There is an unstated subtext to the growing calls for colleges and universities to lower their costs. When colleges and universities are asked to lower their costs, what they are really being asked to do is lower their costs without decreasing quality. There is no other way to square cost concerns with the other major demand on higher education: to increase completion rates. When we talk about costs, what we’re actually talking about is productivity—increasing output for the same or lower cost.

As a general matter, the relationship between higher education costs and quality runs in the other direction. More spending—passed through to students and their families as costs—yields better outcomes. Changes in productivity—or differential productivity across institutions—complicate the picture by allowing dollars spent in some contexts to go farther than dollars spent in other contexts.

For years, productivity in higher education has changed relatively little. Yet three of the most promising student success initiatives in American higher education are also cost-effective. They’re productivity strategies.

Fixing leaks in the graduation pipeline. A number of institutions have used analysis of their students’ data to anticipate and address potential obstacles to student progression toward a degree. For example, by mining its student data, Georgia State University has identified micro-barriers that trip students up, such as temporary financial shortfalls and prerequisites that students retake multiple times. It has piloted solutions to those barriers—like small conditional grants and early advising interventions—and scaled them up if successful. Doing this has dramatically increased its retention and graduation rates—the latter has improved from 32 percent to 54 percent in a decade. Smoothing the path to graduation has saved students money and preserved tuition for Georgia State that would otherwise have been lost if a student dropped out. It has made the investments students and the state make in Georgia State far more productive.

Teaching with technology. Incorporating technology into instruction—through adaptive homework, flipped classrooms, active learning tools, and other means—offers previously unrealized opportunities for personalized feedback, student engagement, and progress monitoring and intervention. It provides all of this at an exceptionally low marginal cost for each additional student. Twenty years ago, the University of Central Florida began training faculty how to integrate technology into their courses. Now, nearly 78 percent of UCF students take courses in online or blended formats every year. Learning outcomes in online courses at UCF are about the same as those in face-to-face courses, and the outcomes in blended courses are better. Because of the lower marginal cost of these courses, UCF has nearly doubled its undergraduate enrollment—from 21,519 to 52,539—for at least $300 million less than it would have cost to do so with face-to-face courses. Although it is the least expensive research university in Florida, with tuition and fees of around $6,000, it has the third-highest graduation rate, at nearly 70 percent.

Smoothing the path between associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. UCF is also leading the way on the third productivity strategy: creating meaningful 2+2 options. Through DirectConnect to UCF, students at area two-year colleges, such as Valencia College, can automatically transfer to UCF with third-year status after earning their associate’s degree. Many states have transfer agreements. What makes DirectConnect special is the engagement between UCF and its partners to streamline the transition, instructionally and logistically. For example, at an annual Access Summit, faculty and staff from the DirectConnect partners gather for a full day of work on aligning policy, curriculum, and advising. Through this partnership, students can earn a bachelor’s degree for several thousand dollars less than it would cost to spend four-years at UCF. The state colleges, like Valencia, have increased the rate of associate degree attainment, in part because of the value proposition of a direct transfer to UCF. And UCF has ensured that it receives better prepared and, ultimately, more successful transfer students— the graduation rate for transfer students is only two points lower than that of students who start at UCF.

These strategies embody a different relationship between costs and outcomes than traditional approaches to higher education—they change productivity. With pressure mounting to improve both costs and outcomes, we can expect more colleges and universities to pursue them.