Collective Intelligence – Collective Impact


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Higher education is often characterized as siloed and fragmented. As a result, there frequently is not as much movement on improving student persistence and completion as we desire from our efforts. ACT trend data confirm that four-year and two-year graduation rates over the last 30 years have remained relatively flat; thus, as a nation we have failed to move the needle in the right direction, far enough and fast enough for students needing our support. Administrators make decisions, faculty teach, student affairs support, and students learn. Remaining in silos can be costly since the best decision making is based on understanding the total ecosystem of the learning environment.

Why does this matter?  We have more focus on accountability for persistence and completion rates coming from accreditors, from states with performance-based funding, and from local and state higher education boards. We have growing concern over debt our students incur without gaining a certificate or degree. We have greater need for knowledge workers to strengthen the economy based on new advanced skills and competencies. Together, these create a perfect storm for considering new ways of doing business. Addressing low persistence and completion rates has become a high priority for higher education. Student success must become our core business.

When leaders build cross-institutional teams, the collective intelligence can raise the level of impact on student learning. Collective intelligence has been defined as: a shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making.

Four basic conditions for a Collective Intelligence:
  • A group composed of individuals who have diverse opinions;
  • when the individuals aren’t afraid to express their opinions;
  • when there’s diversity in the crowd;
  • and when there’s a way to aggregate all the information and use it in the decision-making process

For all of us in higher education concerned about improving student success, this means that the more people involved in looking at various aspects of the data, the more insights are possible. Faculty can observe the academic activities of students – class attendance, logging into course management systems, participating in class discussions and projects, performance on tests and assignments. Student services can monitor engagement in orientation, learning communities, first year experiences. Administrators bring review of the persistence data, adequate progress, completion, metrics based on student segments, student learning cycles, and student satisfaction. When a cross-institutional team is involved in reviewing data in a timely manner and developing insights around that data, the picture around student accomplishments provides a comprehensive view of how students are doing across the units and what is supporting their success. Academic metrics, engagement metrics, social/psychological factors like grit and perseverance, and other factors that relate to student success need to be brought in to form the comprehensive picture of student success. This approach is especially powerful when data are integrated across multiple sources as well. This can be termed “collective impact.”

Chancellor Nancy Zimpher from the State University of New York System, described community-based collective impact with examples from the national organization STRIVE at the recent AASCU President and Chancellor meeting in Miami. StrivePartnership is focused on the success of our children: every child, every step of the way, cradle to career. StrivePartnership unites common providers around shared issues, goals, measurements and results, and then actively supports and strengthens strategies that work.

Chancellor Zimpher described the importance of collective impact which is defined as “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem,” providing a framework for university leaders to drive social change through collaboration. When collective impact is applied to issues around student success we find a broad-base of stakeholders at the table. This goes beyond the college or university to include K-12 education, community support services, service learning and volunteer opportunities, and linkages to work, careers and employment.

Colleen Carmean from the University of Washington, Tacoma and I also presented at the AASCU conference on What Leaders Need to Know in the Age of Analytics.

Civitas Learning Partners are engaging DIAL working groups where they build data, insights, action and learning using cross functional teams to support student success. These teams are powerful groups that include people from across the institution, departments and units. Each participant brings insight and potential impact to decision making on the campus and partners with the DIAL working groups are making the greatest gains in improving persistence and student success.

Why Collective Impact Matters for Higher Education:
  • Smarter. Groups of people raise the collective intelligence level in problem solving.
  • Sustainable. More people addressing issues create a more sustainable environment for ideas to germinate, be supported and have impact. This contributes to the culture of innovation and inquiry so necessary for higher education to move boldly into the future.
  • Scalable. Once ideas have survived the test of time, the ability to scale creative innovations across campuses is stronger when a collective representative group champions the power of that idea and moves it beyond a few examples to an institutional wide set of solutions.
  • Successful. Collective impact increases the overall success of the initiatives and builds to more collective impact as the campus continues to learn and benefit from collective intelligence. Success will support and leverage more success.

This will take new ways of looking at issues, new sources of data for decision making, new insights into student interventions and success models, and bold new leadership to make student success priority #1.


The authors explored student success initiatives across the U.S. and found that some institutions are making good use of the plethora of data stored by institutions, but the gap is widening between those out in front in analytics-informed student success and their peer institutions.


Dr. Linda Baer

Dr. Linda Baer is a frequent consultant for Civitas Learning. She has served more than thirty years in numerous executive level positions in higher education. She was the interim vice president for Academic Affairs at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Previously, Dr. Baer served as a Senior Program Consultant in Post-secondary Success with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and as Senior Vice Chancellor of Academic and Student Affairs in the Minnesota State College and University System. She was Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs and Interim President at Bemidji State University. Dr. Baer presents nationally on academic innovations, educational transformation, the development of alliances and partnerships, the campus of the future, shared leadership and building organizational capacity in analytics.

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