boundaries between K–12 and college, between colleges, between college and the workforce.”

Overcoming a modular mentality

Solutions like this have the potential to make a dent in student completion, among other outcomes. But, like most of the barriers that students face, a modular, siloed approach is unlikely to work—and that has driven May toward innovative collaboratives like the Presidents Forum. “Most places are fine at what they do internally, but not very good at crossing boundaries,” says Chancellor May. “My biggest criticism of higher education is that we are the only organization, industry, or group that thinks autonomy is a good thing. No one else thinks we are better off isolating ourselves and going it alone. I’m hoping that the idea here [at the Presidents Forum] of opening it up and creating systems that can work across organizations, with the students as the focus, can address some of our structural challenges. It’s time to be student-centric in our thinking, not institution-centric.”


  • Christensen Institute
    Christensen Institute