Early and Significant Impact

ATD has had an early and significant impact on how colleges view student success and work to improve it. By bolstering the knowledge base for institutional reform, developing a new framework for institutional transformation, and distinguishing exemplary institutions. ATD today helps colleges identify where they need to go and the path to get there.

The Origins of ATD’s Reform Efforts

In 2004, the U.S. population was becoming more diverse and economically stratified. Economists and other researchers were projecting an urgent need for more college-educated workers in the emerging knowledge economy.

At the same time, states were pulling back support for higher education, shifting the burden of paying for college more and more to students and their families. Rising college costs, the inability of state and federal student aid to keep up, and related student debt were causing public debates about the value of college.


Initial Partners


The Power of Partnership

Through the power of partnership, ATD continued to grow by gaining influence and support from an extensive web of national and regional funders, institutions, and states that invested time and resources and served as thought partners.

Lumina sought foundation partners to help spread ATD’s evidence-based approach and fund three more rounds of demonstration projects: KnowledgeWorks Foundation came on board, selecting and funding four colleges in Ohio, the Nellie Mae Foundation selected three Connecticut colleges and supported their planning and implementation work. In 2006, the initiative expanded to the states of Pennsylvania and Washington and to the Greater Houston area, bringing in 23 more institutions and three additional funders (The Heinz Endowments, College Spark Washington, and Houston Endowment Inc.). Lumina then sought to deepen and broaden the initiative’s work within several already participating states: Connecticut, Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia.


Becoming Achieving the Dream, Inc.

The first major shift for the organization occurred in 2009, when the partners recognized that the model was not efficient on the scale necessary for ATD to be sustainable, so they began a new co-creative process: planning how to transition the initiative into a permanent, independent entity.

The partners engaged Bridgespan, consultants who were expert in helping nonprofits scale their work to advance social change, and determined that the best approach to move forward was to appoint an interim governing board to recruit a new chief executive officer, hire a full-time staff, and establish a headquarters for the proposed nonprofit. Lumina’s continued support gave other investors confidence to come through on their tentative commitments. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined Lumina in making a substantial grant to launch the new nonprofit and hire the new CEO.


A New Direction

Staying true to its own principles to follow the data wherever they may lead, ATD put itself to the test, determining how it could use the findings to advance its work and become more effective.

“Improving student success starts with a clear vision of what student success means and a commitment to ensuring that as we do our daily work, we challenge ourselves to ask, ‘How is this decision improving the economic and social mobility of the students we are serving and, thereby, strengthening the community we serve?’”
– Dr. Karen A. Stout, President and CEO, Achieving the Dream

Three Pillars Anchor ATD’s Work



Reaching More Students Through New Services

ATD recognized the importance of shifting its institutional support efforts to an approach tailored to evolve with the college as its student success work matures.

ATD’s new strategic direction, introduced in 2017, stresses services that are customized to where colleges are in their student success journeys; and to new areas like evidence-based leadership, holistic student supports, pathways, teaching and learning, and equity.

Spreading Innovations Across Community Colleges and Higher Education

The work of innovation is essential not only to help community colleges but to help all open-access institutions implement reforms and put students on solid ground for success in school and beyond. Following are recent R&D efforts that have led to new services and new knowledge that has enriched the ATD Network.

The work of innovation is essential not only to help community colleges but to help all open-access institutions implement reforms and put students on solid ground for success in school and beyond. The following are recent efforts leading to new services that have enriched the ATD Network.

“What is important as we make these changes is that our commitment to equitable student outcomes, data-informed practice, and deploying coaches that help colleges build important habits remain central to our theory of action.” – Dr. Karen A. Stout, President and CEO, Achieving the Dream

Supporting Institutional Transformation at Tribal Colleges

Under-resourced, minority-serving colleges often lack the fundamental institutional capacities that enable them to undertake the kinds of whole-college transformation efforts such as structured pathways and developmental education reform that lead to significant improvement in student outcomes. For three years beginning in 2017, ATD works with 32 tribal colleges and universities to support institutional transformation and capacity building with the goal of improving student success. Participating colleges have conducted a capacity assessment with ATD and have received dedicated data and leadership coaching services, including full participation in the ATD Network for the duration of the project term which ends in 2019. This important work is supported by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and Ascendium Education Group.

2020 and Beyond

Continuing its progress from publishing its first organizational equity statement in 2016, ATD has been challenging its colleges to take approaches to increase success for all students and to eliminate equity gaps.

ATD is working with colleges to develop an equity vision that describes the experience they want for their incoming students and to establish strategic steps to implement on their campuses. While many of the colleges in the ATD Network are seeing achievement gaps narrow or close, especially for Hispanic populations, the gap for Black students is widening on many campuses. ATD is focusing on providing opportunities and activities to help colleges develop a deeper understanding of what equity means, what it looks like in practice, and how it is manifested or stifled on their campuses.

Achieving the Dream | Celebrating 15 Years

Download a copy of the report here.

View more on ATD's 15th Anniversary here.

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