Why Achieving the Dream will expand focus to economic mobility

Community college nonprofit that was one of the pioneers of the student success movement is now shifting its focus to include social and economic mobility. We talked with the group’s CEO about why.

Achieving the Dream, a pioneer in the student success movement, is moving to include social and economic mobility in its work—with a goal for two-year colleges to be community hubs for an equitable economic recovery.

Founded in 2004, Achieving the Dream was one of the first nonprofits with a mission of helping more community college students get to graduation. Today, it works with a network of 300 two-year colleges and systems, which collectively enroll 4 million students. With an approach grounded in data, equity, and continuous improvement, it offers a suite of supports while bringing faculty members and college leaders together to share what works on student success.

The group is looking to be ambitious in its next phase, thanks to the $20 million grant it received last year from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist. We talked with Karen Stout, Achieving the Dream’s president and CEO, about why the organization is pivoting to focus more squarely on social and economic mobility.

Q: Will it be a heavy lift to redefine community college as hubs with expanded access?

Stout: Access is in the DNA of community colleges. But these times require a new approach. Some community colleges still look at moving students through the traditional inquiry process and enrollment management pathway using an approach modeled after those used by four-year colleges with selective admissions. We can’t wait for people to “choose” us; we need to go to them—particularly disconnected youth who are leaving high school early and/or not moving into a postsecondary pathway after high school. We also need to reach adult learners in new ways to connect them to credentials and pathways that lead to upskilling and reskilling. These learners are often not on the radar of the workforce development agencies we traditionally partner with.

Some colleges are leaning into this bold new access agenda.

Broward College, for example, took a hard look at where the institution is physically located in relationship to enrollment and demographics in specific ZIP Codes. The college determined that the neighborhoods with the highest unemployment and economic need were the neighborhoods where they were least present. Led by a dynamic president, Greg Haile, the college worked with nearly 50 partners, including municipalities, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and other local agencies to provide free educational opportunities, workforce training and support services—including 26 new locations in those neighborhoods. Since 2018, they have served almost 3,000 individuals and awarded more than 2,084 workforce-ready certificates and industry certifications.

As Haile says: in the future we must make it impossible for every resident, every child, and every adult not to realize the possibility for postsecondary education. We must make the community college experience inescapable for those who need us most.

Blue Ridge Community College in North Carolina has paired their adult re-engagement work with free college, by pulling together 14 strands of financial aid funding, public and private, for tuition, fees, books, child care, and emergency aid for 400 adults who had 50 percent of the work toward a credential completed but had stopped out in the last five years. Currently, 400 adults are in the program. Blue Ridge also paired its re-engagement and retention strategies by hiring success coaches with caseloads of 200 students. The success coaches check-in on these learners weekly and ensure that they have just-in-time supports to stay on track. The program has a 94 percent retention rate. The college also has an attractive mix of programs matched to the labor market. President Laura Leatherwood is now looking at ways to scale and sustain the funding for this approach.

The heavy part of the lift right now is what the colleges and communities are facing. The health of our community colleges goes hand in hand with the health of the communities they serve and shape. In addition to declining enrollments (which strain budgets given the tuition dependency of many of our two-year institutions), community colleges are facing financial pressures as federal COVID relief that has supported tuition and associated attendance costs sunset in 2023. Structural, process, and attitudinal shifts also are required to redesign intake and advising systems and to blend siloed credit and non-credit entry points into the college so there is one portal for entry that leads learners of all ages and intentions into customized support pathways. 

Our belief at ATD is that community colleges are uniquely positioned to be the center, the hub, of the community infrastructure required for upward mobility and economic growth. Our colleges need to think differently about how they move into their communities and how they redesign access via their physical proximity to learners and via technology.

Q: How much soul searching does the sector need to do on the AA degree? And what conversations are needed to properly balance the transfer and workforce development missions?

A: The soul searching we need to do starts with identifying the needs of students and communities rather than degrees.  In fact, I think we are in a period where we need to deconstruct and rebuild what we mean by degrees in general.   

For some, the AA degree and transfer is still a solid path—I don’t want to dismiss the value of that path, particularly given what we know about the overall benefits of baccalaureate degree attainment.  However, for the AA degree pathway to remain of value, our colleges must adopt bachelors’ degree completion, not transfer in and out itself, as a metric of success. We know we are hurting students who attain credits at the community college but don’t earn a credential and then transfer and don’t earn a bachelors’ degree. So, the AA degree pathway cannot be a catchall for “undecided students” who accumulate unnecessary credits before finding their chosen pathway, because we know while many students indicate their intention to transfer, many don’t. 

That isn’t a problem with the degree as much as it is a problem with our design of supports for transfer students. We need to do a better job with our advising and counseling early on to match students with programs and pathways and then ensure that students, particularly those who are on a longer pathway, have the supports they need, are gaining momentum early, and continuing to progress. We also must have the data and mechanisms—and frankly a culture of caring—to intervene when students are faltering, to identify why and help them get back on path. And, ultimately, we need to know that students on a particular path who persist and complete are then able to move into good careers or further education. If that is not the case—either due to credit loss in transfer or lack of market demand or good paying jobs in certain fields—then we need to seriously reconsider how we advise and counsel our students. 

The larger issue here is that we really need to keep rethinking about the relationship between our colleges and the lived experiences of our students. We need to make sure that the general education curriculum that anchors the degree is in line with the future of work and citizenship so that students are continually building their knowledge base and skills that will benefit them all through the process. We also need to recognize that for many of our students the path through education to employment is not a straight line. We can bring some of the applied learning from our AAS and CTE programs into the design of the AA degree to help students earn affirmation of the workforce-based skills and knowledge they are attaining as they move through their programs. 

To me, transfer is workforce development. Our institutions continue to create unnecessary walls between the two functions in the design of their organizational structures, student supports, and in the way they go about program development. If we think that they are one and the same, the conversation moves to designing all programs and services to provide extended and continuing engagement, designed around a portfolio of programs that match the lifecycle of the education and training needs of our students, workers, and employers.

In the past, community colleges were lifelong-learning institutions. Now we must become lifelong career-matching institutions—a source of upskilling, a rational pathway to career development that weaves together opportunities for students to move in and out of work and school that is designed to progressively lead to a career in a particular field. That is true for students pursuing an AA degree or in a workforce development program. And it is particularly true for students who are racially or economically marginalized because we know that too often those students are disproportionately ending up in programs with less return on investment.

Q: How does ATD’s place-based focus help in this increasingly crowded space? And does the interest from funders create challenges?

A: When you think about it, the United States is a place-based country. Americans move less often now than they did at any time since the 1980s. And among those who have moved, approximately two-thirds (65 percent) are local with an additional 17 percent of moves being in state. It’s the same for colleges. The American Council on Education recently found that the median distance between home and college for community college students is eight miles. For public four-year colleges, it is only 18 miles. And even at private four-year institutions, the distance was 46 miles. People want to go to college where they work and have families, and increasingly they will want college to come to them, with more online degrees.

Given this desire to be close to home and, by necessity in the past few years, to learn at home, it makes sense for institutions to focus on how we are helping students achieve economic and social mobility in their local communities. That’s the new metric that we need to use to measure the success of the community college. What impact do we have on the economic and social mobility of the student, the family, and the community? 

Our colleges are well-positioned to leverage their localness to make a big difference in the community.  This “localness” positions them to create trusted partnerships with employers and governments that can transform the economic context of their community and to make the local economy work for more people.  

At Lorain County Community College in Ohio, for example, the college worked with employers to identify local jobs in high demand that pay a living wage and the credentials needed to get those positions. Then, working with churches, foodbanks, and other community organizations, the college reached out to unemployed workers and other jobseekers to help them access these programs. As a result, enrollment in career and technical education at the college increased by over 30 percent. This is a great example of leveraging localness.

A host of great organizations work on workforce development at a national or even regional level. But our deep engagement with colleges puts ATD in a unique position to help build out a place-based approach to workforce development. We are looking at ways that we can help colleges build the skills to develop stronger partnerships to tackle the systemic barriers to economic success, and to lead the change required to create real economic inclusion. We are also working to help colleges align their credentialing opportunities with local labor market needs, integrate credentialing into degree pathways, and support job placement.

Philanthropy can be particularly important in supporting this work, particularly when it is embedded and supportive of locally oriented initiatives. For instance, with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, we have launched a new regional Professional Learning Communities project which brings together high school educators, community college faculty, workforce development professionals, community-based organizations, and employers to identify gaps in local education pipelines that are preventing low-income young people from achieving economic mobility.

We also are using grant funding to address how to increase workforce success in rural communities while working toincrease the capacity of rural colleges in seven states to provide future-ready skills and to connect students with sustainable careers in the digital economy. The initiative aims to build a deeper understanding about how rural colleges and their partners can promote the economic mobility of students and the vitality of their communities.

I see greater alignment in the funding community around these opportunities. Yet, I do believe that our colleges, especially at this moment when they are working so hard with limited capacity just to stay in place, can get overwhelmed with delivering on project after project if they do not have a cohesive framework to connect all the efforts to their larger student success and workforce goals. Achieving the Dream helps colleges create coherence across what can feel like an overwhelming set of isolated programs designed to meet well-intentioned objectives of external partners. Without being connected and strategically integrated into a coherent system of reforms, these efforts often are not scalable with the cumulative impact they could achieve. We work with colleges to use data to ask important questions that lead institutions to knit together scattered reform efforts and to break down the silos of unsustainable project-based work that can lead to reform fatigue and become a distraction that keep an institution from gaining traction on their core objectives.

Q: Why is it so hard to create meaningful relationships with employers—so community college leaders can ensure that jobs are awaiting their graduates?

A: Community colleges are moving to better understand the marketplace and link courses and training to specific knowledge and competencies that employers seek. But I’d guess that only 20 percent of community colleges are exceptional at this and have the kinds of relationships with employers that work for everyone.

Often there is a capacity challenge—in many cases, on both sides of the equation. Community colleges face resource challenges, in some cases they are losing talent to more lucrative fields (sometimes to the very employers they are trying to partner with). And in an effort to focus on students’ immediate needs, embedding alignment of the student experience within a workforce framework is not always a priority. For many, it is an institutional blind spot, which, is in part why we are placing more emphasis on this area in our work with colleges.

By the same token, employers have capacity challenges as well. We tend to think about “employers” as if they are all Amazon, Google, or Walmart, but many simply do not have the talent development capacity of these large corporations to devote to working with community colleges and other partners.

On top of that, big employers are not often connected to the community college as a whole, as place-based institutions, or to community needs. Corporate partnerships too often take place business-unit-by-business-unit and on an ad hoc basis. Employers don’t know who to work with at the college level and their regional corporate representatives often rotate in and out of communities. You invest time and often must start the relationship all over as the people change.

Another challenge is that colleges, in their desire to be valuable partners to employers, often over deliver. Think about the drain this over-delivery places on college resources. For example, the college could find itself easily overestimating demand for new business-aligned programs. The college takes the leap and develops short-term programs and/or customized applied associate degrees, but employers can’t meet the promise of bringing students into the programs and they collapse.

And when the Amazons, Googles, and Walmarts look at community colleges as a source of training to meet national needs for diverse talent, a few things work against the relationship. Most notably, community colleges operate independently and locally, and it is not easy to scale up support on a national level. A fast-moving company doesn’t have the patience to piece together solutions community-college-by-community-college. Many of us have tried to create a scalable national platform for corporations to plug into, but there is a lot more work to be done in that area.

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