A nonprofit group that was a pioneer in helping more community college students get to graduation is expanding its focus to include social and economic mobility, with a goal for two-year colleges to be community hubs for an equitable economic recovery.
The pivot by Achieving the Dream is more evidence that efforts to close gaps in educational and workforce outcomes have become the next wave of the college completion reform movement
, which itself built on the successful, decades-long push to widen student access to college.
Founded in 2004, Achieving the Dream works with a network of 300
two-year colleges and systems, which collectively enroll 4M students. With an approach grounded in data, equity, and continuous improvement, the group offers a suite of supports
while bringing faculty members and college leaders together to share what works on student success.
The two-year college sector needs a new approach to access by no longer waiting for students to come to them, says Stout, who formerly led Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County Community College. Instead, she says community colleges must bring education and job training to disconnected youth who have left the postsecondary pipeline as well as to working learners who need upskilling and reskilling:
“Community colleges are uniquely positioned to be the center, the hub, of the community infrastructure required for upward mobility and economic growth. Our colleges need to think differently about how they move into their communities and how they redesign access via their physical proximity to learners and via technology.”
The fundamental goal for a more accessible hub model, Stout says, citing Gregory Haile
, president of Broward College, is to “make the community college experience inescapable for those who need us most.” That work won’t be easy, she says. It requires structural and attitudinal shifts around student intake and advising systems, as well as blending the currently siloed entry points for credit and noncredit programs, so that two-year colleges have one entry portal for learners of all ages and intentions.
“In the past, community colleges were lifelong-learning institutions,” says Stout. “Now we must become lifelong career-matching institutions—a source of upskilling, a rational pathway to career development that weaves together opportunities for students to move in and out of work and school that is designed to progressively lead to a career in a particular field.”
While Stout applauded growing philanthropic interest in the two-year college sector, she says typically cash-strapped and short-staffed community colleges can get overwhelmed with the growing number of economic mobility projects. The key to avoiding initiative fatigue, she says, is a “cohesive framework to connect all the efforts to their larger student success and workforce goals.”
Unlike many four-year institutions, workforce development and close ties to employers have long been a key part of the missions of community colleges. Yet Stout estimates that only one in five community colleges are exceptional at understanding the job market and linking courses and training to the specific needs of employers.
This “institutional blind spot” often is driven by capacity challenges, she says, on both sides of the education-to-work continuum:
“We tend to think about ‘employers’ as if they are all Amazon, Google, or Walmart, but many simply do not have the talent development capacity of these large corporations to devote to working with community colleges and other partners.
“On top of that, big employers are not often connected to the community college as a whole, as place-based institutions, or to community needs. Corporate partnerships too often take place business unit–by–business unit and on an ad hoc basis. Employers don’t know who to work with at the college level, and their regional corporate representatives often rotate in and out of communities.”
is the founder and executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. He strongly backs the expanded focus by Achieving the Dream. Wyner says clear goals about which degrees and credentials community colleges aim to deliver—and which ones to de-emphasize—will have an impact on how they improve student access.
The Kicker: “If colleges recruit students and give them free tuition and nonacademic supports but don’t deliver value, enrollments will continue to decline over the long term,” he says. “Students want jobs. They want a better life. Colleges must deliver that to ensure sustained enrollments—aka access.”