Colleges and universities need to focus on implementation and scale

By my account, we’re entering the second decade of the completion agenda. While the philanthropic community may have instigated this reform effort, state and federal policymakers have fueled its longevity. And of course, reform-minded institutional leaders – led by public community and technical colleges – have been at the forefront of experimentation and change to improve college completion rates.

Given the increased interest in evidence-based decision-making and public accountability, much of the prior decade’s focus on college completion has been around identifying effective practices that colleges should implement and scale. A vocal chorus of researchers and policy think tanks has argued that rigorous evidence, especially experimental studies, should be the benchmark for deciding if a practice is effective or not. In a handful of cases, such studies have provided causal evidence of impact – most recently an MDRC study of the Accelerated Study in Associates Program (ASAP) in the CUNY system.

Although most researchers and practitioners agree that a “silver bullet” will not be found – the overarching focus on experimental studies unfortunately implies the opposite. I am not suggesting that we should stop pursuing causal evidence of effective practices; but I do believe that improving students’ progress towards college completions could benefit from a more intentional and systematic focus on implementation and scale.

Colleges and universities should be expanding a slew of innovative practices they already provide on their campuses – but that few students are benefiting. As we document in our recent report – Case-Informed Lessons for Scaling Innovation at Community and Technical Colleges – the challenge facing institutions to expand the number and proportion of students earning credentials does not appear to be a lack of knowledge about effective postsecondary practices. [I’ll leave the arguments about various standards of evidence for another blog]. Rather, college and university leaders need to better understand how to implement and scale innovative practices if we are to significantly raise completion rates.

Implementation and scale is the responsibility of the entire institution. It is a challenge for both academic affairs and student affairs. It is also a challenge for stakeholders providing basic operational functions in support of an institution’s mission and values. Scale requires leaders throughout the institution – at many levels of hierarchy and responsibility, and across divisions and departments – to address deeper, systemic policies and procedures that touch all aspects of organizational behavior.

While scale should be measured numerically in terms of the numbers of students benefiting from effective practices, achieving scale requires attention to a process of change that alters the beliefs and norms of social interactions among college stakeholders. Building on the important work of scholars like Cynthia Coburn and Adrianna Kezar, we’ve identified five transformative ingredients that – if intentionally addressed – can create the conditions needed for scale to occur.

1. Alignment with institutional planning and accountability processes through leadership and commitment across divisions and departments that are broadly inclusive of administrators, faculty, and staff.

2. Sufficient human and financial resources to generate buy-in and support from a broad base of stakeholders, and require financial and administrative prioritization.

3. Increased institutional research capacity, and improved systems to collect, analyze, and discuss data, to provide better evidence for continuous improvement and to monitor and refine implementation.

4. Transparent and supportive policies and practices that involves inclusive engagement of stakeholders to design and vet necessary policy and practice changes, and shared responsibility for action within their respective divisional and departmental lines of authority.

5. Access to networks of institutions and other stakeholder organizations also supporting systems and culture to create momentum and “peer-pressure” to sustain commitment to institutional transformation.

There is not single pathway to achieve scale. The fundamental lesson for colleges and universities, while addressing these five transformative ingredients, is to account for the their unique institutional culture, existing tensions, preferred ways of working, as well as key supporters and detractors on campus – and be responsive to this context.

Derek V. Price