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Education Leaders Brainstorm Higher Ed at Gates Symposium at NLU They examine today's realities, opportunities, hear from experts


Gates Symposium attendees at National Louis University listen to keynote speaker Mitchell Stevens of Stanford University.

Top educators, policy analysts, EdTech designers, foundations and other thought leaders from around the nation gathered Oct. 1 at National Louis University (NLU) for the “Higher Education on the Growing Edge: Uncommon Thinking Around the Common Core and New Models for Student Success” Symposium, generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As higher education grapples with a shift to digital learning, high costs, the need to prepare students for viable careers and bridging the high school-to-college divide, experts are challenged to uncover new solutions to enduring barriers that prevent access to and persistence through higher education for millions of American students.

Much of the conversation focused on how high schools, community colleges and four-year colleges can work together, in many configurations and helped by digital learning, to bridge students’ transition from 12th grade to college. Common Core standards in K-12 and success coaches in college may play a role in helping students adapt to freshman year and stay the course until graduation, speakers suggested.

“It’s a good time to be in higher education for the same reasons that it’s a hard time,” said Mitchell L. Stevens, Ph.D., of Stanford University, California, in his keynote speech.


Randy Schulte, left, associate vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, and Robert Muller, dean of NLU’s National College of Education, lead a breakout session at the Gates Symposium at National Louis University.

He cited the nation’s shift to a desire for lifelong learning, and the adoption of multiple learning platforms, such as digital learning and the Internet, as promising developments to help universities thrive in their work.

However, he said other factors make it harder now than ever for higher ed: more competition, higher costs, lower government funding, the need to operate as a business while also retaining non-profit status and acting as a public servant, the need to operate both locally and globally and the need to comply with regulations.

“It’s a very complicated time,” Stevens observed. “Neither government nor the philanthropic community supporting higher education fully recognizes just how complicated, and just how many things which frankly under-resourced schools are being asked to do at the same time.”


Judah Viola, standing, dean of NLU’s College of Professional Studies and Advancement, moderates a panel featuring Randy Schulte of the Tennessee Board of Regents, Antonio Henley of Johnson C. Smith University and Angel Reyna of Walla Walla Community College, at the Gates Symposium.

Nivine Megahed, Ph.D., president of National Louis University, praised the opportunity for thought leaders to brainstorm during the symposium.

“Convening this audience of diverse thinkers, from K-12 to higher education leaders to policy influencers, really demonstrated the importance of collaboration across the student lifespan– if we really want to move the needle on the achievement gap in our community and our nation,” she said.

Acknowledging NLU’s efforts to increase access in higher education aligned with those of many other schools and non-profits which participated, Alison Hilsabeck, Ph.D., NLU provost, said, “This conference was a great opportunity to work toward answers to the complex issues of providing the structures and supports for many more students into and through higher education and into productive careers and citizenship.”

Highlights from breakout sessions included:

  • Antonio Henley, Ph.D., dean of University College at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, discussed the dramatic successes and best practices learned from the Biddle Institute, a strengths-focused program geared toward students who would otherwise not be seen as college material. Students who enter this program eventually integrate with the greater university population, and Henley recounted how often he was able to point to successful students and enlighten faculty members and administrators: “that’s a Biddle student.”
  • Angel Reyna, dean of workforce education, Walla Walla Community College in Walla Walla, Washington, described how his school partners with John Deere Corp. to train students on operating and repairing technology. Students come from several states for the program, which requires students to cycle through a quarter in the classroom, a quarter at a John Deere dealership in their hometown, and so on for seven quarters. They graduate with an associate degree. Reyna pointed out that high school graduates can no longer get good unskilled jobs; thus the college is preparing them for technology jobs.
  • Randy Schulte, Ed.D., associate vice chancellor for academics at the Tennessee Board of Regents, explained that the Tennessee system is trying a new way to assist students who may need a firmer grounding in academic fundamentals as they transition from high school to college. The co-remediation method provides the remedial instruction concurrently with the student taking college courses. It’s an alternative to requiring students to complete remediation courses before embarking on general education requirements.

Antonio Henley of Johnson C. Smith University speaks during a breakout session at the Gates Symposium.

Schulte later joined Reyna and Henley at a wrap-up session to review the day’s events.

“The Uncommon Thinking Symposium at NLU provided a unique opportunity for a broad network of stakeholders in higher education, including representatives from K – 12, philanthropies, community colleges, universities and system offices to converse, collaborate and consider how to facilitate greater student success in the coming decade,” he said.