Exploring Cross-Functional Teams in Higher Education

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By Henri Santos, Caitlin Anzelone, Erica Gonzales, Hyun Deog Seo

While higher education provides a pathway to opportunity in America, many postsecondary institutions have low graduation rates, especially those that provide access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Race and income are too often predictors of student success.

Colleges and universities must change in order to improve these realities, and to promote that change, the Gates Foundation invests in learning about how institutions transform. Such transformation can take many forms, including new policies, programs, or services that aim to increase access to higher education and improve the quality of that education. However, transformation efforts are hard for a variety of reasons.

One major challenge that institutions face when launching transformation efforts is that they operate in “silos,” meaning that they have separate departments—for example, student services, financial aid, and advising—that operate independently with little communication or coordination. Many successful transformation efforts include a core group of people who are working together to influence outcomes on a specific issue. The decentralized nature of most colleges can create challenges to implementing a shared vision and making progress that students can see. Siloed teams may not have access to all the information needed to address a problem adequately, and multiple teams may implement contradictory solutions.

Cross-functional teams (CFTs) are one potential response to the problem of silos. CFTs are defined as staff members from different functional areas working together to achieve common institutional goals. Bringing together members with different specialties can lead to faster transfers of knowledge, fewer redundancies, and higher-quality decisions. But CFTs do not always work effectively: they may have unclear governance, a lack of accountability, or unclear goals. There has been little research on CFTs in the context of higher education, so the Gates Foundation engaged MDRC to investigate the question.

Launched in 2021, this project explores how institutions are assembling and using CFTs to advance their transformation efforts. MDRC partnered with three community colleges and one state agency overseeing higher education to explore their efforts to create these cross-functional teams. The researchers set out to document the interpersonal dynamics of these teams and to pilot test a tool at one institution to address barriers to CFTs’ smooth operation. This brief shares descriptive findings and recommendations, with the goal of providing funders, researchers, and practitioners suggestions for future research.

Supplemental materials described in the brief are linked below:

Document Details

Publication Type
June 2024
Santos, Henri, Caitlin Anzelone, Erica Gonzales, and Hyun Deog Seo. 2024. “Exploring Cross-Functional Teams in Higher Education.” New York: MDRC.