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Lessons Learned from Houston GPS on Closing Equity Gaps

Episode 48

March 10, 2021 31 minutes


In 2014, Tom Sugar had a discussion with Dr. Paula Short from the University of Houston about what each felt were the most important changes universities could make to increase graduation rates. That discussion led to the launch of Houston Guided Pathways to Success, the nation’s first regional consortium of two- and four-year schools working together to improve transfer pathways and college completion rates.

On this episode, the two talk about how they were able to get more than a dozen schools to buy into the program and implement a comprehensive set of interdependent strategies for the good of their institutions and the Houston region as a whole.

The two also discuss their work together on EAB’s new Moon Shot for Equity. Finally, they share tips for university leaders who aren’t sure where to start in eliminating equity gaps at their institutions.



0:00:13.1 Matt Pellish: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, EAB’s Tom Sugar talks to Dr. Paula Short from the University of Houston about how they worked together to launch the Houston GPS Initiative several years ago, as well as their more recent collaboration on EAB’s new Moon Shot for Equity. They’ll share tips on how individual institutions can begin narrowing equity gaps, and how entire regions can work together to improve transfer pathways and raise graduation rates. Thanks again for listening and enjoy.


0:00:52.8 Tom Sugar: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. I’m Tom Sugar, Vice President for Partnerships, and I’ve got a great story to tell. So, bear with me, and I’ll walk you to a pivotal moment with our guest today. It was six, seven years ago. I was the Senior Vice President at Complete College America, and a dear friend of mine and a true leader in the earliest stages of the college completion movement called me up and she said, “You know what? I am now the New Provost and Vice Chancellor at the University of Houston’s main campus, and I just love that guided pathway stuff that you guys are doing. Why don’t you come down here and help us put that into place?” And of course, that’s just like her, seeing the best, newest work, the next wave to advance student success, and it broke my heart when I had to tell her no. I had to tell her no, not because her request wasn’t a worthy one, but because our funders at Complete College America insisted that we work at scale, and that always meant working with entire states.

0:02:09.0 TS: But I got to thinking, Houston is the fourth largest city in America. Some people argue, the most diverse. And I said to my friend, “You know what? I don’t want to say no. We don’t want to say no. We want to say, how about this?” And for the first time, we put together in one document all that we knew to that point about what was absolutely essential for student success. And I said to my friend, “If you will look this over, give me feedback, help me write this thing, and then invite leaders from all the institutions across Houston to come together and challenge them to accept this all-in approach, that’s scale. We can do it.” And it was no surprise to me at all that she said, “Absolutely, it’s the right thing to do.” Let me fast forward then quickly before I introduce our guest, to say how that all sort of wrapped up. She invited Presidents and Chancellors, entire teams from all the public institutions across Houston to come to University of Houston’s main campus for a two-day meeting.

0:03:31.6 TS: And when it was all over, at the end of the meeting, we laid down a challenge. We said, “The memorandum of understanding is clear. It requires you all to work collaboratively, consecutively, simultaneously on these key issues together. It requires you to think beyond ordinary articulation agreements, to arranging your courses and aligning your degree maps to truly create a seamless ecosystem of higher education for your students. Please take these back to the campuses,” I said. “Talk it over with your staffs, and then come back within 60 days and let us know if you’re in or out,” and I sat down. And then our guest stood up and she said, “I don’t need 60 days, Tom. The University of Houston is in right now. Who else is with us?” That person, our guest today is the Provost and Vice Chancellor of the University of Houston, Paula Short. And I cannot tell you, Paula how delighted I am to have you with us here on EAB Office Hours. So please tell me what was going through your mind in that moment? Do you remember standing up and laying down that challenge?

0:04:48.5 Paula Short: Yes, Tom, I do. I remember thinking, I’m gonna lock the door and not let them leave [chuckle] until they all agree. So that was going through my mind. This is too enormous an opportunity. There are over 300,000 students in our community colleges and universities in Houston, what are we thinking if we walk away without a commitment? So Tom knows that, as he was there, I went from table to table where each university or community college team was sitting and had been through this exercise those two days, and I pointed my finger at either the Chancellor or the Chief Academic Officer representing that institution, and to each one, I said, “Are you in?” And I wouldn’t move until they said yes. [chuckle] So, they got real nervous, but anyway, I went from table to table until all said yes, and so, we knew we were moving forward at that point. So…

0:05:55.9 TS: Such a wonderful…

0:05:56.3 PS: There was no turning back, Tom.


0:06:00.6 TS: Yeah, and we’ll unpack in a moment for our listeners, all that’s been achieved since then, but I remember, Paula, that I think we began using GPS with six or seven institutions and have 14 now, is that correct?

0:06:13.1 PS: We do, we started with seven. And the interesting thing is, those 14 now, they represent institutions that came to us and heard about the work that we were doing, the completion work we were doing, and they asked to be a part of it. And so, that was really gratifying. These are community colleges and universities, some of which are not under the same governing board, so they don’t operate under the same governance system, and to be able to get all of that agreement to work together with those kinds of governance issues and… They had not worked in a partnership like that before, it was quite a step forward. And what we’ve learned is that it doesn’t always take being under the same governance board. It takes dedication and a commitment and a belief that students deserve this kind of work, that the goals outweigh any of the other struggles that we might have to get board approval for this, for that. And so, it really… It’s an incredible thing, because of that fact and also the fact that some of these institutions have never partnered with, particularly, the University of Houston.

0:07:37.3 PS: And I would say that the fact the University of Houston stepped up to move this forward was very significant. When the flagship or the tier one research university in a city or in a system or in an area, in a region, ’cause we consider ourselves a regional Houston GPS, when they step up and say, “We will change because we’re often viewed as unwilling to be flexible and unwilling to work with other institutions,” when we said… When someone said, “Well, I don’t know if this will work because we are never able to get our students who transfer in your engineering programs to have these particular courses fill.” And I said to them, “They will now.”

0:08:25.2 TS: That was so extraordinary. You’re absolutely right. And, yes, as we have conversations all around the country with our Moon Shot for Equity, which we’ll talk about in a moment. It’s always the case that that key four-year institution standing up and exemplifying that kind of leadership, it signals to everybody. And I mean no disrespect, Paula, but in many places, it’s sorta like the big research one has often been the difficult actor on the block, right? Unwilling to make the changes necessary to really create the student success pathways that we need across regions. When they stand up, when you stood up and said, “We will make those changes. We will make those tough choices. We are with you,” and then you followed up on it, Paula, by aligning mathematics to majors, not just at your institution or your system, but across the entire Houston area as your first accomplishment of Houston GPS. Can you tell us that story about how your mathematicians got involved in that?

0:09:23.2 PS: Well, that was very important because that was an early win, and it was… Actually, the team was led by the University of Houston, Math Department Chair.

0:09:33.7 TS: Right.

0:09:35.7 PS: So, [chuckle] that was very significant, very symbolic of our willingness to change. And it also showed that we could do it because there are other integrated strategies, research base from the game changer that we were implementing, and they saw that it can be done. And I think that gave a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of synergy towards working together to implement the other strategies. And I’ll also say that one of the main… One of the big things we also did and I give credit to Tom Sugar [chuckle] for this, which was, we decided early on, we wanted a written commitment, a memorandum of understanding signed by all of the Chancellors and Presidents of our partner institutions. And that MOU listed those integrated strategies for completion. And they had to understand that and be willing to do what it takes to implement those, to sign their name on that document. And so, we have that and we’ve used that. We have said to a person at an institution, “Your President agreed to this.” And so, those leverages are very important, but they also are very symbolic of the institution’s commitment.

0:11:00.6 TS: And thanks for your compliment, Paula.

0:11:01.9 PS: And that was a great, Tom.

0:11:03.3 TS: Well, I was proud to draft it, but you were the leader who said, “Yes, we agree to this and we will lead the charge on it.” And so, like all the things, teamwork makes the dream work, right? And…

0:11:12.9 PS: Absolutely.

0:11:13.2 TS: Our collaboration has been a wonderful thing. I’m glad you brought the MOU up, Paula, because when I break down the essential elements to be able to replicate ecosystem structures like this around the country, as I said, the leadership of the big research one flagship institution was critical. I think the MOU was too, because it signaled a real intentionality about the work. It wasn’t sort of just flowery rhetoric and hopes and dreams. It was hard, measurable work that was clearly laid out, that had to be agreed to at their highest levels in order to proceed with it. And I… There have been a couple times where, as you suggested, people felt like they were getting a little bit off course and then you were able to pull that MOU out and go, “Wait a second now. [chuckle] We know where we’re going.”


0:12:02.6 PS: “This is what you agreed to. This is what your President agreed to.” So yes, it’s a very powerful thing that we did, that would be a lesson to others as they think about bringing institutions together.

0:12:15.4 TS: Right.

0:12:16.2 PS: And it is that top level commitment. I know that our President, President Renu Khator, at the very first… End of the very first two-day gathering invited all her fellow Chancellors and Presidents and Tom Sugar and Stan Jones to join everyone for dinner. And I think that also was important for the other Chancellors and Presidents to see our President in a leadership role saying, “This is important,” and to be able to talk about her vision for the university and for the region. That was very powerful, also.

0:12:53.1 TS: Renu’s been a wonderful partner every step of the way. I’m so glad you mentioned her. It’s absolutely true. You know, when I think back on how far we’ve come… You were the first, as far as I know, to ever create an ecosystem of this size around a central idea, I guess, for motivating memorandum understanding. And so, like everything, when you break new ground, there are lessons learned along the way. And we certainly tried to apply some of those lessons to the design the Moon Shot, which you also helped design. But as you reflect on it now, Paula, if we were starting all over again, is there anything you would do differently now?

0:13:31.9 PS: Well, I am pleased that in following the basic tenets that we know from how important implementation is, any idea can run amuck if your plan to implement is not a good, thorough, well thought out plan. And I think the fact that we planned well going in. I like to move quickly. And so, spending a long time planning is just not in my DNA, so I learned very quickly through this, the importance of that for something this deeply into the culture of an institution of higher education and also with partnerships that we planned well. We put structures in place. We knew people had to learn and know what an intrusive advising and plan choice was. We knew that they needed to know what that looked like. We knew they needed to know what the redesign of remedial education looked like. We knew they needed to know what the math pathways aligned with the curriculum looked like. So we planned really excellent convenings, which is a model that CCA has used, well symposia, well Policy. Institutes, I mean, we knew policy needed to change. So, we planned to educate people while we engaged them in their own planning for their own institution. And we did that across the institution.

0:15:18.8 PS: So, I think the taskforce idea, the institutional team idea, and definitely one of the things we learned quickly, is you must have achieved cheerleader body of your campuses. There is the banner, who will rally the troops. You can’t say enough about energy and enthusiasm towards an idea, because we all get lost in the day-to-day, whatever it is, we were hard to do to begin with. And so, I think that really quality structure with symposia and content experts and opportunities for each campus to see how that made sense to them. And to audit their own efforts in that regard of how much where they doing or not doing in terms of intrusive advising. That led to the strategies, that led to, how do we do it? And then how do we measure it?

0:16:18.6 TS: That’s right, and you gotta show people in the right direction to go in, but you also gotta give them a technical assistance to know how to do the work. And you know, Paula, that wasn’t enough for you, [chuckle] which is so classic for you. But you now become a national advisor, key mentor with Georgia State. And we were delighted to have Tim Renick on our podcast…

0:16:38.3 PS: Oh, yeah.

0:16:39.0 TS: Recently. But you both are… Joined forces to support EAB’s new Moon Shot for Equity Initiative. And we’re so appreciative of that. For our listeners who don’t know about the Moon Shot, let me, spend one moment. You know, the wonderful stuff that Paula’s been talking about with regard to the design of Houston GPS, it’s really served as the inspiration for sort of the next giant leap in our country. I would unpack the essential elements that Paula and Tim Renick represent, that the key things that one must have in order to replicate their success into three key buckets. Number one, you have to have uniquely committed leaders who know how to manage change and sustain change. You have to collaboratively and simultaneously across an entire region implement the best practices and policies that we have been shown to be absolutely necessary through evidence and research to boost students’ success. And you have to do those things simultaneously and collaboratively, because they’re synergistic with one another. For example, if you’re doing a remediation reform, but you don’t align mathematics to majors, you’re gonna fall short.

0:17:53.8 TS: And thirdly, you have to have technology to do the proactive advising that you referred to, Paula, to allow you to put students on how you structured your green maps and monitor their progress. To create stronger communities of care and support around these students, especially students, most left behind. And you have all of those things and more, but you also today have to do one more big thing. You have to put all of that work now in the framework of equity-mindedness, right? We now know the elimination of equity gaps is possible, and so we must aim higher. We must decide that that is our new measure of success for the college completion movement. And Paula, you just did that. In advance of becoming a National Advisor to the Moon Shot for Equity, you created and laid down a unified goal among the entire Houston GPS. For the first time you said, “You may all have your own individual goals, but we now all have to share this one. That before this decade is out, we are going to work with all we’ve got to eliminate equity gaps across the Houston GPS consortium.” What was that conversation like? That moment of challenge to your fellow leaders.

0:19:08.0 PS: Well, I think that… I think we knew it was time but I think because this is such a diverse region, and we knew that we were not doing what we should do for all students and, in a sense, that became we’re not moving to the next level. I tend to look at things in the bigger picture: Economic development in this region, the number of our citizens that have some type of post-secondary credential. If you begin, and I was gonna mention this earlier, data are so critical and data will tell you very quickly, “Well, you may be raising this graduation rate for this group but the graduation or retention rate for this group is not what it should be.” And so those numbers began to really provide a wake-up call and that’s when we said, “We have got to go and do the Equity Walk. We have got to make what we do help everyone and for the survival of the region, for just the quality of life for our citizens in this region.” And we looked at the number of people with postsecondary credentials and, Tom, you know how horrifying that was for us. So starting on that and then quickly moving over time to really embracing the equity agenda, it was just a natural progression because of what our overall goal was.

0:20:48.4 PS: And so we now have and we are using equity measures. We are reporting those. That’s where the technology is so important and data sharing, which was one of our main pieces of our component parts of Houston GPS is the technology solution. And frankly, that’s where EAB has been just incredible with the Student Success Collaborative. We can’t do this without it. But we have now embraced and we’re moving forward with working with USC’s Equity Center on doing a camp… We’re all gonna be doing campus audits. We are looking… We’ve been looking at those data. We’ve already started seeing some numbers increase but we’ve gotta do more. So we’re doing policy audits, all those things that really begin to address your policies, your structure, the idea that you need to take a deep dive to make sure that there’s nothing inhibiting all of your students from being successful and I see a growing commitment among the faculty as we work on this. I see a commitment and I see an embracing of what we’re calling our Equity Walk agenda, our Moon Shot with EAB as all connected together with the difference that we’re trying to make in the Houston region.

0:22:15.4 TS: That’s wonderful, Paula.

0:22:15.8 PS: So it was a natural progression for us but one for which we’re very committed.

0:22:20.0 TS: Yeah. I like to say that it doesn’t matter which road you travel. If you’re inspired by concerns about workforce and economic development, if you’re inspired by social justice, if you are simply made aware of the demographic changes in the country and are concerned about maintaining enrollment at your institution at the levels you want, all roads lead to equity and that’s all there is to it. And I love that because there’s this moment where all of these synergistic motivations can come together and that’s gonna be what’s required in a moment like this to achieve our Moon Shot before the decade is up. And so I’m so, so, so proud and pleased that you’re a part of it and thank you again for your willingness to lead. Isn’t it ironic that Houston, of course, famous in space lore is a leader in the Moon Shot? The other thing I wanted to mention, Paula, is it doesn’t surprise me at all but it’s just one more example of how you and Tim think so much alike. When I was having a similar conversation with Tim, he pointed out, “Tom, it isn’t just technology. It’s data and technology working together,” just like you said, Paula.

0:23:27.9 PS: Right. Absolutely.

0:23:28.0 TS: So I thank you for that. I thank you for that. Well, I wanted to share real quickly with our listeners and with you just a quick update on where the Moon Shot for Equity is progressing around the country. And it’s an exciting moment for listeners who might be interested in learning more about how you can receive Paula’s assistance and Tim Renick’s assistance firsthand as part of the Moon Shot for Equity where we’re looking for seven regions around the country to become the next Houston GPSs or Georgia State Atlantas. Denver, Los Angeles, Eastern Oregon, Southern Oregon, New Jersey, South Dakota, Kentucky, Virginia, Western Michigan, Charleston, Boston, Las Vegas, Paula, all of them are looking very seriously at Moon Shot for Equity in their regions and so we’ve got lots of wonderful opportunities to find our next six.

0:24:19.7 PS: That’s exciting, Tom. That really is truly exciting and what an impact that will be.

0:24:24.1 TS: Well, I just wanna…

0:24:24.9 PS: It will be an honor to work with this.

0:24:27.0 TS: Thank you, Paula. And I hold up your example every day when I challenge regions to follow your lead and that’s also, I think, an important point about leadership. You began with the Coalition of the Willing in Houston and you did the work. And as you said, if people felt called to join you, they eventually said, “You know, we’ve heard about this wonderful thing and we wanna be a part of it.” And so your ecosystem has grown over time just as I know this will be the case in all of these new ecosystems around the country.

0:25:00.9 PS: Absolutely, absolutely.

0:25:01.9 TS: Well, give some final advice Paula, if you don’t mind, to leaders, your fellow leaders. The journey you’ve walked in, your own life, your own personal inspirations. We know how you feel about students but still you’re unique especially, seven, eight years ago, 10 years ago, to be among the first with these very very strong commitments to think and even more boldly and broadly than your own institution, to set aside your individual institution’s personal interests and institutional interests and think more broadly. What are all those key motivations that you call upon to do it? What would be your advice for similar leaders who are thinking about taking a giant leap like you did?

0:25:44.6 PS: Well, I think that they need to understand that people are looking to them and the way that they embrace the narrative that that creates, the language that that creates around this, they will know if it’s sincere or if it’s not. And I urge you to remember that because I think that people see that and they’re drawn to people that they believe have a passion but they’re sincere, but also can help provide a road map. I think often people don’t take action or see how in the world we’ll overcome the fact that you’re in this system and we’re in this system and you’re this and you’re that without someone who can help define the steps or help define the way forward. I think that that often stymies partners, that often stymies large change initiatives, initiates that they don’t see a way forward. And that can be simple at first, just the way people can say, “Okay, I can get on board with that. I see the role that I play.” And the other is acknowledge what people have already done and give them a voice in helping to move it forward.

0:27:01.1 PS: Don’t lead to the belief that everybody’s doing it wrong and you’ve come to give them the right answer, because it’s amazing how you can engage people. And that’s what you want, engagement. They have to be engaged to feel ownership. So I think things leaders do that create that, that invite people that say, “We honor what you know and share what you know,” give them an opportunity but then you move forward with the shared decision-making about what you will do as an entity. I think all of those things, some of those were lessons learned, but also as a leader, read Kotter’s work on change. Know change management, understand that. That was very helpful to me in the background that I have to be able to bring that to the process and understand that those of us that may be working with you, we’ll learn from you so never hesitate to show what you know and if you have a new idea, a new way of doing it, that’s the way we grow and change and really become flexible in this change process. So that, Tom, would be what I would say at this point.

0:28:15.2 TS: Well, thank you, Paula. You always bring your whole self to everything you do and when I hear your strong advocacy for students, I’m reminded that you began your work in a K-12 classroom and so you came up through every aspect of education, always driven by your heart and that brilliant mind of yours to accomplish so much. But I would say one final thing about [0:28:37.7] ____ Paula Short. You’ve always been among people who chose to lead. You saw a problem and you didn’t wait for others to take the first step. In my conversations from coast to coast about the Moon Shot for Equity, I’m discovering Paula Short in lots of places. And it’s the favorite part of my job, Paula, because they’re just standing there right on the edge and the Moon Shot gives them a design and an aspirational goal, and they often say, “Tom, this is the thing we’ve been looking for especially in this moment when we’re all so focused on equity. It slides right in and it gives us the design and the intentionality we’re looking for to take the leap we want to take. I’m ready. I’m going to be that leader.” And that was exactly how Houston GPS unfolded but it all began, Paula, with your willingness to say, “I will be that leader.” Higher education has a unique role here. And so, my dear friend, thank you so much for what you do every day for Houston, your institution, your region, and for now the country through the Moon Shot for Equity.

0:29:48.0 PS: Thank you, Tom. Again, I’m honored to be a part of this. This is exciting.

0:29:53.2 TS: Well, for those who want to know more about the Moon Shot for Equity and Paula’s work, I invite you to go to and do reach out to us if you’re interested in forming an ecosystem in your own region. This is the next wave of change in higher education, and we look forward to talking to you about it. Thanks for joining us today.


0:30:21.8 MP: Thank you for listening. Join us next week when EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer talks to journalist Jon Marcus. You’ve probably read Jon’s work in The Washington Post, USA Today, Time Magazine or, more recently, in The Hechinger Report. The two will talk about a subject near and dear to all of us: How to reverse enrollment declines. Until next week, thank you for joining us on Office Hours with EAB.

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