For those of us working to support the access-oriented colleges and universities that are on the front lines of the fight for the American middle class, the latest research from CCRC on how community colleges are implementing whole-college redesign through guided pathways is well timed. By taking a rich qualitative look at the change process at eight community colleges varying in size, geography, and student demographics, this research offers practitioners and advocates a vital and refreshingly clear-eyed look at what it means to engage in the work of large-scale, student-focused reform.
In 2018, my colleague Paul Markham and I founded Sova. Our work focuses on accelerating and improving the quality of the implementation of large-scale, student-focused change. As former faculty members, our efforts are grounded in the belief that institutional change that leads to better and more equitable outcomes for today’s students requires the ongoing cultivation of an institutional culture that emphasizes true co-ownership and rigorous attention to quality throughout the implementation process and at every level of a college. The new CCRC report and case studies provide concrete illustrations of that complex work in action. From the efforts to engage faculty around data at Prince George’s Community College to the commitment to creating room for experimentation and failure at San Jacinto Community College, the research affirms the need to reset and re-center how we think about—and work to create—change.
The following principles have emerged in Sova’s work to help higher education institutions build capacity for large-scale change, and they resonate with CCRC’s research on the AACC Pathways Project colleges.
Move beyond “buy-in” to real investment in change work
Buy-in is a concept that should be reassessed. While its ostensible meaning is “personal investment,” in our work with colleges around the country, we’ve noticed that the term has become shorthand—maybe even code—for a set of concepts that obscure as much as they reveal about what making real change from within complex, dynamic, change-averse systems entails. More often than not, when higher education changemakers talk about needing buy-in for a student success priority, the concept they’re describing is relatively thin, decidedly transactional, and mostly involves a measure of vocal pushback (more buy-in equals less pushback; less buy-in equals more pushback).
But genuine, whole-college transformation on behalf of truly equitable outcomes for students is enormously difficult work that requires the creative investment of a critical mass of faculty, staff, and administrators. It requires something more than and different from a tacit acceptance of—or lack of vocal resistance to—change.
There are two reasons why this is so. First, passive non-compliance can be a primary contributor to stalled progress or flagging momentum, which often vex higher education changemakers. In the context of access-oriented public higher education, deeply entrenched practices and even more deeply entrenched attitudes, habits, and perceived interests conspire to protect the status quo. Second, in student success-focused institutional transformation work, problems are never just technical; they’re always adaptive and technical.
Identify the nature of the problems to be solved
Technical problems have clear definitions and solutions that can be implemented by fiat and with the technical expertise of one or a few leaders. In contrast, adaptive problems—in both their definitions and in their solutions—require complex decision-making under uncertain conditions and therefore implicate the comparatively messy domains of values, identities, power, and culture. Adaptive problems belie the notion that solutions can be simply delivered from “on high” or easily replicated in novel contexts.
When it comes to higher education reform, a combination of wishful thinking and the undeniable allure of easy answers leads leaders to mistake adaptive problems for technical problems and contributes to a thin notion of buy-in that points us in the wrong direction. When adaptive problems are treated like technical problems, the risk that leaders will mismanage change and burn the good will of those they depend on for the implementation of great ideas increases. The notion that a clear vision and strong evidence are enough to drive and sustain real change is intuitive, but unfortunately wrong. As CCRC’s latest research shows, a clear vision and strong evidence is a necessary but insufficient driver of real change.
Develop skills to collectively engage in adaptive problem-solving
In settings where student-focused institutional transformation is counter-cultural—which may arguably encompass all of traditional American higher education—successful implementation of even the most promising evidence-based innovations requires that changemakers develop the skills and nimbleness to (1) marshal a critical mass of key stakeholders as co-creators, (2) help those stakeholders to actively own a role in expanding the will for change within their spheres of influence, and (3) build the conditions for effective decision-making and continuous improvement despite uncertainty and within complex contexts challenged by internal and external pressures.
Balance urgency and patience to support authentic engagement
For those hanging their hopes on technical solutions and the allure of easy answers, the concept of “authentic engagement” can feel like a time-wasting distraction and a potential quagmire. Taking the time for co-discovery and co-creation can feel counterproductive in the face of the urgency felt deeply by so many seeking to remake their institutions. But balancing urgency and clarity with a realistic appreciation of the level of engagement required to lead change within a complex, dynamic environment is hard, necessary work. And it’s work that CCRC’s report shows is being embraced by those who are making the greatest progress in scaling reforms that put students first.
Plan for the long haul
As we often say in our interactions with student-success leadership teams, commitment to building co-ownership for change is more like cultivating a garden than building a road. It is work without end and work that must be powered by a deep appreciation and care for effective process and a nurturing environment. Indeed, the work calls for the purposeful cultivation of leadership skills that are often underappreciated—chief among them the constellation of capabilities that fall under the headings of growth mindedness and emotional intelligence.
In the world of access-oriented public higher education, leaders must create a vision, using data to set priorities and making hard structural changes. But equally important, they must show humility, practice empathy and respect, listen deeply, and show grace and productive persistence in the face of setbacks. This is hard work, especially when paired with the required commitment to create clear and coherent processes for change. CCRC’s latest research on the implementation of guided pathways reforms is useful to the field, and we urge student success leadership teams to set time aside to read carefully and discuss the report and case studies.
This essay was originally published in the Community College Research Center Blog.