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Sharing Big Ideas: Centers for Student Success Facilitate Collaboration

By Sonya Stinson

Christopher Baldwin explains how statewide efforts are helping local colleges take innovative reforms to scale.

With so much talk about the push for community college reform, you might think the nation’s two-year career and technical colleges are in need of better innovations. That might be true — to a point. But there are a lot more big ideas out there than you actually know.

The challenge often lies in taking those ideas to scale. After all, what good is a student success program that only helps a few dozen students achieve their goals, especially if it runs out of money in two years?

These are the kinds of questions administrators are asking in Michigan, where the state’s 28 community colleges operate under the direction of locally elected boards of trustees. On one hand, such decentralization creates a sense of autonomy that colleges treasure. On the other, it stymies the collaboration and sharing needed for big ideas to breed serious change.

To foster better sharing among community colleges, the Michigan Community College Association, in 2011, opened the Michigan Center for Student Success. One of seven such state-based centers across the country, launched with grant money from the Kresge Foundation, the center establishes a network for colleges to share ideas, collect and analyze data and discuss ongoing policy decisions that affect that student success agenda.

In addition to Michigan, community colleges in Arkansas, Ohio, Texas, Connecticut, New Jersey and California have launched similar initiatives.

To find out more about why these centers were created and how they aim to promote collaboration at the nation’s community colleges, we recently spoke with Christopher Baldwin, executive director of the Michigan Center for Student Success.

Q: What were some of the particular challenges that inspired the creation of the Michigan Center for Student Success and others like it?

A: There were so many different initiatives and things going on at the national level — and increasingly at the state level — that were related to student success and completion efforts, but they were not really well coordinated. In a very macro sense, these centers try to bring coherence to the conversation about completion at the state level.

National organizations can and certainly do support and provide expertise and frameworks for thinking about different things and logic models — all of that important work around processes. But to get the work done on the ground, institutions ultimately have to do the work. They also need support closer to home. They can’t be constantly running to national meetings, because they’ve got to be there to work with their students.

Q: What are the main goals of the center, and how do the individual community colleges tap into the resources you provide?

A: We serve as a convener, and we facilitate conversations through a variety of meetings and conferences. Our largest is the Student Success Summit that we host each September. We’ll have some 450 faculty, staff and partners from outside the community colleges at that event.

We also have quarterly meetings that are these sort of mini summits on specific topics, which we organize throughout the year. These are one-day events that we ask participating colleges to send teams of folks to. For example, in April we had a meeting about the emerging thinking around how to use financial aid to promote student success.

In May, we had three regional meetings on a new Michigan transfer agreement, which is focusing on transferring the first 30 credits between community colleges and universities.

We also serve as a hub for new opportunities. We have raised over $2 million in the last few years through various initiatives that have sought new opportunities in Michigan, in part because of the center.

Our second big goal is related to data and research. We’re constantly trying to work with our institutions to improve the use of data locally and our use of data collectively.

The last thing is our role in policy discussions. Being housed in the Michigan Community College Association, that’s closest to the core mission of the association — to be involved in conversations about policy at the state and, to some extent, the federal level.

Q: What advice do you have for other community colleges that might be interested in setting up a similar program?

A: We didn’t have the benefit of anybody else having this experience when we got started. Now there are four of these centers that have been at it for quite a while — and three more that are getting themselves up and running. Tapping into that experience to shorten the timeframe to get going is important.

In our state, community colleges have made an investment with an annual assessment. In other states, there may be some semblance of state funds that will support sustaining these centers. Going into the conversation with sustainability in mind is key.

The question of governance and what the role of the center is vis-à-vis an association or a governing authority is also important to think through. From our perspective, the fact that we don’t have a coordinating board made it a pretty easy discussion.

Also, we work with what I like to say is a coalition of the willing on any given issue. So if a new opportunity comes up, we reach out to all 28 colleges, see who’s interested and, assuming there are resources available, we’ll divide the resources in terms of grants and/or technical assistance. In all instances, it really is up to the college to decide whether to get involved.

We try to present opportunities that are based on solid research that’s emerging nationally and give them opportunities to explore these innovations locally.

How does your college collaborate to share big ideas?

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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