Unlocking Opportunity: About the Project

While no single reform will be required of network members, each college—including its president and senior team—will commit to advancing reforms through five broad strategies:

1. Set a Family-Sustaining Wage Standard and Assess Programs Against It

Presidents and their senior teams will begin this work by deciding on and refining a “waterline,” the baseline wage standard the college aims to ensure graduates earn in its regional context, then assessing which current programs’ graduates are likely to be above the waterline.

2. Setting Goals for Changing Program-Level Enrollments and Outcomes
Presidents and senior teams will engage in an analytic, goal-setting process rooted in evaluations of student enrollments by program, including by race/ethnicity and income level. Teams will set overall and equity-based goals for reducing enrollments/completions in low-value programs and increasing enrollments in high-value programs—specifically, CTE programs aligned to family-sustaining wages or pre-transfer associate degree programs.
CCRC and Aspen have worked with many college leaders to provide support for such analysis.

3. Strengthen the Program Portfolio and Partnerships to Increase Post-Graduation Success
Evidence from the field shows that fewer than half of all community college credentials result in strong post-graduation success. For some students, this is because the associate degrees they earn do not have strong labor market value; they never transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree. For others, the cause is the design of the terminal CTE programs in which they enroll—the credentials they earn do not result in a family-sustaining wage job.

Participating colleges will aim to change both of those realities. They will work to better align transfer-oriented associate degree programs with what it takes to transfer all credits to a four-year university with junior year standing in a major, and align CTE programs with the expectations of employers that offer family-sustaining wage jobs. This may mean creating new programs, redesigning existing ones, or sunsetting some programs. These program reform efforts will be critical to increasing the proportion of students in high-return programs, including students of color and lower-income students.

Colleges will also have an opportunity to strengthen partnerships with employers and universities. Using Aspen and CCRC’s Transfer Playbook and Aspen’s Workforce Playbook, colleges will craft strategies to improve how they work with key partners to deliver better and more equitable outcomes for graduates.

4. Align Advising to Greater and More Equitable Completion of High-Value Programs
Too many students begin their coursework with no clear pathway. They remain undecided for too long, weakening their motivation and causing them to accumulate too many credits that don’t contribute to either securing a good job right out of community college or attaining a bachelor’s degree that will afford them strong employment opportunities. Others make choices that are not aligned to their ultimate goals, failing to receive guidance that would help them pick degree programs and associated courses that lead to family-sustaining wage jobs and/or a highly structured pathways to a bachelor’s degree.

Unlocking Opportunity will help colleges improve their advising systems so that more students make earlier and better program decisions and enroll in courses consistent with those decision—especially the students of color and lower-income students least likely to be in high-value programs.

5. Institutionalize Reforms
As Unlocking Opportunity colleges conduct student success reforms, they will also strengthen the systems that make scaling and sustaining reforms possible beyond the three-year project. Participating colleges will have an opportunity to evaluate and consider reforms in several key capacity areas, including senior team operations, program approval and review processes, strategic finance and resourcing strategies, and ensuring that data use is aligned to college-wide focus on reforms.
This project is made possible by support from Arnold Ventures, Ascendium, and ECMC. Aspen and CCRC are in ongoing conversations to expand resources for this ambitious project.
Contact us for more information.
Tess Henthorne, Senior Program Manager