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Additional Student Success Centers boost initiative to increase graduation rates among low-income students


The nonprofit Jobs for the Future (JFF) recently announced the launch of five new Statewide Student Success Centers (SSC) supported by a $2.5 million combined gift from The Kresge Foundation and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. These new centers, in Hawaii, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington will help more low-income students graduate from community colleges by providing vision, support and a shared venue for two-year colleges from across a state to partner on a collective student success agenda.  With the network now in 12 states, JFF data shows that 67 percent of minority students reside in those states, and that 47 percent of the nation’s community colleges now have access to the network.

Chris Baldwin of Jobs for the Future
Chris Baldwin of Jobs for the Future.

Kresge Foundation Communications Officer Krista Jahnke caught up with Chris Baldwin, Senior Director of State Policy and Network Relations at JFF, to discuss how these five new centers will lead to higher graduation rates among low-income students.

Baldwin worked with JFF from 2008 to 2011 before becoming the first executive director of the Michigan Center for Student Success, which launched in 2011. Last August, he transitioned back to JFF to run the growing center network, which is supported by a $1.4 million 2015 grant from Kresge’s Education team. The Education Program works to ensure more low-income, first-generation, underrepresented students get to and through college.

Q: What is a Statewide Student Success Center? What’s its purpose?

Baldwin: It’s a state-level intermediary, designed to bring faculty and staff together to share and learn together, from across campuses in one of our participating states. They’re designed to be statewide hubs that reach all community colleges in the state. Their role is to bring coherence to student success and completion initiatives that are taking place. There are many things happening in this education area and these centers bring focus to all of that to help colleges learn one from one another, collaborate and to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

The first centers were created in Michigan, Arkansas, Ohio and Texas organically, and all had support from Kresge. They emerged when they did because there was a gap in the field between policymakers and practitioners. These organizations are not a silver bullet, but I do think they are a missing ingredient in efforts to scale reforms within and among colleges. They’re the glue, and we’ve seen them step in in a thoughtful and useful way.

Q: How do the SSC help more students from a particular state graduate?

Baldwin: The centers are not working directly with students. Instead, they operate in the background, playing a supporting role for the colleges. What they do is incredibly important — they give the staff and faculty the time and space to learn from one another. They play an imperative convening and professional development role that in turn will help colleges improve how they serve students. In varying ways the centers are also involved with policy discussions. As policymakers are considering measures that impact student success, they’re playing active roles to influence the dialogue. So in thoughtful ways, the Student Success Centers are bringing resources and support to fill the gaps that too many colleges have.

Q: What impact have you seen so far in the states where the centers are already established?

Baldwin: The short answer is that it varies by state. There is not a set of common metrics that are used across states to measure impact. We are having conversations with the leadership of the centers about going in that direction, but we’re not there yet. That said, individual centers have looked at what is happening. For example, in New Jersey, they know the number of degrees awarded since 2007 is up 45 percent. Can you attribute it all to the center? No, because a lot is happening in these states and you can’t isolate the causal relationship. But we can say that in the time the center has been working there, they’ve seen a significant increase in the number of credentials. In Michigan, which I know pretty intimately having been there, they are working with the governor’s office on a dashboard of metrics, and one of them was community college completion, graduation and transfer rates. In 2007-08, that rate was 44 percent and last year that rate was up to 53 percent. It’s hard to compare across states, but within states, we’re clearly seeing things move in right direction. We believe the centers are a contributing factor to what the colleges are doing together. Last thing I will say is that 53 percent is a great improvement from 44 percent, but it is still long way to 100 percent — so there’s lots more to do.

Q: How did these five states rise to the top of the list for this round of awards?

Baldwin: We had 12 states that submitted proposals. Overall the proposals were quite good, some stronger than others, but all were commendable attempts to move a success agenda. The five states awarded grants all had a strong vision of an overarching completion agenda in their state, and they were clear about how a Student Success Center would move that agenda forward and were specific and creative about how to leverage other resources in support for the center. In a broad sense, that’s what made these five states rise to the stop.

Q: What should community colleges in those five states expect to happen now that they’ve been awarded a Student Success Center?

Baldwin: One thing to note is that these proposals didn’t develop in isolation. A key part of what made them winners was that they had very strong buy-in from colleges. So the colleges in these states know that this happening and are supportive of starting a center. What they can expect is a more intensive convening strategy and focused agenda on student success. In most of these states there are a lot of siloed initiatives focused on aspects of the “completion agenda.” Many of these are worthwhile efforts, but they are detached from one another and the impact is diminished because of it.

What colleges will start to see with the new centers is that they’re charged with aligning what’s going on in the state. In doing that, they’ll see where the strong momentum is and how the center can move people farther faster as well as identify gaps. They can bring attention and technical assistance to those things.

Colleges will enter the work in different ways. Some colleges have been really out front on completion and success and have great track record and others are not as far along. That’s not a judgement, just a reality. The centers must acknowledge this reality and develop activities and supports that meet colleges where they are. They need to help move those that are high-performing farther along while at the same time help those who are trailing behind for what every reason.

Q: How will students in these states begin to notice the impact of a new SSC?

Baldwin:  In terms of tangible effect on students, I would give the example of the number of states working on an overarching shift toward a set of practices called “Guided Pathways.” There is a strong consensus in the field that small, discrete interventions, while perhaps promising, will not yield the results needed to really increase student outcomes. We need broad transformative change to move the needle. The Guided Pathways framework that many states are working under gets students into better-aligned programs of study more quickly. These efforts integrate critical supports to get students on a path quickly and to keep them on that path.

The idea of Guided Pathways is grounded in behavioral economics. Basically, the research shows that we as human beings can be overwhelmed by having a magnitude of choices. Historically, colleges have overwhelmed students with choice, especially first-gen, low-income students, who come to college having no familiarity with how to navigate institutions. This work is not about putting students in boxes they can’t get out of, but clarifying the choices that they have to make early on. It’s starting with the end in mind. Whether a student is looking at a terminal credential or perhaps transferring to a university, Guided Pathways is about being clear and deliberate about the choices students have to make, providing support to make the right decisions, and monitoring their progress to keep them on that path.

It’s a much more deliberate type of support from the colleges. We are seeing substantial change at some leading colleges nationally. The challenge is to bring these innovations to scale at all colleges. This is the precise reason the centers were created and why the partner foundations are investing in them. All 12 of the centers have launched, or are planning, a Guided Pathway initiative to bring these innovative practices to their colleges.