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The completion agenda evolves

Photo by Monica Bourgeau on Unsplash

Why Achieving the Dream, an original college completion group, is broadening its focus to include economic mobility. Also, how capacity is a problem for both two-year colleges and their employer partners, and a start-up’s take on borderless accreditation. (Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.)


Community Hubs

A nonprofit group that was a pioneer in helping more community college students get to graduation is expanding its focus to include social and economic mobility, with a goal for two-year colleges to be community hubs for an equitable economic recovery.

The pivot by Achieving the Dream is more evidence that efforts to close gaps in educational and workforce outcomes have become the next wave of the college completion reform movement, which itself built on the successful, decades-long push to widen student access to college.

Founded in 2004, Achieving the Dream works with a network of 300 two-year colleges and systems, which collectively enroll 4M students. With an approach grounded in data, equity, and continuous improvement, the group offers a suite of supports while bringing faculty members and college leaders together to share what works on student success.

It’s hard to judge the effectiveness of the college completion agenda the group helped lead with the Gates Foundation and its original funder, the Lumina Foundation. The gains have been uneven and controversial at times. But graduation and transfer rates have risen. And higher education largely has accepted its responsibility to try to move the needle, a policy priority embraced by state legislatures across the country.

Achieving the Dream can be ambitious with its just-announced shift in direction thanks in part to the $20M grant it received last year from MacKenzie Scott

Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream since 2015, says the group wants to address overlapping crises of collapsing community college enrollments and turmoil in the labor market. Solving either problem requires attention to both, she says, particularly for community colleges.

The two-year college sector needs a new approach to access by no longer waiting for students to come to them, says Stout, who formerly led Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County Community College. Instead, she says community colleges must bring education and job training to disconnected youth who have left the postsecondary pipeline as well as to working learners who need upskilling and reskilling:

“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.”

Stout responded to questions about the group’s vision for this work. To read the full exchange, click on over to Work Shift.

The fundamental goal for a more accessible hub model, Stout says, citing Gregory Haile, president of Broward College, is to “make the community college experience inescapable for those who need us most.” That work won’t be easy, she says. It requires structural and attitudinal shifts around student intake and advising systems, as well as blending the currently siloed entry points for credit and noncredit programs, so that two-year colleges have one entry portal for learners of all ages and intentions.

“In the past, community colleges were lifelong-learning institutions,” says Stout. “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.”

While Stout applauded growing philanthropic interest in the two-year college sector, she says typically cash-strapped and short-staffed community colleges can get overwhelmed with the growing number of economic mobility projects. The key to avoiding initiative fatigue, she says, is a “cohesive framework to connect all the efforts to their larger student success and workforce goals.”

Unlike many four-year institutions, workforce development and close ties to employers have long been a key part of the missions of community colleges. Yet Stout estimates that only one in five community colleges are exceptional at understanding the job market and linking courses and training to the specific needs of employers.

This “institutional blind spot” often is driven by capacity challenges, she says, on both sides of the education-to-work continuum:

“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.”

Josh Wyner is the founder and executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. He strongly backs the expanded focus by Achieving the Dream. Wyner says clear goals about which degrees and credentials community colleges aim to deliver—and which ones to de-emphasize—will have an impact on how they improve student access.

The Kicker: “If colleges recruit students and give them free tuition and nonacademic supports but don’t deliver value, enrollments will continue to decline over the long term,” he says. “Students want jobs. They want a better life. Colleges must deliver that to ensure sustained enrollments—aka access.”

Click here to read the Q&A with Karen Stout.

North Carolina Reconnect

Stout pointed to Blue Ridge Community College as a standout for re-engaging working learners with an effective form of free college. 

The North Carolina college pulled together 14 strands of financial aid, both public and private, to cover tuition, fees, books, childcare, and emergency aid for 400 students who had completed half of a credential but who left college during the last five years. The college also hired success coaches, who check in on these learners each week.

Blue Ridge’s re-engagement work has paid off. Its enrollment increased by 9 percent, with a 41 percent increase in adult students, Laura Leatherwood, president of the college, wrote in November. 

Work Shift published a recent article by Emily Thomas, a policy analyst at EdNC, on the success Blue Ridge and four other North Carolina community colleges are having with a broader student re-enrollment campaign, which has a focus on shorter-term, flexible, and affordable academic programs.

Early returns show that 753 students enrolled at one of the five colleges last fall through the campaign—a 6.3 percent yield among the 12,000 eligible students. By the end of the fall semester, 87 percent of those students had completed courses and 68 percent either completed a credential or enrolled this semester, Thomas reported.

Click over to Work Shift to read the piece from EdNC.

From Work Shift

Opinion: Industry-focused training has the power to reduce inequities
Opinion: Industry-focused training has the power to reduce inequitiesTraining programs focused on specific industries help people advance in their careers. Now, we know they can address racial disparities in employment, too, writes Deondre’ Jones of MDRC.

‘Borderless Accreditation’

This newsletter has looked at experiments with accreditation and quality assurance that are aimed at encouraging innovation in postsecondary education, particularly projects focused on workforce outcomes.

Woolf University is a part of this nascent flurry of creativity, but with a global focus. Joshua Broggi, the university’s CEO and founder, earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Oxford and later served on Oxford’s faculty.

“I became frustrated with the fact that creating new degree programs required so much time and bureaucracy,” Broggi says. “The costs of bureaucracy are passed on to students and slow down the pace of innovation in research, resulting in both student debt and stagnant degrees.”

Yet he says alternative providers too often are fast and loose, lacking sufficient quality standards to protect students. Likewise, while accreditation can offer those needed standards, the process typically is local in scope, which makes it difficult for universities to collaborate across borders.

As a solution to these challenges, Woolf University is designed as a “technology-based system for managing borderless accreditation and academic credit mobility,” Broggi says. Like Oxford, the university is organized as a college institution whose member colleges manage their own students and faculty but subscribe to the shared standards of the university.

The university currently is offering approval through the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS). So far it has colleges in seven countries. Woolf is beginning to work in the U.S., and Broggi says opportunities for growth are particularly good in India and Latin America.

The India-based Applied Roots is one of Woolf’s new colleges. It offers online graduate courses in applied AI and machine learning through Indian universities and plans to add a master’s in computer science with Woolf. ECTS approval gives Applied Roots credibility and the academic flexibility to deliver industry-relevant, academically rigorous programs, says Srikanth Varma, the start-up institution’s co-founder.

The Kicker: “Woolf as a platform enables us to not worry about regulators and accreditation and to focus all of our energy on providing world-class education,” Varma says. “This is a significant efficiency for us.”

Open Tabs

Wage Data

An average of 60 percent of U.S. college students earn more 10 years after enrolling than a high school graduate, according to a new analysis from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Using updated data from the College Scorecard for its latest ROI ranking of 4,500 colleges, the center found that most students at 1,233 institutions earn less than high school graduates after 10 years.

The former gainful employment regulation’s selective focus on for-profit colleges was a fatal flaw, Andrew Gillen, a senior policy analyst for Next Generation Texas, argues in a new report for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. If a similar version of the rule was applied again, Gillen’s analysis found, it would miss 89 percent of failing college programs.

Stackable Credentials

A task force convened by Colorado’s Legislature has called for stackable credentials and work-based learning programs in high-demand, high-value fields, Alison Griffin, a Colorado-based senior vice president for Whiteboard Advisors, writes in her newsletter. And a new bill seeks to make concurrent enrollment more accessible for the state’s high school students.

Tech Careers

The Urban Institute soon will release a tool that allows nonprofits and companies to easily connect to its Education Data Portal and import and visualize IPEDS data on computing degrees, disaggregated by race and gender. The tool is designed for individuals and organizations working to increase diversity within computing.

The Cognizant Foundation announced $6.3M in grants to support technology skills development for underrepresented student groups. The foundation said the 13 grants to Code Platoon, the Center for the Future of Arizona, CUNY, Opportunity@Work, and others seek to advance equitable access to industry-aligned education and career pathways.

Salary Ranges

New York City this spring will begin requiring that employers list salary ranges on job postings, The Wall Street Journal reported. Some business groups are opposing the mandate. But Angela Jackson, a managing partner at New Profit, said that the move to increase pay transparency will advance workforce equity by helping to close racial and gender pay gaps.

Career Connections

Northern New Mexico College and GoEducate, a start-up ed-tech company, have launched an “opportunity portal” that seeks to connect students and job seekers with skills-centric academic programs linked to in-demand jobs, including roles at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The initial site features eight degrees and certificates in business administration.

Let me know what I missed? Catch you next week. —@paulfain

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