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Spotlight April 15, 2020

Transforming Community Colleges for Student Success

Ascendium Senior Program Officer Sue Cui was one of 40 fellows in cohort three of the Aspen Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence, a program that “aims to develop a cadre of exceptional leaders who can transform community colleges to achieve higher levels of student success while maintaining broad access.” This intensive, applied leadership executive program is delivered in collaboration with Stanford Educational Leadership Initiative. The year-long fellowship includes three in-person residential seminars plus structured mentoring by experienced community college presidents and the development of a strategic leadership vision through a capstone project.

Sue applied to the program because “I wanted to understand how college leaders make decisions and effect change through their staff. I valued the opportunity to network with effective leaders and learn what’s important to them in their quest to transform their institutions.”  

Sue’s says her experience led to many actionable learnings or changes in the way she works, along with a few “AHA” moments of understanding structural barriers faced by presidents, including:

  • The Fellowship emphasized that transformational change–which in the higher ed context refers to change that alters institutional culture--is deep and pervasive, affecting the whole institution. It is intentional and occurs over time. Transformational change is needed to remove meaningful barriers to student success. Some barriers are structural, like how people and entities are organized; other barriers are cultural, like accumulated attitudes and habits.
  • The Fellowship emphasized the unique role and responsibility of the college president to drive transformational change that no one else is positioned to do, especially in intentionally:
  • Setting the stage and expectations for external, public/private and cross-sector partnerships
  • Setting the stage and expectations for internal collaborations and silo-busting
  • It was helpful to understand how to connect the dots between transformational change driven by college presidents and our Ascendium goals around achieving philanthropic impact. A funder as grant partner (as opposed to compliance officer) who wants to support and incentivize transformational change would:
    • Ask more explicitly, and not just assume, how the grant-funded work is in service of the college’s current strategic direction.
    • Focus more on understanding how individual pieces contribute to the whole, rather than drill into any one piece.
    • Ask about change process at the institutional level, not just the program level.
    • Seek to understand the college’s view of return on investment and strategic finance.
    • Instead of dictating what data is collected, ask what evidence is actually used in decision making and what should be collected, especially around sustainability.
    • Go beyond assessing what was accomplished for any one initiative to inquire about systems alignment and how the work built capacity, or surfaced knowledge and practice gaps.
  • As new and emerging college presidents are preparing to lead their institutions through complex completion, equity and workforce development agendas, we should ask ourselves how we can help to increase their impact.
  • Given the contexts under which our country and educational systems were established, we must be vigilant about tackling historical inequities built into the infrastructure we seek to change.

“I came back with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the unique role that community college presidents embody internally at their own colleges and with external community partners, including other colleges and local employers. It really helped me think about different ways that Ascendium can provide support and incentives to help community college presidents be successful.”

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