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USU Heads West: The Frontier Set

What does it mean to be a pioneer? For most, this label conjures up an image of intrepid explorers, leaving behind their known world to blaze a trail through uncharted territory. Pioneers also forge new ideas, innovating in place to create knowledge or methods for enhancing our world. With that in mind I can confidently say that the diverse group of colleges, universities, and state systems comprising the Frontier Set are true pioneers when it comes to institutional change.

The Frontier Set is a group of 29 2-year and 4-year institutions and two state systems committed to student success and transformational change. They are developing solutions in three core areas: advising redesign, remedial education, and digital learning. Over the next several years they will test new ideas within these areas and capture their learning in real time through an online platform. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting the group’s efforts and with help from support partners will independently evaluate and disseminate their results.

I was fortunate to become acquainted with these trailblazing universities at the Frontier Set’s kickoff meeting last month in San Diego. APLU/USU is one the intermediaries involved in the initiative.  A number of our member institutions are involved, in which we specifically support Georgia State University, Florida International University, and Portland State University.  The convening gave our three institutions a chance to connect with all Frontier Set members and to focus on the initiative’s priorities and importantly establish trust. The event also connected all members with consultants and other support partners who are helping members as they individually implement program and policy changes as aligned against a set of shared key performance indicators (KPIs).

It was also exciting to hear from these universities about what they’re currently doing to drive the change process on campus. For example, Portland State University has just completed a major advising redesign to improve and streamline the student experience. The redesign was done through a collaborative, student-centered process, using surveys, interviews, and focus groups to identify areas where change is needed. Now, students will be supported by just one advisor from enrollment to graduation –regardless of whether they change majors. By making 1:1 advisor relationships consistent and sustainable, students will be able to turn to their advisor for help with a variety of issues including career development, course mapping, and even financial planning. Provost Sona K. Andrews interviewed lead architects of the advising redesign for her Vlog (video blog) earlier this month:

The next step is to support new institutions that just joined the initiative and to grow the rate of cross-institutional sharing in hopes of strengthening all 31 members to implement and sustain change. We plan to reconvene as a group later this year to explore and exchange implementation strategies as related to the three solutions. In the meantime, participating institutions also have access to a “connection fund” to foster greater peer-to-peer learning in which members may apply for mini-grants to pursue joint projects, conduct campus site visits, or any other mutual activity that builds connections within the Frontier Set group. Through this platform and my fellow intermediaries, we intend to share out some of the initiative’s highlights with our broader networks and communities.  The Frontier Set is a true learning community, and I’m looking forward to sharing their accomplishments as they progress through the change process.

Shannon Looney is a project manager in APLU’s Office of Urban Initiatives.  She also is the main point of contact for APLU’s work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Frontier Set initiative.


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