From the Field: Musings on Work to Achieve the Dream

The Role of Gateway to College in Community Recovery and Institutional Transformation

Part Two

I had the honor of leading the Tuesday plenary at the biennial Gateway to College Peer Learning Conference held virtually in late July. It was an extraordinary gathering of hundreds of our colleagues who are committed to providing an opportunity for off-track and out-of-school students to complete a high school diploma while beginning their postsecondary education career. Last week, I shared lessons from Gateway to College that are relevant for community recovery during these challenging times. The programs also offer important lessons for institutional transformation.

Opportunities and Lessons for Institutional Transformation

Though Gateway to College programs offer many learnings and lessons that are essential for community colleges to fully support their communities, (see Part One) too many of our Gateway to College programs—and I would suggest other dual enrollment and early college programs—are isolated and disconnected from core student success work, often operating in vertical silos and treated as boutique programs. Leaders of our Gateway to College programs often struggle to get a seat and a voice at the table. Thus, we lose opportunities to scale and integrate the programs, secure sustainable funding, and most importantly, we lose a chance to ensure that students have a seamless pathway through the program into a credential, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree that supports the student in meeting their potential and that leads to a living wage and economic and social mobility.

By using Achieving the Dream’s Institutional Capacity Assessment framework, colleges can integrate Gateway to College programs into their student success cultures. After all, Gateway to College programs touch all seven fundamentals. As I shared in Part One, equity is at the core of Gateway to College programs, which deliberately seek out disengaged, disenfranchised students, left behind by a system designed to keep them out. Below, I share how Gateway to College is instructive in building on ATD’s other fundamentals.

Achieving the Dream’s Fundamentals

Data. Gateway to College’s use of data—to follow student progress and deploy interventions that keep students on track to success—is an exemplar for other programs on campus. Gateway programs track students’ credit accrual and progress toward high school diplomas, sharing individual student progress across an interdisciplinary team, real-time, ensuring that students are supported before they fall behind and that they finish on schedule. Gateway staff can project expected graduation rates and identify which students will push those rates up or down with staff able to proactively support students through to success. This focus on data and accountability has increase the collective graduation rate for Gateway to College programs by 25 percentage points over the past five years.

Teaching and Learning. The personalized relationships at the center of the Gateway model are relevant for a much wider audience. In Gateway to College, every student feels a sense of belonging to the college because they know someone on campus knows them and is looking out for them. The commitment that Gateway program staff and faculty to make to ensure that every student is successful demonstrates that the power of personalized relationships does not just benefit students, it also benefits organizational culture.

Engagement and Building Strong External Partnerships. Yes, accountability to our K-12 partners supports the success of Gateway programs. It also does more. The deepening relationships that form through the Gateway program can be expanded and extended to all sorts of supports for improving the K-16 pipeline in our communities. It can connect us in new ways to our Workforce Investment Boards. It can also bring new external funders to your college. Local employers are attracted to supporting programs like this one.

Strategy and Planning. Colleges clearly focused on student success have found ways to integrate Gateway programs into their strategic plans and their access and success plans. Leading colleges are ensuring that Gateway programs are woven into their strategic enrollment management planning as well.

Adaptive Capacity Model

Gateway to College programs also hold characteristics of resiliency and adaptability that ATD’s new model around adaptive capacity suggests is essential for the future design of our colleges.


Using all components of the model, an adaptive Gateway to College programs works to:

  • Get a seat at the student success table
  • Strategically share student success stories to build greater awareness
  • Gain faculty ambassadors for the program and the students
  • Connect the program data with larger college data sets on enrollment and retention
  • Know the disconnected learner data from the service area to give them voice
  • Get the college foundation connected to the program to build the resource base
  • Bring the program to the local WIB for funding especially as the program begins to connect work-based learning into the curriculum
  • Use learning from the program to design new models to engage disconnected youth in their communities including working in new ways with high schools, especially in COVID, to help address issues of learning loss and learning continuity.


To me, Gateway to College programs, though designed nearly 20 years ago, are exactly the kind of programs community colleges must offer, scale and integrate into their core missions to meet this moment.

A recent paper by the JFF Policy Leadership Trust offers five commitments for colleges to adopt to guide the work ahead, work that will require us to once again reimagine our institutions, something community colleges have been doing since our founding with the Truman Commission.

Those five commitments are explicitly embodied by our Gateway to College programs.

They include:

  1. A commitment to care.
  2. A commitment to serve the whole community with a focus on social justice.
  3. A commitment to building a culture of equity.
  4. A commitment to identify and dismantle campus structures that breed disparities and then redesign them for equity.
  5. A commitment to fund what matters most.

Mayerlies Diaz, a student in the Holyoke Community College Gateway to College program, spent time with us at our annual convening, DREAM, earlier this year, and shared the following messages about how she has benefited from her college’s commitments to this moment.

"I have been angry as long as I can remember…behind from Day One, kept inside during recess to learn English, never being in school long enough to learn math…no one wanting to help, putting in no effort. I was the bum buried in the hoodie, smoking a lot of weed, trying to disappear."--Mayerlies DiazShe grew up poor, the daughter of a Spanish-speaking, single mother who was often sick and in and out of hospitals while raising two children. Her family moved a lot, sometimes living in shelters, and there were trips to court in pursuit of protection orders against a family member.

"I am from the sorrow and confusion that comes from that kind of hurt. That's how I felt for a long time. I assumed I would live in rage and depression and be behind, forever."--Mayerlies Diaz"But somehow, miraculously, I am now from hope. I'm from the miracle that happens when just a few key people actually see you, believe in you, push you and love you."--Mayerlies DiazMayerlies said: “High school wasn’t for me, but college is for me.”

Let’s be sure that every student in your community knows college is for them. That’s the power of Gateway to College.

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