Collaboration, Empathy in Higher Ed: Bridges for Student Success

By prioritizing collaboration, empathy, and a growth mindset, higher education institutions can transform the educational experience and empower students to reach their full potential.

In a recent podcast episode titled "Collaboration and Empathy in Higher Education," Dr. Bridget Burns explored the importance of these two elements in shaping the future of higher education. As the CEO of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a coalition of 11 public research universities, Burns’ insights shed light on how collaboration and empathy can positively impact the learning environment and contribute to student success.

Burns highlighted the importance of collaboration among higher education institutions to effectively tackle systemic issues such as equity gaps and student retention. She discusses how the UIA utilizes collaborative efforts to share data, strategies, and best practices to improve outcomes for students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds. By working together and leveraging their collective resources, these institutions can create scalable solutions to university challenges and amplify their impact.

“Initially, the UIA launched this effort as a group of presidents trying to figure out if they could scale and work together,” said Burns. “Now it has become a cultural movement in higher ed to try and change the value system and the behavior of a sector that frankly needs to live up to the promise of what it is we're here for.”

According to Burns, higher ed was never designed around students, and it was specifically never designed around the students that the future economic competitiveness of our country demands. “We need to do a better job serving low-income, first-generation, and communities of color,” she said. “Originally, higher ed was designed for the faculty and now is a hybrid of faculty and administration. We never had any sense of intentionality about designing a better system that would actually help us do a better job for our students.”

Explaining that empathy is a key driver for understanding students’ experiences, challenges, and needs, Burns asserts that by cultivating empathy, educators and administrators can create more inclusive and supportive environments to help students thrive. She stressed the need for institutions to listen actively to students, engage in dialogue, and seek their input to co-create solutions. Empathy enables educators to see beyond the numbers and statistics, connecting on a human level with students and empowering them to overcome barriers.

Burns also addressed the importance of embracing failure as a catalyst for growth and innovation. She encourages institutions to view setbacks and challenges as opportunities to learn, iterate, and improve. By adopting a growth mindset and embracing a culture of experimentation, higher education institutions can continuously evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of students effectively.

Creating a Community of Practice

“There are two reasons you should do collaborative work,” said Burns. “Number one, what are your shared problems? What are the things that you actually are struggling with together? Two, what is the big challenge that you can only overcome and achieve together? These are the two touchstones to drive all collaborative work.”

Burns believes the economic competitiveness of our country is at stake if we don’t figure out how to make it so that higher ed is the engine of social mobility that we have said it is. “We want to eliminate equity gaps across the board by intentionality and design. That's something that's a huge thing no one can handle on their own.”

One example of how institutions can learn from each other is Georgia State University's proactive advising system. They use predictive analytics to identify students who may be at risk of dropping out. By intervening early and providing personalized support, Georgia State has significantly improved its student retention rates and narrowed equity gaps.

“We now have very few 18- to 22-year-old students, but the design of higher ed is still focused on that population, said Burns. “We actually need to shift to focus on adult learners, on people with some college but no degree; when it comes to race, equity gaps are massive. The gaps are huge, and we aren't making progress at the level we need to.” Burns believes that this is the type of issue that institutions could collaborate on together to make a significant difference.

Burns also discussed the importance of leadership in fostering collaboration and empathy within higher education institutions. Burns emphasizes that leaders must set the tone by modeling the desired behaviors, creating spaces for collaboration, and actively supporting initiatives that prioritize student success.

In conclusion, collaboration and empathy are crucial elements for building a stronger and more inclusive higher education system. Through collaboration, institutions can harness collective knowledge and resources to develop innovative solutions that address systemic challenges. Empathy, on the other hand, enables educators and administrators to better understand and support students, fostering an environment where all learners can thrive.