It was over a cup of coffee in Indianapolis that I told Tom Sugar about my new position as Provost at the University of Houston. I was attending one of the Complete College America Academies, and we had just taken a break. Tom and I discussed CCA’s mission, and I invited him to visit Houston to think big with me. He agreed.

During his visit three years ago, a large group of representatives gathered to discuss for the first time a bold, new vision for higher education across the entire Houston area.

Teams from public community colleges in Houston, along with representatives from the UH campuses, started digging into the tough data on Houston college students.

The numbers revealed that – like pretty much everywhere else in America – higher education in Houston takes too long to complete. Very few students graduate on time. It costs too much, and students graduate with too many excess credits. And, finally, too few students ever actually graduate, especially minority, low-income, and first-generation students.

Houston’s numbers are no different than other large metro areas in the country, where – on average – not even half of students get 4-year degrees within 6 years or at community colleges where they struggle to reach just double-digit graduation rates within 3 years.

Unlike many other institutions, though, the leaders that gathered that day in 2014 were ready to own their results, not hide them.

We discussed the many challenges that lay before our students – the barriers to their completion. We talked about how College Algebra had turned into a killer of college dreams; we discussed traditional remediation as higher education’s bridge to nowhere; and most importantly, we set out to find solutions.

We brought in Larry Abele, the former provost of Florida State University, who showed us how he hit historic graduation rates at Florida State University. He did this by using highly structured degree maps with milestone courses and, most importantly, wiped away achievement gaps, allowing African Americans and Hispanic students to graduate at the same rates as white students.

We heard insights on Corequisite Remediation: full-credit, college-level courses that keep students moving at full speed while providing them the needed extra support.

And we talked about the successes many of our institutions were already seeing through similar strategies.

Following the meeting that afternoon, Complete College America released a draft Memorandum of Understanding, unprecedented in its scope and unmatched in its ambition, for the consideration of the leadership teams and faculty.

In it, institutions were asked to do the following:

  • Make sure students take the right math that is relevant and connected to their dreams,
  • Give them the help they need inside college courses because our best intentions are failing them,
  • Make sure they take enough credits each year to graduate on time because time is money and college must be more affordable,
  • Structure schedules to make them more predictable from semester to semester because balancing work and school is exhausting, often causing full-time enrollment to degrade to first part-time and then to no time at all,
  • And build clear, direct pathways of courses – and automatically register students on them – because too many are overwhelmed with choices and aimlessly wander the course catalog before disappearing all together. Students trust the expertise of faculty and advisors and want that expertise in making course decisions.

I was all in.

And a few months later, after consultations on our campuses and through some slight negotiations with us, our presidents and chancellors committed our institutions to this historic vision as well. Houston GPS was born.

Today, our work continues. All of the original partners remain committed to our work, and we’ve now added Texas Southern University to our ranks.

We’re working every day to ensure the best possible education for Houston students, and we’re confident Houston GPS will deliver.