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Our Network can lead a culture change

| Dr. Karen A. Stout

Thinking & Advocacy
September 23, 2022

Earlier this summer, U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona and the U.S. Department of Education hosted the Raise the B.A.R.: Bold + Action + Results in College Excellence & Equity Summit which was focused on making college more inclusive and affordable. Secretary Cardona pointed to the “cruel irony” that we all know too well: “Institutions that serve the most students with the most to gain from a college degree have the fewest resources to invest in student success.”

Along with other leaders from ATD Network colleges, I was able to participate in the event and was heartened by the secretary’s powerful call for a culture change in higher education. He argued that higher education needs to stop “conflating selectivity with excellence” and “correlating prestige with privilege.” He called on institutions to focus on metrics that demonstrate that they are transforming the lives of students rather than metrics that show how institutions are improving their own rankings.

To support that call for change, the Department of Education announced a new grant fund focused on data-driven and evidence-based reforms that encourage postsecondary retention, transfer, and completion at HBCUs, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions. Many of our Network colleges will be able to apply for these grants, which are squarely in line with ATD’s data-driven focus that has guided our work for nearly two decades.

“ATD Network colleges are not only a gateway to postsecondary education for those underserved by our nation’s most selective institutions, but we are also key players in student and community transformation.”

In his remarks, Secretary Cardona clearly recognized the vital role community colleges and minority-serving institutions can play in transforming lives and communities and the crucial need for federal support to bolster institutions. But changing the narrative about prestige and excellence requires our institutions to take up the challenge and demonstrate how reform can strengthen the lives of students, families, and communities. ATD Network colleges are not only a gateway to postsecondary education for those underserved by our nation’s most selective institutions, but we are also key players in student and community transformation and in helping families find a foothold in the middle class.

I often think about something Adam Klepetar, Berkshire Community College’s vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, said when his institution joined ATD as a member of the Building Resiliency in Rural Communities for the Future of Work initiative. Speaking to local media, he said: “In a time of hyper-competitive higher education, ATD works to break down barriers within and between colleges with the belief that access to higher education is a cultural good that will transform the country.” That is a big charge, but it is that kind of aspirational thinking that drives us at ATD and reflects our Network at its best.

Celebrating the Network

As part of that work, we will launch our first ever ATD Network Week with the theme Proud to Dream, Driven to Achieve. Our goal to is demonstrate that while some may see transforming colleges into catalysts for equity as unrealistic, overwhelming, or even impossible, ATD Network institutions have always seen those challenges as invitations to imagine, connect and innovate. We will celebrate and elevate the work of the 300+ ATD Network participants who believe in equity and economic vitality for all learners and communities. Each of you has dared to dream, and over the course of the week we will highlight the realities you have achieved.

I still remember Talia Christian, a student at Northwest Lakeview College in San Antonio, who was one of this year’s DREAM Student Scholars. She said: “I remember barely starting out and not knowing anything about community college. I didn’t want anyone to know I went to community college. I was ashamed. I was looking at the bookstore and there was a t-shirt, and I was like, I would never wear a community college t-shirt.” But after her own transformational experience on one of our campuses, she now wears countless t-shirts from her college. “I wear them proudly,” she says, “and tell everyone this is one of the best experiences — community colleges are amazing and such a good opportunity for students.”

I know we all have many students like Talia whose lives have been transformed. And I know the incredible work your institutions do every day to make that happen. ATD will continue working with you to strengthen our community colleges and promote your efforts. We are all in this for the long haul, but we hope that this next week will be an opportunity to demonstrate in real, concrete ways the value of our Network in supporting your uncompromising service to students and community. We hope that if you have the opportunity, you will echo and amplify this message so that we can be Proud to Dream, Driven to Achieve — and collectively drive the culture change Secretary Cardona called for.

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