Erasing the Community College Stigma

By Suzanne Wilson Summers

In the upcoming months, Suzanne Wilson Summers will be writing about her year in the ACE Fellows Program in a series of posts on how community colleges can build internal cultures that support student success.


The hurdles for community college students who are first-generation, low-income, and members of other under-represented groups are often formidable. One model that over 300 community colleges and some access-oriented four-year institutions have embraced to support these students is Guided Pathways. The Guided Pathways model facilitates student retention and completion by offering onboarding and advising, as well as clearly articulated academic pathways designed to promote timely completion and transfer to a four-year institution or to enter the job market.

The Guided Pathways model offers more than a set of discrete initiatives to support student success. It requires transformational change across a campus through collaborative efforts that undercut traditional silos, particularly between academic and student affairs. The experiences of colleges that have adopted the Guided Pathways model offer design principles for leading and engaging campus communities in the work of deep change. Some of the relevant elements of this transformational work include the need to make an ongoing case for change; shared leadership; the deliberate construction of structures to foster cross-functional collaboration; and regular, multi-modal communications to the college and broader community.

To succeed, transformational change requires the commitment and engagement of stakeholders across the institution in ways that challenge legacy silos and practices. Change is an inherently human-centered process, and the experience of change may be driven by the faculty and staff’s sense of professional identity, which may differ across departments and disciplines. Too often, definitional differences over “student success” devolve into power struggles between employee groups and administrations. Faculty and staff may not understand or respect the external pressures that administrations face from boards, state and federal regulators, and accrediting bodies. Administrative leaders may dismiss the demonstrated commitment of their faculty and staff to students’ welfare because it fails to align with external reporting requirements or seems to challenge the tenets of the initiative. Yet, as change theorist John Kotter has noted, successful change initiatives involve more than the intellect. They must also engage the core values and sense of purpose of everyone involved.

Data as a driver of change

Although building the case for change takes time, it is a critical component of creating a campus-wide consensus needed for the effective implementation of Guided Pathways. The strategic use of data to promote ongoing discussions of student retention, equity outcomes, and completion is a core concept in Guided Pathways work. When used thoughtfully, data can be a powerful catalyst for self-reflection. I recently spoke with Kenneth Ender, who retired in 2018 as president of Harper College (IL) and now serves as Professor of the Practice in Adult, Workforce, and Continuing Professional Education at North Carolina State University. During Dr. Ender’s tenure, Harper College shifted to a Guided Pathways model. Institutions, he suggests, need to deploy data on student outcomes in a way that evokes employees’ curiosity and engages the campus community in necessary conversations about the costs of maintaining the status quo. For this reason, Harper College spent five years planning and building a foundation of understanding about student needs and challenges before formally embarking on Guided Pathways.

While data can serve as a powerful impetus for change, it often confronts us with the inadequacy of our current efforts. To the degree that data moves us beyond the anecdotal to a more comprehensive picture of the lived experiences of student populations, it can be thought-provoking and raise questions about established practices. However, change leaders need to be aware that internal and external audiences may vary in their levels of access to data, as well as their receptivity and interpretative sophistication. When I interviewed Brad C. Phillips, president of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, he suggested that institutions invest the time to help faculty and staff understand the problems that Guided Pathways is attempting to solve while also framing the discussion in a way that speaks to their personal and professional values. Data, he argues, should serve as a prompt to improve decision-making rather than as a tool to punish.

The creation of a data deployment plan that considers what types of data need to be shared, with whom, and how to frame the dialogue effectively, as well as identifying those best positioned to lead conversations, is essential. In some colleges, this will be Institutional Research/Institutional Effectiveness offices; in others, it may be academic or staff leaders. Regardless of their formal role, facilitators need to serve as data “translators” who can invite audiences into self-reflective conversations.

Change leaders should understand that the initial response of faculty and staff may reflect a perception of threat. At a Texas Pathways workshop that I attended last spring, Luzelma Canales, senior associate vice president for student success at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, observed that reactions to data sometimes mimic Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Employees may move from shock to anger to resentment and, ideally, on to acceptance resulting in action. Understanding the possible reactions to data allows change leaders to craft realistic time frames for action.

Communicate, communicate, communicate . . .:

Thoughtful attention to campus-wide communications can help to mitigate suspicion of the new. Institutions considering major change initiatives should develop a strategic communications plan from the beginning that addresses not only the frequency and mode of communications, but also makes planning and implementation efforts as transparent as possible. Given the challenges of communications, institutions might consider regular updates highlighting progress and new developments through a variety of channels, as well as regular updates to employee associations and unions.

Moving beyond shared governance to shared leadership

Throughout the change process, the imperative is to structure ongoing collaborative and collegial opportunities for exploration and discussion that cut across professional identities and silos. A recent report on institutional transformation from ACE and Huron Consulting concluded that the common denominator in institutions that have successfully evolved their business model is the development of “leadership teams who share accountability for an institution’s goals and blend expertise to help achieve them.” This observation is especially relevant to institutions undertaking transformational change like Guided Pathways. Faculty can provide intellectual leadership, leaving staff and administrative leaders to address operational obstacles to change, according to Dr. Ender. Keeping student voices front and center can ground the college community in the “why” of the work.

Structuring the work of deep change

Once substantial consensus on the need for change is reached, the challenge is how to plan and implement transformative change while maintaining day-to-day operations. In our interview, Dr. Ender differentiated between the structures and processes required for operational planning versus the strategic planning necessary for whole-college reform. Further, incubating and financing strategic work separately from day-to-day operations helps to prevent initiative fatigue and employee burnout.

As part of my ACE Fellowship, I spent two months this Fall at SUNY Rockland Community College (RCC). RCC’s president, Michael Baston, credits the use of a team model with the completion of the planning phase for Guided Pathways in an 18-month time frame. The college formed teams around each of the four essential practices of Guided Pathways: clarifying the academic path for students; helping them to enter a path; keeping them on a path; and ensuring student learning. Each team was co-led by both a faculty and staff member, and teams reported to faculty and staff co-facilitators and a project manager. This approach allowed for widespread employee involvement in the work of planning while creating expertise and advocacy for Guided Pathways practices across the college.

Community colleges are not and never have been immune to the impact of shifting demographics; public concern over their value proposition; the development of new technologies; political and regulatory considerations; and budgetary challenges. Moreover, they serve “non-traditional” student populations who may need additional supports, yet lack the resources of many senior institutions. Created to promote social and economic mobility by democratizing access to higher education, community colleges have long focused on issues such as student recruitment and workforce preparation. Despite this commitment, completion rates have remained generally low, particularly for students of color. The decision of many community colleges to adopt Guided Pathways stems from the growing conviction that fundamental, rather than piecemeal, change efforts are required if we are to live up to the promise of equitable educational outcomes.

Higher Education Today