Postsecondary Trending Now: Effective Systemic Change

If you’re dedicated to student success and college completion, you probably want to know how to enact systemic change focused on these goals, what promising practices are being used, and at least one example of a college or university that is doing the hard work.

Here are three resources to get you started.

The Logic of Creating Effective Systemic Change: How Five CBD Case Study Colleges Have Gone About Creating a Culture of Student Success

This 10-page, easily digestible white paper by MDRC provides a perspective drawn from the Completion by Design initiative on how community colleges can create sustainable, systemic change focused on student success and college completion. MDRC identifies eight factors important for change to take hold that can be summed up with this equation:

  • Flexible Vision: Senior Leadership and Distributed Leadership
  • Strategies for Promoting Change: Communication and Engagement, Professional Development, Incentive Structures, and Visible Actions
  • Systemic Change: Changed Sense-making and Changed Practice

Isn’t a “flexible vision” an oxymoron? The report suggests that the end goal of improving student success doesn’t change, but the path to get there may need to adapt to changing circumstances, especially with unanticipated external pressures, such as changes in state policy, or internal pressures, such as new data about student outcomes and program effectiveness. The report also shared that college presidents often connected the college completion vision to strengthening (rather than replacing) existing goals such as open access and responsiveness to local employers. It also emphasized the need to see synergy in the changes made to individual programs or services—advising, developmental education, and pathways—as they need to add up to a larger picture of change.

I was particularly taken by the section on “Visible Actions.” Since wholesale transformation takes a large amount of effort and a long time to be enacted, it’s important to recognize and celebrate elements of the systemic change. It demonstrates commitment, builds support, and motivates the college community to keep pursuing the long-term vision:

“In conclusion, colleges striving to transform themselves into completion-centered institutions are likely to focus on the specific practices and processes they want to change—developmental education instruction, advising, course selection guidelines, and so on. But the systemic change embodied in CBD [Completion By Design] is as much about changing faculty and staff members’ beliefs and values as it is about changing practice.”

A Matter of Degrees: Promising Practices for Community College Student Success (A First Look)

This Center for Community College Student Engagement report caught my eye when my colleague Judith Pirani recently referenced it. While Judith focused on the design principles presented in the report, I’d like to share with you the set of promising practices it described. The report goes into much more detail, but here’s the list:

Planning for Success

  • Assessment and Placement
  • Orientation
  • Academic Goal Setting and Planning
  • Registration before Classes Begin

Initiating Success

  • Accelerated or Fast-Track Developmental Education
  • First-Year Experience
  • Student Success Course
  • Learning Community

Sustaining Success

  • Class Attendance
  • Alert and Intervention
  • Experiential Learning beyond the Classroom
  • Tutoring
  • Supplemental Instruction

When you combine these promising practices with the change process outlined in the MDRC report, do you have a recipe for success?

Community College District Tries Full Slate of Innovations, All at Once

This Hechinger Report article gives an example of systemic reform incorporating the promising practices, and it’s based on one of the colleges in the NGLC network of breakthrough degree programs: Rio Salado College. The college’s unique approach involves courses starting every Monday throughout the year, low tuition costs, and 23 full-time and 1,500 adjunct faculty members. The college serves more than 60,000 students—a largely low-income, part-time, and online student population.

The article references one of the keys to Rio Salado’s success—wrap-around student supports, which includes this partial list:

  • A customized online portal for creating a pathway to a degree, applying credit for prior learning, and contacting a personal advisor and peer mentors.
  • Advisors and peer mentors who offer proactive, intrusive support to help students reach their goals.
  • RioPACE, an early alert system that provides instructors, advisors, and students themselves with information about students’ performance
  • Additional tech systems that enable instructors to provide targeted feedback and personalized interventions.

Reinforcing the MDRC white paper’s key takeaway that systemic change is as much about changing beliefs and values as it is about changing practice, the article quotes Chris Bustamante, President of Rio Salado:

“Colleges and universities ‘need to adapt more quickly than they ever did before, but not all of us have that in our cultures,’ Bustamante said. ‘If they want to survive and continue to be relevant, they are going to need to be more nimble and more adaptable, and they’re going to have to serve their students rather than their institutions.’”

Learn more about Rio Salado College’s breakthrough model on their NGLC grant recipient page.


Photo courtesy of: Yale University Art Gallery


Add new comment