Expanding opportunities in America’s cities

Thank you, Karen for that very kind welcome and introduction. And thank you to all of you, who value your institutions’ and students’ success so highly that you have dedicated your valuable time this week to join Achieving the Dream’s “Dream Conference.” I am in awe of the tremendous participation here in Nashville, that demonstrates the enormous value AtD brings to the inspiring work going on within our nation’s community colleges. 

And I am honored to be joining you.

Thank you to the Achieving the Dream board of directors and staff for the opportunity to speak today on behalf of The Kresge Foundation.

As I tell you a bit about myself, I hope you will come to understand just why being here is so important to me.

Growing up in Portland, Maine, I never doubted that I would go to college. In my family, it was simply a given. My parents were both children of Jewish immigrants and had been among the first in their families to attend college. And for me, it would be a four-year liberal arts education. That was what we knew.

I did just that, receiving a bachelor’s degree in art history from Colgate University. As I worked my way up the corporate ladder to become the president of a Fortune 100 company, I came to understand why my parents were so determined to send me to college. There I learned that in business, and in life, there is arguably no engine of advancement as powerful as a college degree. I experienced first-hand how having a degree could pave the way for one’s future success.  I learned that once I had the opportunity, the college experience would provide a set of skills on which I could always rely.

What I just hadn’t yet been exposed to was the extraordinary value and quality of a community college degree, and how essential community colleges are to our nation’s higher education equation.

With 9 million undergraduates in our nation are studying at community colleges – 36 percent of all college students are enrolled in the community college system − you might adapt an old expression to suggest that as community colleges go, so goes the nation.

My eyes were opened wide to community colleges when two precious influences in my life converged.

The first, through my work with The Kresge Foundation, where I am proud to serve as chairwoman of the board; I have the privilege of leading the decision as to how the foundation invests nearly $20 million a year in higher education systems.

In 2010 our Education team, led by Bill Moses – who is of course in the audience – presented compelling data to our board intended to reassess and alter the direction of our education program funding in a big way.   

Bill and his team spoke convincingly of the imperative to move the up the national college attainment rate which had been a flat line for a very long time. An essential component of this objective was to change the fact that low income and people of color were much less likely than their peers to have college degree.

They really got our attention when they told us that the United States of America sat somewhere in the middle of developed nations in terms of our college attainment rate.

With so many students – particularly students of color and low income students – enrolling in community college, if we could move the needle on community college degree attainment, Bill asserted, think what a difference that would make to the nation’s overall education level.

To adapt an old expression: As community colleges go, so goes a nation.

It was clear that community colleges were becoming a powerful component of our education system − and I just had no idea. But as it turned out, two people close to me did.

Right in my own backyard in the great state of Maine, my dearest friends Leon and Lisa Gorman of that wonderful Maine Company, LL Bean, were getting involved in Maine’s Community College System.

Now let me explain something: There is the usual way people get involved with things, then there is the Leon and Lisa Gorman way of getting involved with things. Their way is full pedal to the metal. And their message about the need to raise the stakes and impact of community colleges in Maine really got to me. I will never forget Leon (who has since passed away) declaring that in his view, the community college system was the engine of Maine’s economy. And so right he was.

Thanks to Bill Moses and The Kresge Foundation for laying the groundwork, and to Leon and Lisa for leading the way in Maine, working to improve on and invest in community colleges now has my attention.

In 2009, I joined Lisa as a founding trustee of the newly created Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges, which emerged directly from the Gormans’ energy and support. I am so delighted that Lisa Gorman is here with us today.

We have worked hard to bring much-needed funding to the Maine system that serves nearly 17,000 students. Since its inception, we have attracted more than $35 million to the foundation.

That’s especially impressive considering Maine has a median household income of about $50,000, and we are a state of only 1.3 million people – only about twice the size of Nashville. The Maine Community College System is among The Kresge Foundation’s $7.5 million investments in Achieving the Dream and its network.

I am incredibly proud to say that there are more than 40 people here with us today from MCCS.

I recently had the chance to spend time with the AtD leaders at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor Maine, who joined AtD in 2012 and have led the way for the Maine Consortium of seven colleges.

It was an enlightening experience. Even though it turned out to be by phone because it was December, it was Maine and you know the rest of the story – 10 inches of snow got in the way.

What I learned about our results at EMCC, and of the initial involvement of the six other colleges and the system administration, is that our college communities are coming to count on AtD framework to build and sustain campuswide cultures of student success − looking to data to identify where the most pressing problems and most promising opportunities are.

And with that data begins courageous conversations fundamental to long-term, sustainable improvements in the success of our students, and thus the state of Maine.

And this is just one small state.

As I look out at this audience I am aware that an impressive 40 states are represented. To me that signals a strong wave of change is about to happen across the country  – the result, I know, of a lot of hard work. And internationally, AtD has had a similar effect in South Africa.  We are delighted to have helped nearly 40 South Africans join us here in Nashville. 

What I have learned through years of corporate leadership is that change isn’t easy. Rosabeth Moss Canter at Harvard Business School once told me, change is not about the hard stuff, it is rather about the soft stuff. And, she said, remember: It is all soft stuff.

There is culture change (the soft stuff) happening in community colleges across this country. That kind of change is never quick and it can be messy.  But the payoff can also be great.

And in that vein, let me close with a story. In 2015, I was invited to be the commencement speaker at Eastern Maine Community College. More than 500 students graduated that day – their largest graduating class ever. After I spoke, I stood on the stage and shook hand after hand after hand. Graduates of all ages, races, men and women. One by one, I looked them in the eye – and I tell you, I had chills the entire time. To see these people up close achieve their dreams – in most instances in front of their entire family and to know that all of their lives had changed for the better because of that diploma. That was momentous.

And with that, I want to thank you again for all that do to make those life-changing moments happen – one student at a time. Have a wonderful week at DREAM 2018.