Students taking notes

Dismantling Inequities in Higher Ed with NCII

Higher education has proven time and again to be the driving force that connects people with living-wage careers and allows economic mobility. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the employment rate is significantly higher for those with some college experience (75 percent) than for those who had completed only high school (68 percent).

Community colleges in particular have an important role to play, as they allow many students to access higher education and career-specific training at a more affordable cost. However, inequities and ineffective practices within the community college system have been leaving students behind, particularly students of color and those in rural areas.

The National Center for Inquiry and Improvement (NCII) Impact Fund, a project fiscally sponsored by the New Venture Fund, uses data-driven consulting to help community colleges reform their approach in a way that creates stronger pathways to opportunity for students across the country.

Building Pathways to Living-Wage Work

The NCII Impact Fund is housed within the umbrella organization NCII, which was founded by CEO and President Robert Johnstone in 2013. A former community college administrator and consultant himself, Johnstone supported the seminal work of the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University to research community college students’ experiences and explore how using data in authentic ways can create positive change. Central to Johnstone’s work with CCRC was the Guided Pathways Framework, introduced in 2011 by CCRC to help community college students better prepare for living-wage careers or transfer to four-year institutions with junior standing in a degree program. At NCII, Johnstone and his team are particularly interested in applying the Guided Pathways framework to improve the educational experience for those who have traditionally been marginalized and left behind.

NCII works with community colleges in either short-term or multi-year consulting commitments, through which it provides senior leaders and front-line practitioners with coaching and actionable recommendations to support the redesign work of community colleges to better serves students’ needs and improve student outcomes. In addition to high-level recommendations related to curriculum or operations, NCII also addresses student financial stability by working with colleges to help students cover not only the cost of tuition and supplies, but also basic needs such as housing, food, and healthcare. It also helps students set up career connections with a focus on living wage attainment, creating partnerships with local employers to ensure colleges prepare students for opportunities in a post-college world.

Both of these foci aim to bridge the disconnect between students’ academic goals and their financial needs, which can make completing college and starting a career much harder. As Johnstone explained, “We can help redesign curriculums all we want, but if we aren’t addressing generational poverty and helping students ultimately get into living-wage careers, our work will not have the impact we need.”

Highly Tailored Partnership

From its beginnings in 2013, NCII has continued to grow, deepening its focus on particular areas under the umbrella of reforming community colleges. In particular, the organization launched two new programs in recent years: its Rural Guided Pathways Project and the Scaling the Leadership Academy for Student Success Project, both of which are now housed within the NCII Impact Fund.

These programs inspired NCII to seek out an intermediary to help support its work, and after exploring the landscape for a suitable partner, NVF emerged as a natural fit for the NCII Impact Fund. “What I liked most was that NVF could customize the services it provides to cover exactly what we needed,” explained Johnstone. “That high-value partnership and its responsive personnel have made NVF a great partner in supporting our work.”

Expanding Access to Best Practices

The NCII Impact Fund’s Rural Guided Pathways Project is based on the broader Guided Pathways approach, but unlike NCII’s historical college support models, it uses a more holistic model to support rural colleges and communities. In the past, funding efforts to reform community colleges have focused on large urban areas with significant student populations, which has left smaller rural communities underserved. And while no two rural communities are alike, they do have distinct needs that a traditional urban approach will not serve.

The Rural Guided Pathways Project emphasizes engaging the entire rural community where students live, enlisting local employers and workforce development personnel to provide wraparound support and education. “When you get everyone clicking in on all cylinders in a cross-sector partnership, that’s when economic opportunity expands and economic mobility is possible,” said Senior Fellow Gretchen Schmidt, who leads the Rural Guided Pathways work.

The Rural Guided Pathways team is working with 16 colleges and communities so far and continues to use the data and lessons it gathers to tailor its outreach and approach to rural institutions. One data point the project has seen repeatedly is the issue of capacity and turnover within community colleges. Often, the NCII Impact Fund team would work with colleges to implement reforms, only to need to start from square one when the mid-level leaders they had been working alongside left the institution. NCII Impact Fund’s Leadership Academy for Student Success is intended to combat this major disruption.

The Leadership Academy for Student Success is a yearlong professional development program geared toward mid-level faculty and staff at community colleges. The program was developed by the Success Center for Ohio Community Colleges with the support of the NCII team. The content of this program is based on the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program’s presidential fellowship curriculum “The first half of the program is focused on fundamentals of student success, such as understanding students’ goals and what they experience in and out of the classroom,” said NCII Senior Fellow Chris Baldwin, who heads the Leadership Academy work. “In the second half, we get into change management issues and what leaders need to reform the organization, from equity considerations to financial management.”

Next Steps

As the partnership with NVF continues to flourish, so does the work of the NCII Impact Fund. It will continue to expand its Rural Guided Pathways Project across more rural communities in the coming years. “Our hope is to create a set of national proof points for institutional success in rural communities, so institutions across the country can see what’s possible,” explained Schmidt.

Meanwhile, the Leadership Academy for Student Success will replicate the successful Ohio program in Michigan, New York, and Texas in the coming year. Each state will have two cohorts of 40 to 50 mid-level leaders, who will work together over the next three years to build a strong foundation for lasting institutional reforms based on best practices.

While every individual effort NCII undertakes creates pathways to economic opportunity for students across the country, the holistic nature of their approach truly makes a difference. “We’re data-driven, but it’s not just about data,” said Baldwin. “It’s about helping every institution we partner with go to the next level and focus on helping their students succeed.”   

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