About two months ago, Tom Sugar joined EAB as vice president of partnerships. To learn a little bit more about the man behind Complete College America (CCA) and his decision to join our team, I sat down with Tom for a brief Q&A.
Q: Tom, for anyone that isn’t familiar, can you tell us a little about your background?
I’ve spent my whole life in public service, including stints in a governor’s office, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. Most recently, I co-founded CCA with Stan Jones. The big idea was to create and organize a broad network of states, governors, higher education systems, and institutions willing to own the hard truths of low graduation rates and persistent achievement gaps, then mobilize them into action by scaling and sustaining proven best practices to boost student success and advance economic and social mobility.
I spent nine years there, and to a great degree, we achieved our first mission: raising awareness of the crisis. It’s hard to imagine this now, but 10 years ago, not many were focused on college success. The urgency wasn’t there and the pressure that is commonplace now—from states, from the media, from consumers and parents—wasn’t really there either.
We hammered away, always using data and evidence to make our case. The goal was to represent the problem of equity and success as an existential threat to our nation. Which I still believe is true. After a while, people started paying attention.
Q: What role did CCA’s “GameChangers” play in the success of your agenda?
The GameChangers helped us shift attention from the problems to the solutions. By articulating specific examples of how we, as a country, were failing our students, we were able to simultaneously bring awareness to the challenges and champion best practices and ideas that were working.
GameChangers focused on fundamental and systemic challenges, like the failure of traditional remediation sequences, misalignment of mathematics to majors, low credit accumulation, and the difficulty that students face balancing work and school when their academic schedules are so unstructured.
Today, institutions are owning their challenges, accepting responsibility for their own systemic failures, and eagerly seeking to implement changes for more student success.
Q: I imagine this is when you started thinking more about the role of technology, is that right?
Exactly: In the early days we thought more about policies, programs, and organizational structures. But to sustain change, you need systems that hardwire the practices and connect people at scale. Leaders come and go, people shift roles, but technology can put down the railroad tracks to structurally ensure key changes stick and are sustained over time; a link between the past and the present.
This seems obvious now, but it wasn’t 7 or 8 years ago. Once you acknowledge a problem and recognize a solution, the next order questions is “how do you sustain change?” The answer, I believe, is irrefutably with technology. So at CCA, that was the impetus for starting the Seal of Approval award. From our perspective, the student success technologies in the market were immature, we wanted the quality and nature of them to improve.
Q: Let’s jump forward to your decision to join EAB. How does that map to your personal path?
Well, after nine years of pushing awareness of the problem and sharing data, I decided I wanted to jump to the other side, to help democratize solutions and help schools apply practical, structural changes.
I want to pull these changes forward with greater urgency and help advocate for technology as a mechanism of sustainable change. The thing about EAB that I’ve always admired is the courage to develop products before there is an obvious groundswell of consumer demand, which is really a byproduct of starting with research. I wanted to be a part of this kind of market leadership—because we still have so much work to do.
Q: Some are probably curious about you shifting to a for-profit entity. Did this give you any pause?
No, it didn’t. I believe in a virtuous partnership between the public and private sector—when both are working together, you can have a balanced economy and a productive society. But, the private sector is how we drive and disseminate innovation and I want to be as close to the origin of innovation as possible.
To do well and do good at the same time; that’s the Holy Grail. I believe I can do that with EAB, because I believe that if EAB succeeds, more students will succeed.
Q: You talked before about sustainable change. What advice would you give to colleges looking to undertake major change efforts?
Philanthropies understand that investments need to create innovation and change at scale. I think colleges need to think this way too. Incremental change should be happening all the time, but if you want big results, you can’t shy away from big change.
My advice to colleges is threefold. First, paint a vision and bring people into the future you are trying to create. Second, understand the role of technology. Third, build a team that has the DNA to advance true change.
What’s happening in Houston is a good example. Eleven higher education institutions across the entire Houston metro area (led by Paula Short, the provost and vice chancellor of the University of Houston flagship and system) are forging unprecedented connections between and through public 2-year and 4-year schools and systems. They are building nearly seamless academic pathways to accelerate the momentum of Houston students. They are simultaneously deploying all of the essential best practices to tear down obstacles to graduation. And they are structurally underpinning it all with technology, with seven (and counting) institutions using EAB.
It’s called Houston GPS and it means an entire region has decided to put its students first. As a result, they will build a historic talent development pipeline, unmatched in the country. By doing so, they will completely eliminate achievement gaps in the most diverse city in America today.
This kind of thinking is our best hope to strengthen, sustain and expand the American dream. I am honored EAB is a critical partner in this work.
Q: Speaking of the Guided Pathways movement, what do you see as the future of Guided Pathways?
First of all, it is terrific that everyone is talking about pathways these days. This makes me optimistic. And this wasn’t true three years ago. Guided Pathways is all about coming to grips with the fact that students, like the rest of us, are overwhelmed by choice. We get paralyzed by paint colors, blue jean options, what to order in a restaurant. Students are no different. I think the future of pathways will be positively impacted by machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). We will be able to use these intelligent technologies to better explain to our students what the best choices and paths look like. Detractors will say this is about eliminating choice or being overly prescriptive; but it’s not. This is about informed, evidence-based decision-making.
Q: On that note, do you think AI and machine learning pose a threat to college advisors and staff?
No, not at all. On the contrary, the more information advisors have about the paths and possibilities that are best for each student, the more likely they will get to do the thing they’ve always said they want to do: advise. Technology can help reduce the transactional components of advising and free advisors to provide personalized, student-centric support.
Q: What are you worried about when it comes to higher education?
I’m worried about a couple things. First, are we implementing guided pathways with fidelity? I think the answer is no. Walking the walk on pathways is hard—moving away from choosing courses to choosing programs. A lot of schools talk about pathways, but aren’t engaging deeply with the reform.
Second, we have to put equity front and center. Unless we figure out how to better support all students, we won’t have the America we want. But there are positive examples too. In places like Georgia State, where EAB technologies have been implemented alongside visionary leadership, smart policies, and best practices, the achievement gap has been fully eliminated.
When it comes to equity and attainment gaps, we need to stop talking about reducing or narrowing, the goal should be absolute elimination. We can collectively sustain the notion of the American dream—with policy, practice, technology, people. It’s possible.
Q: Final question: Let’s end on a provocative one. Clayton Christenson believes 50% of schools will be shut down within a decade. Do you share this belief?
No, not fully. But I do agree that the higher education ecosystem is ripe for disruption, and that this disruption has begun. Colleges need to be better, smarter and more relevant, or some doors will close. College presidents are out there articulating value propositions, and the core of those propositions needs to be about workforce preparation. Too many students have “some college, no degree,” which doesn’t set them up for success and represents a failure of the system.
On the other hand, I strongly believe that progressive colleges and organizations like EAB that are hyper focused on innovations, technologies and practices will help reimagine the system and pave the way for stronger outcomes across the board. That’s why I am optimistic and excited about what happens next.