Author: Patricia Steele


The Ed Tech Surge: Risks and Invaluable Opportunities

Photo by Junior Teixeira on

Along with many others working in higher education today, I am keenly observing the explosion of education technology solutions. While this growth is not primarily due to the current pandemic, the contrast between the surge in spending on ed tech and the budget cut-backs and layoffs in the academy accelerated by the pandemic is quite stark, as so eloquently explained by Goldie Blumenstyk at the Chronicle. In 2020 alone, ed-tech startup companies obtained over $2 billion in private and venture capital, a half-billion more than the year prior. 

While many ed-tech companies sell products designed for individual consumers (think Coursera to upskill on a topic or explore a curiosity), a number are developing and selling products directly to postsecondary institutions. The largest traditional category is the expanding product offerings for online learning and course solution tools that are used by brick-and-mortar institutions, as well as by growing online providers (e.g., Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University). Meanwhile, according to Steven Southwick, CEO and founder of Pointful Education, the product categories in ed tech expected to grow and gain wider adoption are emerging technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

With all of this technology comes data. And with data come questions of privacy—as well as opportunities for evaluation and evidence-backed growth and improvement. Here are the areas we’re watching at HEI as this sector continues to evolve:

  • Privacy: Questions of privacy are important aspects of ed tech that will generate growing attention given the flood of technology into higher ed spaces. The more information we track about students, and the more departments engaged with technology tools, the more investments will need to be made to mitigate the risks of private student information being inappropriately accessed. It’s easy to envision a cottage industry of consultants who will soon be arriving (if they’re not already in place) to provide strategic planning around this risk in the same way they once assessed staff professional development needs.
  • Return on Investment: Since launching Higher Ed Insight over 10 years ago, we have worked with and been approached by ed-tech firms eager to obtain third-party evaluation and verification of the impact and value of their products. In some cases, the central questions for the evaluations were ROI—what did the institution spend and save as a result of utilizing the product? Some intended outcomes are easier to measure than others. Consider an ed-tech solution that helps students obtain their financial aid funds digitally rather than through the mail. We could measure the cost associated with the two different approaches (old school snail mail vs. digital) or examine the time-to-deposit for funds.
  • Other Outcomes: How do we measure the impact of products designed for admissions, registration, student verification, remediation, advising, scheduling automation? This task is imminently important given the mass acceptance of these products.

    Some of the ed-tech offerings we’ve come across over the years include tools to optimize financial awards to yield a desired student body, tools to identify at-risk students who are making missteps in their academic progress, and more recently financial forecast tools for predicting spending needs. But what are the other outcomes that are important to measure with respect to ed-tech spending by institutions? And what happens if an institution or K-12 school adopts a tech product but never fully implements it or realizes its full potential to receive any true efficiency or impact? Goldie’s piece sheds light on this point with the poignant quote: “It’s too early to determine the impact of this ed-tech investment bonanza. But it’s not too late to pay attention to something perennially missing from these booms: whether the tools are working.”

    Her point leaves me pondering again the question that has perplexed me for years working in higher ed: why, given all of the intellectual resources of a college or university, don’t we do a better job identifying outcomes for students and making decisions based on those outcomes? Why don’t institutions expect tech firms to demonstrate the effectiveness of their products beyond fancy marketing? Institutions seem content to leave uninterrogated the black box of education experiences and their impacts on students.

    Institutions know the demographics of those who graduate and who don’t. In some cases they emphasize understanding of retention and graduation by critical demographic and academic fields. They know who repays their debt and who doesn’t. They may even know who is working and what they earn, and who successfully obtains licensure or continuing ed in a given field where it’s required. Yet often the people who know this information are not the same people designing and implementing curriculum, developing programs, or advising and serving students. While institutions gather feedback in the form of student surveys, instructional feedback, and required data for accrediting and professional organizations, there is still an enormous gap in the capacity of most institutions to measure and use data about educational experiences themselves: strengths and weaknesses of a program or campus experiences, effectiveness of the course availability for the career pathways, the employability of an individuals in a desired and related job area, the satisfaction of the learning experience. And perhaps towards more lofty outcome aspirations – the role of education in a graduates’ civic life, family and community, intellectual growth and curiosity, and life satisfaction.
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: I’ve noticed a big uptick in conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion with a focus on outcomes across stakeholders in higher education, including especially in professional associations like those in student services (NASPA), excellent organizations focused on quality teaching (ACUE), many of the higher education associations in DC (ACE, AAU, APLU, AASCU, NAICU, and AACC), and among institutional researchers (AIR). Alongside these deepening conversations and growth in data collection, we are now adding new ed-tech tools to the mix of an already fuzzy understanding of input-to-outcome understanding in higher education. There is not enough learning transpiring with the data and tools already available, let alone new ones.

Many people working in higher ed deeply care for students and seek to do the best they can educating and serving students. Institutions also continue to grow their resources and invest in student success staff positions and ed-tech products in the student success arena, but these are often black box exercises with little analysis or transparency about whether any of these things make a difference, and if they do, why. As this next wave of ed tech solutions arrive on college and university campuses, these institutions need to make a far greater investment to develop meaningful mechanisms and approaches to understanding the impacts of educational experiences and their outcomes for students.


The Dawn of the Biden-Harris Higher Ed Agenda

Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash
Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash

While the country awaits the official White House budget for education, an abundance of pre-election campaigning and post-election positioning help to project what is ahead for higher education policy. The current Democratic Party leadership has an ambitious agenda for higher education. Miguel Cardona, at the helm of the US Department of Education, brings tremendous K-12 experience to his role but sparse, if any, experience in postsecondary education. He will be relying on a fantastic group of known advocates, in particular Michelle Asha Cooper who is serving as acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education.

Here are some of the highlights of what to expect over the next four years:

  • College Access: This priority is front and center for this administration, with talks of doubling the treasured Pell Grant program to a maximum of $13,000—an amount that would be a historically significant increase for low-income students. 
  • Community Colleges: As noted by Secretary Cardona in his confirmation remarks, this administration will be focused on community colleges. It seeks to create a more prosperous nation, with greater outcomes for America’s low- and middle- income students. This could be the beginning of a free-tuition two-year college system in the US.
  • Workforce Development Continued: There will be a heavy focus on workforce training programs and innovative business-to-college partnerships. Like with TAACCCT during the Obama years, this administration will make big investments in workforce development programs in areas of need and likely will provide substantial funding for apprenticeships, other work-based learning programs, and CTE programs at community colleges, perhaps coming out of both the Departments of Education and Labor. 
  • Student Success Focus: We are also likely to see some new grants and spending occurring around evidence-based practices with respect to student success. Perhaps this will further expand the ed-tech boom with technology-based solutions intertwined with programmatic improvements around services, advising, and mentoring. 
  • Emergency Aid: Expanded opportunities and uses for emergency aid programs will likely be on the horizon to better support students with multifaceted lives who need help to address unexpected costs that arise while studying. Specifically, HEERF funding is flowing into institutions to bridge financial aid gaps and help institutions manage costs related to the pandemic.
  • Tech Infrastructure: Grants and funding for big investments in technology infrastructure at community colleges and other lower-resources institutions are expected to roll out.
  • MSI Focus: A strong commitment to Minority-Serving Institutions can be expected, with changes to funding inequities, infrastructure, and talent challenges. Soon after being elected President, Joe Biden met with leaders from HBCUs to solidify his commitment to remedying the challenges in this sector. 
  • Loan Forgiveness: Some policy changes related to student loans will likely be made, but it remains to be seen what it will look like. A great piece by Sandy Baum articulates the clear challenges with the choice of loan forgiveness as a priority, arguing that it is not the most problematic form of debt.

The staff at HEI and our affiliates are gearing up for a big grant season resulting from the Biden-Harris agenda, opportunities for collaboration with colleges and universities, as well as evaluation support and research, strategy, and technical assistance services. 

If you have any projects or upcoming needs you’d like to discuss, please schedule a call


Do you care about college access? Then it’s time to get to know more about ATCs (Area Technical Centers)…

Most of us working in higher ed don’t really understand CTE (that’s Career Technical Education)—and at one time this included me. Through the years, however, I’ve come to learn that it’s the heart and soul of the pathway to opportunity for those who most need postsecondary education for a better future.

We can all agree on the need for credentials that have value—and that lead to meaningful employment and wages for graduates. We all know that college attainment leads to better outcomes in many ways across a person’s life. I know, I’m preaching to the choir here. Yet, despite knowing this and how many millions of working-age adults lack a sufficient credential, we see a persistent chasm between much of higher education and the workforce development system that is a common stop on the road for many learners.

So, what is an ATC and why does it matter?

ATCs, according to the organization, Advance CTE, are “CTE-focused institutions that serve learners from across multiple geographies, such as school districts, education services areas, and workforce development areas or regions…they offer secondary and sub-baccalaureate-level education and training…or both.” A recent report from Advance CTE found that:

  • There are 1,300 ATCs in the US, across 39 states and territories.
  • ATCs vary tremendously in their history, governance, and funding structures (which is why they are tricky to understand).
  • ATCs make a significant contribution to state attainment goals through largely less-than-associate-degree-level credentials, although most ATCs are primarily secondary-school serving.
  • Many ATCs that have articulation agreements in place have them locally (not through statewide agreements), and they work closely with two-year colleges or local technical colleges.
  • ATCS’ structures are determined locally, and the federal government no longer acknowledges ATCs or requires reporting from them in the most recent CTE legislation.
  • ATCs vary widely in how they are governed and funded, but most are through the secondary schools or local education area that sends learners to the ATC (see figure below). The most significant fiscal resources come from districts, schools, and Perkins funds.

Unlike their four-year-college cousin, ATCs and CTE programs have the ability to change quickly in response to industry needs and demands. However, much like with their four-year-college cousin, the sector lacks a real awareness of the impact of ATCs and CTE programs on their clear intended outcomes. (Stay tuned for a discussion on outcomes evaluation in higher ed in our next newsletter).

Nonetheless, ATCs are a very important piece of the college opportunity puzzle. Some learners, whether they are in secondary school or recent high school graduates, will never attend a four-year college without some exposure. ATCs and CTE programs create a small path towards a bigger future—but only if state and local policy leaders understand how it can work.

In 2020, the HEI team was involved in two Comprehensive Local Needs Assessments (CLNAs) with community college partners in Maryland. These CLNAs are a requirement of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), which is the federal policy related to CTE today (that began in the 1950s and 60s with the National Defense Act and the Vocational Act of 1963). This experience radically changed our views about the significance of CTE in the college attainment story. Clear best practices are emerging that are critical for the expansion of college opportunity and are highlighted in Advance CTE’s report:

  • Integrate ATCs and CTE programs, generally, into any state education and workforce planning and policies.
  • Support the articulation agreements between ATCs and postsecondary institutions, so that short-term, industry-recognized credentials count toward associate and baccalaureate degrees.
  • Develop meaningful data dashboards on postsecondary and CTE outcomes.
  • Support ATCs in achieving full accreditation so they qualify for federal and state postsecondary funding.
  • Ensure that CTE outcome measures consider diversity and equity goals to identify major barriers to opportunity for marginalized populations in different fields.

Are you interested in talking through the impact and opportunity of ATCs vis-à-vis your organization? We’re ready thought partners and guides. Feel free to book a consult here, or contact us here.