A Shared Vision for Student Success

Community colleges are important providers of access and opportunity for an increasing percentage of multicultural, multigenerational, low-income, and first-generation college students (American Association of Community Colleges 2014; Juszkiewicz 2014). These institutions serve more than half of all students enrolled in public colleges and universities and more than one-third of all students enrolled in higher education (US Department of Education 2013). The academic and economic success of this new majority of nontraditional postsecondary students, largely served by the nation’s public two-year institutions, will define national well-being for decades to come (Bailey 2012).

Given this important role played by community colleges, it’s unsurprising to see numerous national and regional efforts to improve community college student success emerging. The “completion agenda”—the reform movement led by state and federal policymakers designed to increase dramatically the number of students graduating from our nation’s colleges and universities—continues to drive the development of new programs and initiatives. As Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, recently reminded a group of national, regional, and state leaders, we must be intentional in our efforts to support community college student success and always be guided by this question: “Completion to what end?” (personal communication, November 5, 2015). If the nation is going to improve postsecondary completion rates, there needs to be a more far-reaching exploration of the connections between high-quality learning and Americans’ global future, and of the changes needed to achieve equitable access to high-quality learning for the millions of students whose college journeys begin at two-year institutions.

Defining Shared Goals

There is a growing demand in the higher education community, especially from funding organizations and campus leaders, to determine how initiatives sponsored by national, regional, and statewide organizations complement and support collective action and shared goals to improve student outcomes. Efforts focused on the completion agenda have historically been siloed and disconnected. As a result, we have not reached the impact we desire. Higher education leaders must find ways to be more intentional and systematic. In 2014, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) received a grant from The Kresge Foundation to expand partnership opportunities with other national organizations seeking to improve community college student success. AAC&U’s activities to strengthen partnerships with community college leaders and with organizations committed to supporting the work of community college educators included a Community College Leadership Summit, which helped kickoff AAC&U’s Centennial Year activities in January 2015. The meeting of national thought leaders from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), Achieving the Dream, Jobs for the Future, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, the Community College Research Center (CCRC), and AAC&U—just to name a few—along with many campus-based leaders, gathered to address challenges and opportunities for advancing community college student success.

Those conversations examined the following areas:

  • How can campus leaders design guided learning pathways that clearly define expectations for students?
  • How can collaborations among faculty at institutions across the country support higher levels of achievement of student learning outcomes?
  • How can national, regional, state, and local partners influence transfer policies and practices that recognize the growing evidence of student swirl?

The overarching goal of the multiyear project is to identify actionable items that will further the shared goals of partner organizations, while supporting our individual, and often complementary, missions.

In one example of efforts to form concrete, long-term partnerships, Jobs for the Future created the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success to inform and influence the next generation of policy conditions and state infrastructure that support community college efforts to transform in support of improved student success, with generous funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (www.jff.org/initiatives/postsecondary-state-policy/policy-leadership-trust-student-success). The trust members—including more than forty college and state leaders—will seek to create a dialogue in the field about the need for change and will make bold recommendations to their peers. A panel of national advisors from partnering organizations such as AAC&U, Achieving the Dream, and CCRC support the work of the trust members, pulling these organizations together into a collaboration focused on the future of community colleges. The work of the trust centers around four key areas: building pathways to credentials, redesigning developmental education, recommending innovative new models for credit transfer between community colleges and four-year institutions, and examining outcomes-based funding policies. Representing a more on-the-ground example of partnership collaboration is AACCs’ work to increase knowledge of student success programs for men of color in community colleges. In 2010, AACC launched the Minority Male Student Success database. This web-based tool highlights community college programs, initiatives, and strategic plans focusing on minority male mentoring, recruitment, persistence, and completion. More than ninety AACC member institutions have showcased their commitment to minority male student success by uploading a descriptive profile highlighting their institutional mission to help all students in securing their educational goals.

According to AACC member institutions, collecting and sharing this information has been valuable. However, low persistence among African American males in postsecondary education remains a problem, and some have described it as an epidemic. Data show that they are one of the smallest demographic to attend college, and, of those that do attend, many never complete. Negative portrayals, stereotypes, and characterizations of this group are all over the media, while success stories are few and far between. This AACC effort represents collaboration among campus-based educators seeking to address the growing equity gaps for this segment of America’s postsecondary student population.

At the heart of all of the aforementioned partnership efforts is the understanding of how our distinct but intersecting missions seek to advance critical aspects of the roadmaps, or pathways, for community college student success. It is increasingly apparent, as we strive to strengthen our partnerships, that achieving systemic, sustainable change requires a renewed level of appreciation for how our organizational missions and activities can collectively drive institutional change.

Our shared purpose centers on preparing students to be learners by providing a high-quality educational environment that will help all students, especially those traditionally underserved in higher education, succeed in a knowledge-driven workforce. Inherent in our mission statements is a commitment to Making Excellence Inclusive (MEI). For AAC&U, and for many of our partner organizations, MEI translates into advocating for and challenging the traditional practice of providing a liberal education to some students and narrow training to others, as outlined in the following AAC&U board statement on diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence (2013):

To make excellence inclusive, our society must break free of earlier views that an excellent liberal education should be reserved for the few. Instead we insist that liberal education should be an expectation for all college students. Increasing college access and degree completion for all is necessary but insufficient to foster the growth of an educated citizenry for our globally engaged democracy. We need to define student success not exclusively as degree attainment, but also as the achievement of the primary goals of liberal education: broad and in-depth knowledge, the capacity to integrate and apply learning to new situations, and the intellectual creativity and resilience to face challenges.

Also reflected in our mission statements is our shared commitment to advancing the necessary institutional and policy changes that support student success. The commonalities in our mission statements emphasize that the foundation for building partnerships and for increasing collaborations exists. But if we are truly going to move the needle on community college student success, what comes next?

As colleagues, we engage in what we describe as the first level of collaboration: we attend each other’s meetings, we coauthor articles, we inform each other of new initiatives, and we sometimes serve as formal and informal advisors. We know that while these efforts are valuable, much more needs to be done. There is a growing desire among partner organizations to design more intentional and substantive opportunities that encourage and require higher levels of collaboration.

To support intentional and directed higher levels of collaboration, AAC&U will launch an electronic resource hub in 2016 to provide concise, useful research narratives, examples of campus work, and assessment instruments for community college educators. This hub will encourage collaboration among our member campuses and partner organizations by engaging national experts on educational quality in undergraduate education. Users will be able to create topical affinity groups, discuss critical questions influencing community college student success efforts, share the most actionable resources with colleagues, and submit their own examples for sharing. Additional resources will be added from national partner organizations that serve as exemplar strategies for advancing student learning and success. The electronic resource hub is intended for community college faculty and academic or student affairs administrators, but it also will inform student success efforts across four-year institutions.

One project that will be featured in the electronic resource hub will be AAC&U’s Developing a Community College Student Roadmap: From Entrance to Engagement in Educational Achievement and Success—a campus-to-campus collaborative project, sponsored by Metlife Foundation—involving nineteen colleges that have worked together over five years. The approach engages students at entrance and teaches them how to become active partners in their own quest for educational success. The method requires community colleges to create robust and proactive high-impact practices (HIPs), which should be tied to expected learning outcomes and addresses critical challenges that often derail innovation, such as institutions’ tendencies to emphasize completion rates more than finding ways to improve and document the quality of student learning (Finley and McNair 2013); students’ high rates of mobility (McCormick 2003; Sturtz 2006; Wang, Yan and Pilarzyk 2009); or students’ need for coherent pathways to completion (Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins 2015; Scott-Clayton 2011).

Rather than offering a single programmatic intervention, the Roadmap project proposed scaffolding HIPs to affect underserved students holistically and equitably. Community college students often have diverse educational experiences and pathways in and out of the classroom, but the integration of HIPs allows students to reflect on and make connections between such disparate experiences as internships, general education courses, service and community learning projects, and writing intensive courses.

A robust body of evidence supports the theory of action of the Roadmap project, ensuring that the implementation of HIPs will be effective in increasing student success.

In 2005, AAC&U and the National Survey of Student Engagement identified a set of HIPs that increase retention levels, classroom engagement, persistence, completion, and students’ self-reported learning gains (Kuh 2008; Kuh and O’Donnell 2013; Center for Community College Student Engagement 2010; Finley and McNair 2013): first-year seminars and experiences, writing-intensive courses, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service learning, community-based learning, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, internships, collaborative assignments and projects, and capstone courses and projects (Chen and Mazow 2002; Chen, Cannon, Gabrio, and Leifer 2005; Knight, Hakel, and Gromko 2008; Chen and Light 2012). When done well, all ll HIPs possess some combination of key features that enhance students’ engagement with their campus, peers, community, and academic subject matter in a way that improves success in terms of both learning and transfer. These features include high expectations, investment of student effort over time, meaningful interactions with faculty and peers, experiences with diversity, frequent and constructive feedback, opportunities for reflection, and public demonstration of competence (Kuh and O’Donnell 2013). These experiences engage students, create a sense of social and academic belonging, and provide an opportunity to demonstrate integrative and complex learning.

There are other promising examples of higher-level partnerships that illustrate the intentional collaboration we are seeking. AACC recently launched the Pathways project, which represents “a national partnership to build capacity for community colleges to implement a pathways approach to student success and college completion.” Partners in the project include Achieving the Dream, the 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. (www.aacc.nche.edu/newsevents/pressreleases/Pages/10302015_1.aspx). We look forward to learning more from these partnership models.

Our shared goal is to provide a framework and promising strategies that will catalyze others to engage in higher levels of collaborative action to support high-quality student learning and success

This issue of Peer Review on Advancing Collaborative Roadmaps for Student Success provides examples of the varying levels of intentional collaboration among campus leaders, national organizations, and regional and state partners. We hope that the models inspire action, at both the individual and partnership levels. 

Mission Statements of the
Association of American Colleges and Universities,
Jobs for the Future, and the
American Association of Community Colleges

Association of American Colleges and Universities
The mission of the Association of American Colleges and Universities is to make liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education. AAC&U works to reinforce the commitment to liberal education at both the national and the local levels and to help individual colleges and universities keep the quality of student learning at the core of their work as they evolve to meet new economic and social challenges. www.aacu.org

Jobs for the Future
Jobs for the Future works to ensure that all lower-income young people and workers have the skills and credentials needed to succeed in our economy. Jobs for the Future designs and drives the adoption of innovative, scalable approaches and models—solutions that catalyze change in our education and workforce delivery systems. www.jff.org

American Association of Community Colleges
Building a Nation of Learners by Advancing America’s Community Colleges
This mission statement captures the American Association of Community College’s commitment to advance the recognition of the role of community colleges in serving society today. By providing advocacy, leadership and service for community colleges, the Association will play a key role in assisting the nation as it passes from the industrial era of the twentieth century to the new knowledge-based society of the twenty-first century. www.aacc.nche.edu


American Association of Community Colleges. 2014. 2014 Fact Sheet. Washington, DC. http://www.aacc.nche.edu/AboutCC/Documents/Facts14_Data_R2.pdf.

AAC&U Board of Directors. 2013. “Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence.” Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bailey, Thomas. 2012. “Can Community Colleges Achieve Ambitious Graduation Goals?” In Getting to Graduation: The Completion Agenda in Higher Education, edited by Andrew P. Kelly and Mark Schneider, 73–101. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bailey, Thomas, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins. 2015. Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Center for Community College Student Engagement. 2010. The Heart of Student Success: Teaching, Learning, and College Completion (2010 CCCSE Findings). Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Community College Leadership Program.

Chen Helen L., David M. Cannon, Jonathan Gabrio, and Larry Leifer. 2005. “Using Wikis and Weblogs to Support Reflective Learning in an Introductory Engineering Design Course.” American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition. American Society for Engineering Education.

Chen, Helen L., and Cynthia Mazow. 2002. “Electronic Learning Portfolios in Student Affairs.” NetResults, June 16.

Chen, Helen L., and Tracey Penny Light. 2012. Electronic Portfolios and Student Success: Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Learning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Finley, Ashley, and Tia McNair. 2013. Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Juszkiewicz, Jolanta. 2014. Community College Students and Federal Student Financial Aid: A Primer. Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges. http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Publications/Reports/Documents/CCStudents_A_Primer.pdf.

Knight, William E., Milton D. Hakel, and Mark Gromko. 2008. “The Relationship between Electronic Portfolio Participation and Student Success.” AIR Professional File 107.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Kuh, George D., and Ken O’Donnell. 2013. Ensuring Quality & Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

McCormick, Alexander C. 2003. “Swirling and Double‐Dipping: New Patterns of Student Attendance and Their Implications for Higher Education.” New Directions for Higher Education 2003 (121): 13–24.

Scott-Clayton, Judith. 2011. “The Shapeless River: Does a Lack of Structure Inhibit Students’ Progress at Community Colleges?” CCRC Working Paper 25. Assessment of Evidence Series. New York: Community College Research Center.

Sturtz, Alan J. 2006. “The Multiple Dimensions of Student Swirl.” Journal of Applied Research in the Community College 13 (2): 151–58.

US Department of Education. 2013. “Digest of education statistics 2013.” Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/.

Wang, Yan, and Tom Pilarzyk. 2009. “Understanding Student Swirl: The Role of Environmental Factors and Retention Efforts in the Later Academic Success of Suspended Students.” Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice 11 (2): 211–26.

Tia Brown McNair, associate vice president, Office of Diversity Equity and Student Success, AAC&U; Lara K. Couturier, senior associate, HCM Strategists; former director, Postsecondary State Policy, Jobs for the Future; Kevin Christian, senior program associate, Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, American Association of Community Colleges

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