Rob Briggs

Akron recently celebrated when King James joined the first lady in announcing new scholarship opportunities for thousands of students to pursue the dream of a college degree. Bringing more students to college campuses is a notable goal. But ensuring they persist through to graduation is a daunting challenge.

An alarming number of students who enter college leave without attaining a degree, but they do accumulate debt. Thousands of college-goers simply are not prepared to succeed, and they “stop-out” or drop out, becoming even less prepared for an increasingly demanding job market.

Just one-third of the workforce in Northeast Ohio has a post-secondary degree. Team NEO recently reported that most of our population lacks the skills, training and experience needed to fill future job openings.

The imperative is clear: Training and educating the workforce of the future is critically important to all of us. Filling the talent gaps with an educated and prepared human supply chain is the only way to strengthen and stabilize our region’s economy.

The Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education (NOCHE) exists to convene higher education institutions, business, industry and civic leaders and provide opportunities for them to collaborate on best practices proven to increase degree attainment and fill talent gaps. It’s not easy, especially in the world of higher education.

At a recent NOCHE-sponsored event in Akron, we received a clarion call from Bridget Burns, the executive director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a national collaborative of 11 universities focused on improving degree attainment for low-income students: “Competition is toxic to collaboration. Instead of an elbows-out approach, how can we link arms and march toward this goal of closing the achievement gap?”

Collaboration must be innovated. Leadership, change management principles and technology are key. Here, we can take some lessons from our colleagues in health care.

Several years ago, some visionary leaders from competing hospitals and health-care organizations in our region came together over a shared concern about public health. They knew Northeast Ohio was a medical mecca — people come here from all over the world to seek care. But we also have high mortality rates from chronic problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity.

These competitors asked themselves: Could they use big data, collected in the electronic medical records of thousands of patients across the region, to improve public health? Could they collaborate for the benefit of the whole community?

They knew that electronic records data could be used to improve the care of individual patients. For example, doctors could be prompted to alert a diabetic patient of the need for an eye exam.

Electronic records could also be mined to determine which doctor’s office had the best patient outcomes, the fewest complications. Would they share their strategies with other doctors? Would the whole community receive better health through the shared use of big data?

Their vision gave birth to the Better Health Partnership, made up of competing health-care organizations and providers committed to collaborating, to sharing data across the electronic medical record-keeping system.

The results so far are encouraging: Thousands more patients are controlling their blood pressure and meeting diabetes care standards. The partnership has virtually eliminated gaps in the care of diabetes and high blood pressure across racial and ethnic groups.

Can we similarly help our students? We collect lots of data about them — their test scores, high school performance and grades on their first college exams. The challenge we face is to understand how to use that data to define actions we must take so students obtain degrees in a timely fashion.

Josh Baron, a national expert in predictive analytics, also attended the NOCHE event. He demonstrated how collecting and sharing big data, together with sophisticated learning algorithms, can predict which students are likely to fail within the first two weeks of a course — and how human intervention can turn the tide to help students master content and succeed.

This kind of paradigm shift takes leadership and funding: The state of Georgia helped its public university invest in the necessary technology and advising staff. It is now setting a national standard for student success, virtually eliminating any racial or socioeconomic achievement gaps.

In our region, academic, business, civic and governmental leaders must do the same for our students. We have the potential to apply powerful and proven strategies that can accelerate degree completion and reduce overall education costs by using all the data at our disposal for the benefit of all of our students. We need to find the funding and create the opportunities for collaboration.

Together, we can help countless individuals achieve lifelong dreams and position our region for more rapid growth. And we can deliver on the promise made by King James and the first lady.

Briggs is the president of the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.