Today’s community college leaders find themselves confronting a confounding reality. In the face of year-over-year budget reductions, their colleges are expected to serve a larger and more diverse student body while achieving significantly better outcomes for these students. Community colleges are not only expected to expand college access, they are increasingly held accountable for improving student completion rates, and increasingly for their graduates achieving exceptional labor market outcomes.
These are very daunting challenges. What are community college leaders to do?
A promising strategy some community colleges are engaging in is “collective impact.” Collective impact is based on the fact that many of a community’s most important social challenges cannot be solved by organizations acting alone. Cross-sector collective impact initiatives have been launched in dozens of American communities with notable progress in areas such as juvenile justice, substance abuse, homelessness, health, and community development. One of the nation’s best-known collective impact initiatives is the Strive Partnership of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, which focuses on improving educational outcomes from cradle to career.
Elements of collective impact
Collective impact provides a framework for cross-sector leaders to forge a common agenda for solving specific social problems. Research has shown there are five basic elements of collective impact:
- Common agenda: a shared understanding of the problem or challenge to be addressed and a common vision of the change required
- Shared measurement system: agreement on the ways success will be jointly defined and measured
- Mutually reinforcing activities: jointly designed and aligned activities across partner organizations
- Constant communication: development of a shared vocabulary, regular leadership meetings, and utilized channels of communication
- Backbone organization: dedicated staff who plan and manage the activities of the collective impact initiative
Community colleges engaged in a collective impact strategy
A growing number of America’s community colleges are finding their engagement in collective impact holds the promise of accomplishing much better outcomes for their students and their communities than if they work alone. Community colleges are often one of several cross sector organizations that together create a common agenda, align their activities and resources, direct them toward achieving a common yet complex goal, and attempt to solve a complicated social problem. Most often community colleges are one of many participants, but sometimes community colleges play a leadership role. A few examples are below:
The Alamo Colleges in Texas are participants in the “San Antonio 2020” collective impact initiative involving over 200 organizations in eleven key vision areas designed to transform San Antonio into a world-class city by 2020. The Alamo Colleges, together with other education, non-profit, and business sector leaders, are focused upon increasing the percentage of the adult population holding a postsecondary credential and growing the number of jobs in targeted sectors of the economy.
Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina is a participant in the “Made in Durham” collective impact initiative. Inspired by a task force led by the former president of the Duke University Health System, Made in Durham is an education-to-career system; Durham Tech is a lynchpin in transforming “disconnected youth” into “opportunity youth” and meeting its community’s workforce requirements for middle-skill workers.
Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), located just outside of Washington, DC, is the backbone organization for a collective impact initiative called “Pathway to the Baccalaureate,” which involves 55 high schools nine school systems, NOVA, and George Mason University. Its goal is to increase the number of first generation college-goers, particularly low-income, immigrant and minority students who attain a bachelor’s degree. Between 2005 and 2015, NOVA students transferring to George Mason increased annually by 1,300. Virtually all of that increase was made up of non-white first generation college students.
Community colleges are uniquely positioned at the crossroads of public schools and higher education, between the education and the business sectors, and are frequent collaborators with community-based non-profit organizations. By teaming across business, social service, non-profit, education and government sectors, and by using a collective impact framework to guide their work, community college leaders may find the kind of breakthrough strategy that can help them succeed in an otherwise challenging environment.
In a world of declining resources and increasing accountability for enhancing student completion rates with high labor market outcomes (especially for those from low-income families), community college leaders are realizing more than ever that they cannot achieve what is needed by acting alone, and therefore need to form collective impact initiatives with cross-sector leadership to achieve the desired outcomes for their students and their community.
Bob Templin is Professor of the Practice in North Carolina State University’s community college leadership program and a Senior Fellow at the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. David Phillips is Associate Director of the global social-impact consulting firm FSG.