Each year, Achieving the Dream surveys its Network of colleges to gain insight into challenges community colleges are facing and how they are responding to them as well as to identify how ATD can strengthen its support for Network colleges and continue to move the field forward. This year’s reflections are based on responses from 128 institutions in 27 states — by far our largest response rate ever.
This year, our Annual Reflection survey indicates that institutions are boldly moving forward and adopting a whole-college transformation mindset. More than ever, Network colleges are introducing comprehensive changes across all areas of operations and working to bolster their approach to ensure more equitable student success.
We are seeing more colleges shifting their data analysis from a compliance function to a strategic planning operation that centers on continuous improvement and extends to the classroom to deepen the use of data in ways that we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. Colleges are also taking major steps to support classroom transformation by developing faculty-led approaches to advance faculty learning and creating a culture of excellence in teaching that was invariably missing from the student success agenda in the past. What is most heartening is that the new transformation mindset has taken hold despite challenges that, in other years, would have stymied institutions from moving forward.
We hope that the following summary provides you with insights that will be useful to you as we collectively work to make our community colleges profoundly accessible hubs of learning, credentialing, and economic mobility that eliminate inequities in educational and workforce outcomes.
Institutional Priorities and Challenges
The overall institutional goals and challenges have remained constant post-pandemic as we continue to see institutions seek to recover lost enrollment while redoubling efforts to help students maintain progress toward a credential. Specifically, respondents reported that their top institutional priorities were:
- Certificate/Degree Completion
- Course Completion
- Enrollment Tied With Credit Completion Rates
Over three-quarters of colleges reported they will continue to work on these in the 2023–24 year to enhance their progress or scale new initiatives.
At the same time, fluctuations in enrollments continue to be a challenge. While varied across states and institutions, overall declines continue to have cascading effects on revenues, resource allocation, services, and staffing throughout the Network. Over 20% of respondents, for example, said that they lacked the infrastructure or (more often) resources to address enrollment and staffing/operational resource needs and that they lack the capacity to navigate multiple/conflicting priorities.
Colleges also noted that while they were using disaggregated data to identify specific student priority groups, such as low-income, first-generation students, or adult learners, labor-market demands and students opting for employment over education continued to hamstring their ability to meet enrollment goals. The tight labor market also continues to create significant staffing challenges for many colleges.
The enrollment challenge is particularly difficult in regions where states are seeing a decreasing number of high school graduates. Institutions also are feeling the pinch of economic pressure caused by natural disasters and dealing with, in a growing number of states, legislative action aimed at curbing diversity, equity, and inclusion programs — measures that are making colleges appear less than welcoming to marginalized students and families.
Pursuing Priorities Through Transformative Practices
Despite those challenges, the reflections demonstrated that more and more colleges are adopting a transformational approach across the college to advance student success.
Particularly revealing in the reflections was the high priority placed on scaling crucial capacities to support student success. When asked which capacity areas included in the Institutional Capacity Assessment Tool they were prioritizing, teaching and learning, equity, and data showed clear separation from other areas. In addition, several colleges pointed to a shift toward thinking about new metrics for measuring student success as well as creating stronger partnerships with K–12 educational partners and employers to strengthen students’ educational pathways into, through, and after college.
Developing More Sophisticated Data Capacity
Not surprisingly, more than four of every five colleges reported “increased data to inform decision making” as one of the changes at their institutions attributed to their ATD work. What is particularly notable is the depth and degree to which colleges are now employing data across their organizations in more strategic ways, including, as part of regular practice for program review, supporting democratization of data among faculty and staff and using data to identify and address equity gaps.
Many ATD colleges are not only expanding their collection and improving their understanding of data but are embedding data analysis in all aspects of their student success work. For instance, one college noted that last year it identified gaps in its “systematic use of data to inform key processes,” such as strategic planning, institutional improvement efforts, strategic enrollment outcomes, evaluating program effectiveness, and identifying student needs to improve student success outcomes. Now the college’s approach has become broader than this initial plan, and it is now working to “bolster the Institutional Research (IR) area at the College as the leading area over institutional data and information.” The college wrote:
The history of IR at [our college] is that the unit was built for data compliance. We are currently working on a new model for the area that is a fully realized and functional data, information, analysis, and research office. This will help us improve our institutional data capacity to achieve our goal of serving as a data-informed institution.
Similarly, numerous colleges reported that they were creating dashboards; disaggregating data in new ways; establishing clear metrics to assess policy, practice, and structure; and using data to better understand the needs of all stakeholders. One college reported that it has become much more deliberate in its attempts to increase use of data by faculty for continuous improvement review by setting aside time to review program data; systematizing outcomes of learning assessment processes; revising the college’s end of course assessment instrument; and constructing a professional development learning track on data literacy, production, and use for faculty.
Additionally, there is a notable group of colleges that are strengthening their data capacity to specifically take action to improve equity gaps.
A College-Wide Approach to Addressing Student Success for All Students
Some colleges are facing a hostile legislative environment in states that have adopted policies prohibiting diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and have, thereby, created a climate of uncertainty about how to best support all student toward success. However, overall, the reflections demonstrate that ATD Network colleges continue to gain momentum around their student success goals in the face of these challenges and the spillover effects of the pandemic. A rich array of data demonstrates that colleges are making substantive progress — from talking about and/or defining equity to institutionalizing policy and practice changes — to become more equitable institutions.
One college reported that through its work with ATD coaches, it has revitalized equity work in all areas of the college. Some institutions report developing a college-wide definition of equity (tied to their student success goals) to be used by faculty, staff, and administrators. The goal of these efforts is to ensure that organizational structures, business processes, communication plans, and strategic planning documents include a strong equity component. Others discussed how equity is now being integrated into all student success initiatives, including the colleges’ mandatory new student orientation and student success course as well as academic advising.
Creating Cultures of Teaching and Learning Excellence
In the wake of the pandemic, students have expressed a continued and growing desire for more flexible courses and supports. Network colleges are continuing to innovate and scale the use of technology, distance education, and hybrid courses and services to meet student needs.
Particularly important in this round of responses was the clear effort to strengthen professional learning opportunities for faculty and academic staff and an increased focus on the role of Centers for Teaching and Learning. For example, one college reported part of its student success agenda is professional development through the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC), with diversity, equity, and inclusion infused throughout the TLC’s programming. “Faculty have participated in book/discussion groups related to culturally responsive pedagogy, several faculty have developed OER resources for major general education courses, and faculty have mapped how High Impact Practices are infused into courses to encourage and document expansion,” the college shared.
Several colleges reported that they are using their centers to engage staff as well as faculty in this work to create more cohesion between academic and student support roles. As one college put it, its center has become the “nexus for professional development for both faculty and staff and includes all teaching modalities as well as non-instructional services.”
This collaboration between academic and student affairs extends beyond professional learning opportunities at the teaching and learning centers. Colleges are starting to take effective action to bring these areas together into a more cohesive whole. For example, one college described how it is tackling one of its priority goals to improve student success by providing intrusive advising and using a relational and supportive curriculum that addresses specific student needs. The college also is providing academic support in and out of the classroom along with coaching to meet the personal needs students bring to their college experience.
Strengthening Student Pathways to Success
The responses from colleges also demonstrated a shift from a focus on course completion to a focus on program and credential completion, with a stronger emphasis on helping students move through pathways that more efficiently and effectively lead to careers or additional education. This effort was supported through stronger partnership development with a growing number of colleges speaking to their partnership work and building more strategic connections with K–12 school districts, university partners, and employers and bringing this partnership connection into their student success strategy throughout the student journey.
Colleges reported strengthening K–12 partnerships to increase and deepen dual enrollment and early credit capacities. Others reported on work to strengthen their partnerships with local four-year universities to streamline and match academic requirements to increase transfer rates and transfer student success. And still others noted increasing their data capacity to include workforce data to inform student advising and connect the college’s programs with local talent needs.
These efforts suggest that ATD Network colleges are well on their way to moving to an overall focus on post-completion metrics.
The Benefits of the ATD Network: Coaching at the Center
As in previous years, colleges indicated that their work with ATD has had significant benefits across their colleges’ operation, particularly in their efforts to strengthen student success. The top 12 areas colleges reported as benefits can be seen in the chart above.
Coaching remains ATD’s signature asset, and the reflections affirmed this. Survey respondents, once again, ranked coaching as the top benefit of participation in the Network. Words to describe ATD’s coaching supports include: “instrumental,” “crucial insights,” “transformational,” “engaging,” and “supportive.” One college summed up the value of their coaches this way:
Our ATD coaches, current and past, have provided a sounding board for ideas, have encouraged, nudged, and professionally pushed our college to consider how equity must be infused in the work that we do. Our current coaches are challenging our ideas of what student success is, how professional learning is integral to the college, and helping us find our footing as we build programs for student success.
Another college spoke to the ways coaches and ATD in general anticipated their needs and served as a source of encouragement in their student success work:
ATD Leadership, Coaches, and Staff continue to support our work by anticipating our growth and needs and putting effective learning tools and experiences into place, such as data summits, drill downs on capacity building, and guidance on refining policies and practices. In addition, they encourage and support us in presenting at conferences, participating in webinars and trainings, and applying for national grant awards and recognition.
Many colleges spoke broadly about the benefits of coaching, reflecting the breadth of ATD coaching and demonstrating that coaching touches all aspects of the college transformation experience, including strategy and planning, data analysis, holistic student supports, and strategic enrollment management. Some colleges commented specifically on the accountability and continuity that coaches provided to them as they moved through the pandemic and its ripple effects. Others spoke of the persistence and reliability of their coaches and how they helped colleges clarify and prioritize what is important by bringing fresh eyes and perspective to the work.
While coaching was the benefit most widely discussed in the reflections, many colleges also pointed to the significant value gained from the professional and peer-learning opportunities they participated in during the year.
ATD Network colleges are strategic leaders. They demonstrate a whole college transformation mindset that is leading to significant progress in creating more equitable institutions that not only give students greater opportunities to succeed but help their communities thrive.
As we move forward, ATD is committed to continuing to support ATD Network colleges as they continue to transform into anchor institutions driving collective impact in their communities. Areas we are focused on based on our colleges’ feedback include:
- continuing to develop our coaching cadre so that the strengths and experiences of the coaches meet the evolving needs of the colleges;
- deepening our data supports as colleges continue to build more sophisticated data systems and strategies;
- localizing our equity supports and keeping them squarely focused on student success to meet colleges in their unique contexts;
- building our teaching and learning support portfolio to help colleges strengthen their centers for teaching and learning;
- continuing to curate peer learning activities that support colleges where they are on their student success journeys; and,
- building new supports to help colleges activate their partnership goals with K–12, university, and workforce partners.
The feedback provided by our Network Colleges is invaluable and deeply appreciated. Moving forward, we will continue to work to improve this annual reflection process, by refining questions or probing deeper in some specific areas, to draw more useful insights so that your institutions and our Network can continue to grow and thrive.