Building Capacity For Reform at Scale In The Community College Field
A decade of intensive focus on improving student success in community colleges has produced notable effects: a dramatic increase in awareness of the challenges and in commitment to college completion as a critical goal; a sea change in the use of data to assess and monitor student success and institutional performance; a growing body of evidence regarding effective educational practice in community colleges; and increasing numbers of institutions that are putting that knowledge into practice and demonstrating encouraging results. These promising developments can be attributed to the unprecedented efforts of a collection of philanthropies, national organizations, state systems, and institutions that have worked both collectively and individually to investigate practice, implement change, and produce results.
Now, there is a striking convergence of research and lessons of experience, as these people and their organizations have come to the shared understanding that progress, while evident in some places, is too slow; that the favored solutions of the past decade, while often necessary components of change, do not adequately address the magnitude of the challenges community colleges and their students face; and that typically, the changes thus far achieved have not been fundamental enough—and certainly not scaled enough—to achieve the improvements in completion of college credentials with strong labor market value, especially among low-income students and students of color, that are necessary to reclaim the American Dream.
Recognizing these realities—and affirming the critical role of America’s community colleges, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has undertaken, with initial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a national project focused on building capacity for community colleges to design and implement structured academic and career pathways for all of their students.
Building on emerging research and experience in the field, the project reflects AACC’s commitment to follow through strategically on recommendations set forth in the 2012 report of the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, Reclaiming the American Dream, and the 2014 implementation guide, Empowering Community Colleges to Build the Nation’s Future.
From Phase 1 to Phase 2
In the initial phase of the Pathways Project, launched in late Summer 2015, AACC worked with its national partners (below) and a competitively selected group of 30 community colleges to design and execute a series of six pathways institutes. In response to expressed need in the field, AACC committed to the early 2017 launch of Pathways 2.0. In accord with commitments made to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this second phase is based on a full fee-for-service model. Participating colleges thus commit to payment of annual fees to cover costs of project services over the three-year period of their participation.
In this second phase of pathways work, AACC continues its collaboration with key national partners: Achieving the Dream, Inc., Aspen Institute, the Center for Community College Student Engagement, the Community College Research Center, Jobs for the Future, the National Center for Inquiry and Improvement, and Public Agenda.
The Pathways Institute Series
The project is based on a model series of six institutes, each 2.5 days in length and each engaging five-person teams of varying composition from a competitively selected group of 24 colleges. All institutes will support committed community colleges in work to design and implement clear, structured student pathways to high-quality credentials that are aligned both to university transfer and to jobs with value in the labor market. Designated college teams will attend the six institutes in 2017-2019, and each event will focus on a critical aspect of institutional change and pathway design/implementation; each will require advance work by the colleges, and each will result in products developed by the participating college teams, including action plans and assessment of needs for technical assistance. The institute format combines discussions with experts, coaching, and facilitated discussion/planning sessions for college teams.
Pathways 2.0 involves, through a competitive application process, AACC member colleges that demonstrate serious commitment to transformational work at scale to improve college completion and equity in student outcomes. Colleges receive no direct funding – and in fact, as noted above, pay an annual participation fee; but most on-site costs of institute participation (i.e., materials, coaching, hotel rooms, refreshment breaks, and most meals) are covered by the project budget. The college is responsible for travel expenses for a 5-person team, including airfare, ground transportation, parking, and non-institute meals.
Momentum Data and Progress Monitoring
As part of the work with participating institutions, the project aims to emphasize use of a small set of data points that serve as strong indicators of student momentum. In addition, an inventory tailored by the Community College Research Center for the AACC project will be used to establish baseline status and then to assess periodically each college’s progress on implementation of essential features of guided pathways reforms.