Leadership & Governance

Closing Students’ Achievement Gaps at the National Level

Karen A. Stout, president and chief executive, Achieving the Dream

February 16, 2017

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz


Karen A. Stout, president of Achieving the Dream, says the organization has fostered a conversation around data-driven decision making, and helped improve student outcomes, at the more than 200 colleges it has worked with since 2004. But she says much more needs to be done to close lingering achievement gaps and to move the needle at the national level.


KELLY FIELD: Hi, there. I'm Kelly Field. And we're here with Karen Stout, the president of Achieving the Dream and the former longtime president of Montgomery County Community College. Welcome, Karen.

KAREN STOUT: Well, thank you.

KELLY FIELD: So I wanted to hear a little bit about the history of Achieving the Dream. It was created in 2004 with funding from Lumina with the goal of improving student outcomes at community colleges through data-driven student-centric reforms. How are we doing on that record?

KAREN STOUT: Well, we're doing great. I think that Achieving the Dream is now well known for catalyzing a conversation for colleges to use data to inform decision making that accelerates student completion. So we've made quite a mark with that. And we've done that by deploying — I think, our signature approach is that we deploy leadership coaches and data coaches to colleges within the Achieving the Dream network.

And, specifically, the data coaches help the colleges really weave through their data and study it and help the faculty and other stakeholders at the college to engage with it and ask questions that then can lead to the design of solutions to get at, I guess, the populations that need the most support. And that really has been something that is really important for achieving a dream in our colleges.

And now we're 12 years into reform. We're still talking about student achievement and completion. But because of Achieving the Dream, there's a lot of learning that now has moved us into a different evolution around the completion agenda, including, most recently, the guided-pathways movement, which really is a way, a framework, to integrate college-workaround completion based on a number of the things we learned from Achieving the Dream, like boutique reforms that only touch a few students aren't going to change your overall completion rate.

They have to be connected. They have to be designed to be scaled, that leadership matters. There's a number of lessons we've learned from Achieving the Dream that are contributing to this next evolution of workaround completion.

KELLY FIELD: Is there some way to quantify how much progress has been made in those 12 years in terms of improving outcomes, which was the goal of Achieving the Dream?

KAREN STOUT: Yes, most of our colleges — and we try to do that now using National Student Clearinghouse data — have seen an uptick in their completion, their associate-degree completion rates. They've also seen progress in a number of the milestone metrics, fall-to-spring retention, fall-to-fall retention, and then overall completion.

We have a lot of work to do, though. We're not satisfied at all with where we are. So that's, I think, why we're now moving into this next generation of thinking.

Developmental-education redesign, for example, which was also the big driving hypothesis for the founding of Achieving the Dream, and the hypothesis was, if we can change developmental education and get more students college-ready faster, we will then see progress and completion. And while I think some of the early developmental-education reforms did prove to help students get to completion, I think what we're finding is that developmental education has been looked at as a stand-alone process by too many of our colleges.

And now we're moving to help colleges in a second round of dev-ed design that will integrate developmental education into program pathways, which changes the lens and the thinking and the engagement of faculty. So you look at a program and you say, what math pathway makes sense to get to this particular program instead of having dev ed over here, having programs —

KELLY FIELD: Having silos.

KAREN STOUT: — over here? Exactly.

KELLY FIELD: So you've seen some progress at the institutions that you've worked with. I think you said there are 200 member institutions now. What will it take to move the needle nationally, to get real changes in the numbers of students completing?

KAREN STOUT: Well, one of the things that I think is really important for Achieving the Dream in this next generation of work is that we reach more colleges that are in underresourced communities, that are also underresourced themselves.

So our current 200 colleges have received a lot of touch from Achieving the Dream from any number of ways, from coaching, from being involved in what we call transformation initiatives, where they're taking on adoption of open education resources and full degree programs, and they're working on advising redesign through integrated planning and advising. They're working with adjunct faculty engagement.

But we're working pretty much with the same set of colleges. And so what I think needs to happen — and I hope ATD can catalyze this — is to intentionally reach more colleges that need these types of supports and help them to get access to those services in new ways, either with new philanthropy or even with a redesign of the way Achieving the Dream deploys its services.

KELLY FIELD: And what have you found to be the biggest barriers or hurdles when it comes to improving outcomes and closing achievement gaps and bringing about the cultural change on campus that needs to happen for those other two things to happen?

KAREN STOUT: Well, at Achieving the Dream, we believe that there are seven essential capacities that colleges need to have in place. And they have to be pretty much high performing across the seven capacities. So a couple of those are really sticky right now for our colleges.

The first is the competency or capacity around leadership, that an institution has to have strong presidential leadership, strong and aligned board-of-trustee leadership, strong faculty leadership. That's No. 1.

No. 2 is that colleges that are in this reform work too often are doing the reform on the margins and not bringing faculty into the middle of the conversation. So faculty engagement is absolutely essential.

Data and technology. Now, I talked earlier that we've catalyzed a movement around data-informed decision making. But we're seeing our colleges continue to get better with using data. But they're having a hard time understanding what technology to deploy when and to have the technology aligned with the student experience. So they'll buy a piece of technology and then design student experience instead of designing student experience first.

KELLY FIELD: It's the other way around.

KAREN STOUT: The other way around. So those are our three capacities that I see as particularly sticky.

And the fourth one, which we continue to work on, is equity. Now, we can do this completion work and we can improve completion for some students. But we need to improve completion for all students.

And one of the things that I see as still a big challenge for Achieving the Dream colleges and for the community-college movement in general is that we've seen completion go up for some students, and we've seen the gap widen for other students. And we have to figure out ways to design our work intentionally with equity in mind from the very beginning to really make a difference in the country.

The other thing is that community colleges are inherently local. And we at Achieving the Dream want to help colleges optimize their localness. It's through the work of community colleges in their local communities with their community partners, their work, their employers, K through 12, the universities, the community-based organizations, that they can really make a difference for this country.

KELLY FIELD: So President Obama really put community colleges up on a pedestal. He offered them millions of dollars and proposed free community college. What sort of treatment are you expecting from the current administration?

KAREN STOUT: I don't know what to expect from the current administration yet. It is a timely question. I think that if I were back as a college president at this point, and I was talking to my colleague college presidents, I think that they will look at the ability to effect change with local policy and state policy. I mean, I think that the focus for reform will shift from maybe being more federally driven to be more grass-roots-oriented. I don't see the work shifting. I think the place where the lever is will shift.

KELLY FIELD: And you think that's the case for the community-college, free-community-college movement as well?

KAREN STOUT: Well, I think what's great about the free-community-college movement, is that it is grass roots. I mean, there's a new Promise program popping up every day. San Francisco just announced one, the first city to have a comprehensive one. And I'm on the College Promise National Advisory Board.

That work's going to continue. And it will be local, and it will be state-based. I don't think that there will be a national conversation about a federal role in that at this point.

KELLY FIELD: Great. Thanks, Karen.

KAREN STOUT: Thank you.

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her at kelly.field@chronicle.com. Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.