A New Role for Higher Education: An Actionable Framework to Drive Regional Ecosystem Alignment

After 10 months of work with 11 higher education leaders across the country, we offer higher education and ecosystem leaders a framework and resources to start aligning regional stakeholders and partners towards building a truly equitable future.

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Ecosystem alignment is critical to a more equitable future

In today’s rapidly changing economy, stakeholders ranging from higher education institutions, community-based organizations, policymakers, workforce development programs, and employers are all grappling with the challenges of evolving traditional approaches to meet the changing needs of workers and learners. However, as the education and employment landscape continues to adapt to advanced technologies and the impacts of the global pandemic, it is no longer possible to work in isolation. In fact, it is both obstructive and harmful—perpetuating gaps in wealth, access, opportunity, and outcome.

Higher education’s alignment within a regional ecosystem is a call for partnerships that are collaborative and proactive and driven by a shared vision. It is a call to close racial and economic opportunity gaps that deeply affect us all. The 2021 cohort of Designers in Residence at the Lab believe that it is imperative that higher education and its leaders seek opportunities to more effectively partner across regional ecosystems through building a resilient internal infrastructure, leveraging influence, and investing in and incentivizing innovation.

What is a regional ecosystem and what is ecosystem alignment? Who is a leader?

Regional ecosystems:
A series of relationships, networks, and stakeholders connected by a common geography, shared identity, or collective goal. We use the term ecosystem to imply that there are multiple interconnected and often evolving relationships, dependencies, and connection points across stakeholders.

Ecosystems alignment:
The process by which organizations, institutions, and stakeholders within an ecosystem build: clear communication and feedback channels; a shared understanding of goals, vision, and language; a common set of metrics and process to evaluate progress to goals. Aligned ecosystems are comprised of formal and informal partnerships across stakeholders connected in this shared vision and understanding of goals.


In this work, we refer to “leaders” as designers and decision-makers with power to change processes, systems, and the experience of stakeholders within their college, university, or region. These leaders may include presidents, provosts, deans, and heads of workforce and innovation.


Are you a leader seeking to strengthen partnerships and set collaborative action steps across stakeholders?

Start conversations and set priorities for change with our Ecosystem Self-Assessment.

A tool for leaders of community-based organizations, education institutions, and workforce development agencies who seek to align their ecosystem with an equitable future state in work, vision, and goals.

This Self-Assessment is designed to catalyze conversations between partners and stakeholders, plus provides space to prioritize goals and track next steps. We offer both a built-in guide for facilitators (Google Slides) and a downloadable workbook (PDF) for varying methods of engagement.

Download Facilitators Guide

Download Workbook


What is your regional ecosystem prioritizing? Where do you want to see your ecosystem grow?

If you'd like, share your name and email––we'd love the opportunity to connect and learn more.


Are you a higher ed leader wanting to strengthen partnerships toward economic mobility for all?

Start conversations and identify some starting points for change with our First Steps to Regional Transformation resource.

First Steps to Regional Transformation

An interactive resource and actionable framework that offers steps in implementing three levers for regional transformation. For each lever, we provide inquiry-based questions to dig deeper in understanding existing processes and systems, who is most affected by the outcomes of what exists, and what’s missing, alongside suggestions of short-term actions to kickstart each inquiry. We recommend using this resource after completion of the Ecosystems Self-Assessment, as we offer inquiry, ideas, and actions as first steps to build towards the elements of the future state that you, partners, and stakeholders have collectively identified as priorities. 

Access the Resource (or Explore It Below)

How are you putting one or more of these levers into action? What questions do you have for other ecosystems leaders about your work?

Please include the name of the initiative or partnership and any relevant links. And, if you'd like, share your name and email––we'd love the opportunity to connect and learn more.

Downloadables + Assets for Sharing this Work

How to Cite

We hope that this work inspires a broader community of practice around systems-level work led by higher education. We hope that you use the resources and framework we’ve developed to start conversations and test what it might look like to align on understanding before driving towards the future.

In sharing these resources, we ask that you keep our logos where they are, maintain our branding, and offer a link to this page ( so that others might find this work and our Designers in Residence who collectively developed it.

Background + Acknowledgements

The work shared here is the resulting outcome of the Lab’s Designers in Residence program spanning June 2021 – March 2022. The program brought together a design team of 11 visionary thinkers and doers from postsecondary institutions across the United States to evolve and strengthen the role of colleges to be regional change agents to close economic and racial opportunity gaps. 

The Lab’s 2021 – 2022 Designers in Residence:

Adrian K. Haugabrook, Southern New Hampshire University
Ahmad Ezzeddinne, Wayne State University
Bonita Brown, Northern Kentucky University
Cameron McCoy, Shenandoah University
Chanel Fort, Stillman College
Ian Roark, Pima Community College
Jairo McMican, Central Carolina Community College
Michael Baston, Rockland Community College
Nicole McDonald, University of Houston
Rose Rojas, Maricopa Community Colleges
Stacy Townsley, Ivy Tech Community College

Learn More + Meet the Designers in Residence

A big thank you to those that contributed to and led this work!

Thank you to our cohort of leaders for questioning, reflecting, and collaborating to reimagine the future of our national higher ed system and how we can get there. And, thank you for your trust, openness, and partnership in this work, and for each of your leadership in this new community. Thank you to Leah Moschella for her authorship and expertise in developing the framework and tools shared here, and for cultivating a community of care and shared learning through her leadership of this cohort. Thank you to Kenna Fallan for her partnership and expertise in thought, product, and practice, including the visualization and development of the ideas and learnings surfaced. Thank you to Kevin Stump, Roseline Pandian, Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle, Nishita Chheda, and additional members of the Lab team who aided in the development of this work. This initiative was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Equity- and justice-centered organizations and people we're learning from.

Additionally, we want to thank and wholeheartedly acknowledge the work of antiracism, equity, and inclusion experts that we’ve learned from over the course of the development of this work, namely in reshaping our process and approach, alongside the language we use to talk about our work and those that we work with. These experts include: 

Creative Reaction Lab //
Dr. Christine Marie Ortiz Guzman, Equity Meets Design //
Equity Design Collaborative //

Our learning in how to best align our work and how we show up to it with antiracist, anti-oppression, and restorative justice efforts is a lifelong journey, and we welcome feedback, suggestions, and sharing of resources in service of a shared mission to design for equity, and ultimately, true growth, belonging, and agency of each of our experiences and livelihoods.


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