The Interview: President Eddinger Interviews Karen A. Stout, Ed.D., of Achieving the Dream

President Eddinger and Achieving the Dream President and CEO Karen A. Stout explore the challenges before us in community college education.

Karen A. Stout, Ed.D., President and CEO of Achieving the Dream (ATD)Part of an occasional series of conversations with local and national leaders about issues and trends in community college education.

BHCC President Pam Eddinger and Karen A. Stout, Ed.D., President and CEO of Achieving the Dream (ATD) explore the challenges before us in community college education and discuss approaches to student success as they look forward to the future of higher education and its impact on workforce and community development.

Since becoming President and CEO in 2015, Stout has led the growth and expansion of ATD’s national network of community colleges to include new initiatives in a number of areas critical to their ability to advance their goals.


Pam Eddinger (PE): As presidents of our respective institutions, we’re driven by a sense of urgency to improve student success. How do we move the needle while addressing the challenges before us—specifically, how do we do more with less and make bold changes with limited support?

Karen Stout (KS): This is a concern we hear often in the field. To do this work, we have to reframe our thinking on what it means to “improve student success” and make it THE work. We must move this goal—and clearly define it for the context of our institutions—to the center of our institutions’ strategic plans, policy goals, board agendas, budgeting processes and talent management systems. If we view student success work as an additional project or initiative that we add on top of “regular” work, it is isolated and unconnected and, therefore, viewed as nearly impossible or as something we can get to after we take on other challenges that always pop up as urgent. As leaders, we must help our teams to see that student success is their daily work. We can do that by clearly articulating how our decisions around resource allocation, policy, staffing, programming, etc., are interconnected decisions that, when aligned, improve student success outcomes in an equitable way.

Improving student success starts with a clear vision of what student success means and a commitment to ensuring that as we do our daily work, we challenge ourselves to ask, “How is this decision improving the economic and social mobility of the students we are serving and, thereby, strengthening the community we serve?”

I have great optimism that we can and must do bold things on behalf of our students. I hold this optimism because I see dozens of our Achieving the Dream colleges beginning to hit a tipping point in their student success journeys. We are starting to see significant gains in credential completion, the closing of equity gaps, and big increases in bachelor’s degree completion rates for students who transfer. They are “turning the flywheel,” as author Jim Collins describes in his book Turning the Flywheel: A Monography to Accompany Good to Great. This requires that colleges build strong fundamentals around ATD’s seven capacities; adopt a framework to guide, organize, and prioritize their student success work; lead with a shared institutional theory of action; and be relentless in staying the course because this work takes time and a combination of patience and urgency.

Bunker Hill Community College, a 2014 Leah Meyer Austin winner, is well on its way to achieving stronger student success outcomes. Your fundamentals are strong. And you have been relentless in your pursuit of improved and equitable student success outcomes.

PE: BHCC is working on improving student outcomes through a comprehensive review of policy and student-centered practices in collaboration with ATD. This holistic student supports (HSS) work is central to addressing the way we connect with and support students throughout their paths. How do you view HSS, and is it being adopted in the colleges ATD works with nationally?

KS: First, HSS work is not a project; it is an approach that requires fundamental redesign of academic and non-academic supports around the student experience from the time a student inquires about attendance at the college through completion.

Second, HSS is not a piece of technology that supports early alert systems or the use of predictive analytics—although both are important. Redesign of the student experience requires colleges to examine the technologies that touch students through their journeys and the HSS work helps colleges evaluate whether those technologies are supporting a seamless student experience. Colleges must map out the intended processes that will support students and then look for technology tools that support reaching that outcome. Often we work with colleges that bought technology as a solution and then design processes around the technology capabilities rather than student needs.

Third, HSS is not just about redesign of advising applications, though advising is central to HSS work. Colleges that jump into redesign without understanding their intentions for supporting students around careers, finances, basic needs, and academic plans will find that addressing advising in isolation of the full process will not work.

Fourth, HSS connects nicely into the guided pathways framework. It brings implementation tools and strategies to deepen our ability around two core parts of the framework: getting students on a path and keeping students on a path.

Fifth, strong HSS design results in a student needing to tell their story one time. Think about BHCC’s incoming class for this fall. How many times did each new student need to tell their story as they moved through enrollment, financial aid, registration, advising, parking?

Many of our colleges are adopting the holistic student supports framework and approach to turn the flywheel as I mentioned earlier. We are finding that colleges that do this well are putting the student voice first through the intentional use of quantitative and qualitative data.

PE: We know students want to enter and complete their programs quickly and efficiently. Yet most have little structured career exploration before they enroll. Where do you see our role in supporting the nation in developing a more versatile technical and scientific workforce while understanding each and every student starts in a different place, progresses at their own speed and has their own goals?

KS: Circling back to centering the student voice in our work, I’d like to answer this question by considering two students who are most likely registering at BHCC or a similar institution right now.

One student comes from a community in which she is surrounded by people and possibilities. Her neighborhood and school friends are the children of people who are working and living out the expectations and promises of their educational pathway. She sees professional people, business owners, and leaders, and is developing social capital and reinforcing the value of education as a pathway to becoming what she knows are real possibilities for her life—for people like her.

Another student comes from a community in which she is surrounded by people who have not fully been encouraged by or realized the promises of education. She sees hard working people trying to make ends meet and focused on ensuring there is just enough provision. She doesn’t know anyone personally who is a business owner, an engineer, or a white-collar professional. Yet, her community is full of potential, untapped in the social and cultural networks, in the eagerness to advance and attend the mobility of the next generation.

These two students come into our college and we provide them with a structured assessment on careers and ask them to pick one. Pick something that you understand. Pick something that you are interested in. Pick something that you could visualize yourself doing in a few years. Pick something that you believe is possible for your life.

I paint this picture because we must understand that the idea of choosing a career is partially rooted in assessment and very deeply rooted in what you believe is possible for your life. Our approach to helping students choose a pathway must encompass counseling and advising to ensure that students who do not have all the benefits of the first student I described are able to understand and believe that the pathways presented to them are indeed pathways that are possible for them to achieve. We can help to do that through better connections and programming with K-12 partners and employer partners. We can also look for more comprehensive ways to embed career advising and the idea of career possibilities in the college exploration and onboarding process, and throughout the first-year experience.

This would be bold if our institutions saw themselves as career possibility centers. Where we don’t rely on isolated courses or assessments to help the students who need us the most make very important decisions that could impact their life earning trajectory. Rather, we become colleges that embrace the concept of career exploration throughout the student experience and infuse career conversations, programming, and supports throughout the student experience. This type of infused design is possible to achieve through our HSS work.

PE: What do you see as the impact of this work on rebuilding local communities and on recapturing the nation’s lead in education?

KE: Healthy and vibrant community colleges are essential catalysts for building strong local communities. Our graduates typically remain in the region and become the heartbeat of the economy as nurses, first responders, educators, technologists, technicians, legislators, scientists and entrepreneurs. And, our country can only recapture the lead in education with community colleges taking the lead, one community at a time, and in partnership with other anchor entities in their communities— hospitals, universities, non-profit health and human services providers, and business leaders—in setting a collective agenda to improve educational attainment rates for all citizens in their communities.

Many of our ATD colleges see this as the next phase of their completion work, moving to make completion a progression metric rather than the end metric. The Kresge Foundation recognizes the potential of this approach and the ability of ATD colleges to be at the center by offering a new $3.6 million funding opportunity to strengthen partnerships between community colleges and human services nonprofits that connect people with low incomes in cities to critical human service supports and educational pathways that advance social and economic mobility.

Through the BOOST (Boosting Opportunities for Social and Economic Mobility for Families) initiative, Kresge will award up to eight three year grants to qualifying partnerships between community colleges active in the Achieving the Dream Network and human services nonprofits. This opportunity underscores our colleges’ strong data capacity and commitment to equity. Also, it connects directly to our focus on holistic student supports and the importance of cultivating strong partnerships with community providers for our campuses.

ATD is eager to work with our colleges on new metrics that help them estimate their impact on students and community. We need metrics beyond the now commonly used ones of retention, completion, and even transfer. We need the capacity to measure completers earning family supporting wages and other indicators of social benefit. This is the next wave of data-informed decision making in higher education and it ties back to measuring the ROI of our work for students and the community, not the institution.

PE: Achieving the Dream is at the center of the best conversations taking place in the community college system. As board chair, I’ve had the pleasure of being part of shaping that conversation. What’s next for this network?

KS: In this reform work, we can leave no college behind in understanding the urgent case for the equitable and aggregate improvement of student outcomes. We’re always learning from the field and anticipating what’s next for our colleges. ATD has changed considerably over the past three years, re-articulating the fundamental capacities that formed the foundation of our early work— leadership, equity, culture of evidence, systemic improvement, and broad engagement—to a framework with seven fundamental capacities and an assessment tool to help our colleges identify capacity gaps.

In addition, we have moved from a “one size fits all” approach in supporting our colleges to one that is customized to fit a college where they are in their student success work. Our work at BHCC around HSS is an example. We are also working with colleges to center teaching and learning in their student success work and we will soon announce new supports for colleges around equity.

ATD’s recent merger with the Gateway to College National Network, a program that BHCC is also a part of, further extends our work into helping our colleges build stronger K-12 connections to serve the most vulnerable young people in our communities. I am excited about where our joint work in this area will lead us.

What is important as we make these changes is that our commitment to equitable student outcomes, data-informed practice, and deploying coaches that help colleges build important habits remain central to our theory of action.

In the area of equity, ATD published a new equity statement in 2016, challenging our colleges to take universal and targeted approaches to both increase aggregate success for all students and eliminate equity gaps. All good equity work begins with internal work, and the entire ATD team has been immersed in our own organizational equity journey to make us a stronger and more resilient organization. Now we are guiding our colleges in creating and using their own equity statements and helping them to make those statements actionable. We’re working on the next iteration of the ATD Equity Institute, learning from the sell-out event we held in early 2019. While many of the colleges in the ATD Network are seeing achievement gaps narrow or close— especially for Hispanic populations— the gap for black students is actually widening on many campuses. Equity remains a critical and central concern.

In addition, there is still more to do to harness the power of data to rally support for reforms, measure impact, and influence and track the student experience. AI and predictive analytics are new tools to help us understand the student experience, proactively provide needed student supports, and track impact. Even as technology improves, we still need to be able to tell the story of our students and use the data to stir up support and understanding of the tasks at hand. We need new metrics such as wages, employment and social benefits to measure impact after students leave our institutions and on our communities’ economic and civic health.

Finally, our coaching model remains a signature asset of Achieving the Dream. We are continuing to build and diversify our coaching cadre, moving to a model that includes our leadership and data coaches plus adds depth in coaching around teaching and learning, equity and holistic student supports. Some of our new coaches are leading practitioners. And, some of our coaches are now ATD employees.

PE: And what’s next for you?

KS: Personally, I plan to focus more of my time on trends and issues facing higher educational leaders, participating in the national conversation so I can bring the lessons and insights from our colleges’ work to the forefront of national policy and action. Our network has a 15-year history of innovation and advocacy. We are positioned to bring greater national attention to the urgent necessity of creating more equitable institutions and community. Our colleges are also models for reform at other levels of higher education and can contribute significantly to the nurturing of a talented, diverse workforce.