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Reflections and updates on the 2021 virtual Presidents Symposium

News & Updates
March 31, 2021

More than 70 presidents, chancellors, and CEOs of colleges in Achieving the Dream’s national network participated in our annual Presidents Symposium on March 25, 2021. ATD holds the Presidents Symposium during DREAM, ATD’s annual convening in mid-February. Stemming from the impact of COVID-19, the virtual format of DREAM 2021 created the opportunity for the Presidents Symposium to function as a standalone event outside of DREAM.

ATD President and CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout’s opening remarks reflected on the essentialness of community colleges and key reform principles to adhere to, particularly as we deepen our commitment to equity. Amid the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic injustice, community colleges remain “America’s institutions of the moment” as author James Fallows described them in his keynote address as DREAM 2020.

The next climb, or phase of our student success work, necessitates that we focus our attention and efforts on responding to the following challenges.

Challenge 1: Centering racial equity by being intentional and action-oriented in removing racial inequities that impede social justice.

ATD network colleges show that while they are, indeed, increasing graduation rates for all students–a significant accomplishment–it is still not enough for all students and equity gaps persist for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous leaners as well as for student parents, part-time, first-generation, low-income, and male students. The sector has a responsibility to affect change in a meaningful way in our classrooms, on our campuses and in the communities we serve. This leadership begins with deep and difficult self-reflection examining our own prejudices and understanding our own privilege. ATD is revising its equity statement to be more action-oriented and is expanding its coaching supports, having provided additional equity training to our diversified coaching cadre.

Challenge 2: Embracing a bold new equitable access agenda.

The community college sector is facing widespread enrollment declines, particularly among adult learners, disengaged youth without a diploma, males, student parents, low-income students, first-generation students, and/or first-time students. We need to go beyond strategic enrollment management and retention, to find new ways to immerse ourselves in our communities, to disband traditional admissions systems that replicate those of four-year peers, to build a portfolio of programs that match the life cycle education and training needs of residents, and to not buy into the argument that access is in our DNA and that those who need us most in our communities know they should turn to us, their local community colleges, for access to crucial opportunities.

Challenge 3: Ensuring social and economic mobility by creating pathways that lead to jobs with living wages for all students.

We are facing a moment that requires us to “leverage our localness,” to reimagine our role in the community as a hub for economic development and civic and community revitalization. We have learned some of the characteristics of from “high mobility” colleges in ATD’s Network: strong employer connections, strong transfer pipelines, clear on ramps for part-time and adult learners, the college connecting aspirations to a larger community goal. But we need to learn more, and we need to deploy supports to help you connect, more directly, your student success work to family sustaining wages and access to a virtuous cycle of learning and earning for all students.

Challenge 4: Centering teaching and learning as THE lever to drive equitable gains.

For too long, we have left faculty behind. Our tendency has been to work around the margins and scale in areas where data might tempt us to shape siloed and disconnected interventions without engaging faculty. They are critical to motivating students and delivering exceptional teaching and learning in keeping with our institutional mission. For teaching to help us move against and beyond boundaries, faculty must be at the heart of our student success conversations. They must have the data, tools, and supports to create learning experiences that enable transgressions.

Challenge 5: Shining a light on the systems and structures producing results rather than on the deficits of our students.

We must not only disaggregate data to reveal equity gaps but also to listen and understand; to shine a light on the systems and structures that are producing the results. We need to examine key metrics beyond completion like bachelor’s degree attainment, program enrollment and completion, and early momentum metrics. We can and should use these data to disrupt the long standing systems producing inequitable results.  A good starting point for us is looking at the semester structure, how it has been designed and whom it is serving and whom it is not.

Breakout Discussions

Presidents and chancellors broke into three groups to engage in facilitated discussion around three of the five challenges listed above: (1) centering racial equity; (2) embracing a bold new access agenda; and (3) ensuring social and economic mobility.

Centering Racial Equity

Determining where to start with addressing racial equity is difficult amid COVID and within the broader context of systemic injustice in higher education. Enrollment declines have disproportionately impacted historically underserved students. Presidents recognize the value of having diverse faculty and staff that reflect student demographics, but hiring and retaining these employees proves difficult in many cases. College members are often open to having tough conversations about race and equity, but they sometimes lack the language needed to talk about racial equity and would benefit from a tool or framework to guide such conversations.

Embracing a Bold New Access Agenda

ATD Network colleges are rethinking how students are recruited and where they complete college in response to significant issues around transportation, Internet access, work schedules, and more. Community colleges are strengthening their dual enrollment programs, partnering with local churches and nonprofits to find students, and creating microcolleges at local high schools – efforts all designed to broaden access to educational opportunities within local communities. ATD and its Network colleges are at an important juncture where the flow between non-credit and credit courses should be reconsidered in light of the pathways between enrollment and post-completion employment.

Ensuring Social and Economic Mobility

Presidents identified a cultural shift happening at community colleges around economic and social mobility. Some colleges recognize a need to change policies and practices to better support students’ journey into (or back into) the workforce with strong labor market credentials. Microcredentialing, scaffolding, badging, short-term credentialing: colleges in the ATD Network are deploying effective best practices to skill and credential students. Presidents saw an opportunity to break down silos between non-credit and credit courses for students. Presidents also reflected on whether the time has come to shift from branding certain programs as “terminal” and toward a continuous learning model where students periodically return to gain additional credentials and certifications.

Student Success Reforms: Overview and Case Studies

ATD and Network presidents shared an overview of three student success reforms, each of which were accompanied by a mini-case study by Network presidents. Reform areas included (1) centering racial equity, (2) dismantling the semester structure, and (3) centering teaching & learning as a lever to accelerate gains.

Centering Racial Equity

The current climate has increased the need for our colleges to have conversations around equity, race, and intersectionality. Colleges need to explore the challenges they are experiencing and explore potential solutions. A valuable resource ATD now offers is an Equity Opportunity Assessment, which positions colleges to identify ongoing barriers to equity and address inequities in campus policies and practices. Through a whole-college assessment, ATD helps colleges locate inequities in scheduling, classroom policies, and business processes, as well as gauge the campus and its level of equity-mindedness.

Amid the pandemic, President Vicki Martin engaged ATD to help Milwaukee Area Technical College (WI) address equity. Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) serves one of the most segregated cities in America, and sensed a moral, economic, and social imperative to address equity. During the Fall 2020 semester, President Martin received a letter from employees sharing their perspectives and experiences around equity at MATC, which sparked urgency to take action on the concerns shared. With ATD’s help, MATC began helping its senior leaders listen and build trust with employees, an initial step in strengthening equity-mindedness in MATC’s culture. Having hired a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, MATC is starting to consider how to incorporate accountability and tracking results. The road ahead is unclear and being discovered, but the report ATD provided MATC has been critical to centering its college leadership team on equity as it moves forward.

Dismantling the Semester Structure

Given community colleges serve historically underserved students, one of the most pressing areas to address is whether the traditional fifteen- to sixteen-week semester needs to be disbanded and replaced by shorter courses. We can draw from the principles of ATD’s Holistic Student Supports model, which suggests we need to know and understand the realities of the students we serve and look at our designs to make sure they serve students well and ask if we are doing enough. By shifting to shorter term semesters, ATD colleges have created multiple onramps throughout the year for students, improved early momentum metrics, increased credit accumulation, and countered declining enrollment trends. Shifting to shorter semesters alone will not create whole-college change, but it is one of the most promising practices for increasing student success when implemented from a holistic approach.

With President Jeffrey Rafn’s leadership, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (WI) decided to convert to eight-week semesters as a strategy for recovering adult enrollment, which had been declining significantly since the Great Recession of 2008. Having studied its policies and practices, Northeast Wisconsin found it was losing adult learners and dual credit students due to enrollment policies that made prospective students wait for a semester or year before being able to enroll. To spark change, Northeast Wisconsin set a goal of having prospective students wait no longer than eight weeks before being able to begin taking courses at the college. A cross-sectional team of faculty, classified staff, and administrators led the design and implementation efforts over two years, starting with a year of exploration and culminating in curriculum rewriting. Initial data show Northeast Wisconsin is increasing its enrollment and seeing fewer students withdraw from courses mid-semester.

Centering Teaching & Learning as a Lever to Accelerate Gains

The classroom has been largely overlooked in our reform efforts, and faculty have too often been left out of or not given a leadership role in these student success conversations. ATD’s Teaching & Learning Toolkit, released last fall, offers four cornerstones for effectively engaging faculty in your student success work: (1) adopting evidence-based instructional practices, (2) connecting faculty and classified staff more purposefully, (3) allowing faculty to learn actively alongside their students, and (4) prioritizing continuous learning and professional development. Community colleges are already widely using the Toolkit’s worksheets, case studies, and resource guides to guide their initial efforts to begin engaging faculty in their student success work.

At Montgomery College (MD), President DeRionne Pollard has built a culture of teaching and learning excellence, primarily through Montgomery College’s (MC) participation in Open Educational Resources (OER) with ATD. Initially motivated to help students save money on textbooks, MC expanded its focus to student learning through an open education framework and open pedagogy. Faculty have embraced social justice in their teaching through participating in MC’s Faculty Fellowship program, which pair faculty to develop renewable assignments and deliver those assignments alongside students. Utilizing convenings like a summer institute, faculty perform deep reflection throughout the year on what is working and what is not to continuously improve their teaching and thereby increase student learning.


ATD continues to respond to the needs of the Network, even as situations change rapidly. The next climb in our student success work will be profoundly difficult, particularly because of the speed with which we will need to address equity and dismantle systemic injustice, transform access to higher education, rapidly engage faculty in our student success work, and ensure strong post-completion outcomes for our students.

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