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. Low-income students and students of color, who were pouring into community colleges as undergraduate enrollments surged overall, were particularly affected by these factors. Unfortunately, despite high aspirations to complete degrees or certificates or transfer, the great majority of community college students did not achieve these goals.
At this time, the Lumina Foundation for Education was investing in the sector that educated the vast majority of low-income, first-generation college students. They brought together many of the leading thinkers to determine how to help community colleges achieve better outcomes, especially for underserved populations. The foundation established a five-year demonstration project called Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, to effect changes in community college culture, policies, practices, and programs to support student success. The new initiative would provide planning and implementation funds, peer-learning opportunities, and coaching on leadership and use of data. It would reach colleges beyond the circle of Achieving the Dream grantees by disseminating information about student outcomes at its network colleges, including what they learned about policies and practices that improve outcomes. Using data and evidence and focusing on equity, ATD sought to elevate the role of institutional research in community college decision making and address underlying causes of achievement gaps. Community colleges would work intentionally to ensure that their institutions were a springboard to success for millions of students.
ATD’s founding, like its continued growth, was fueled by the power of shared ideas and collaborative decision making. The initiative grew from ideas drawn out of a broad array of experts at institutions across the spectrum of philanthropy, higher education, and nonprofit research as well as organizational development and social change organizations. Lumina envisioned a process that was co-created by experts and organizations with diverse points of view and asked senior vice president Leah Meyer Austin to launch and nurture the pilot. In a case study of ATD’s approach published by Grantmakers for Education, she reflected on the process:
“Our thinking was that if we sent out [a request for proposals] we were just going to have a run-of-the-mill initiative where organizations pick off chunks of the work, view it as a project, do their work, collect their money, and move on to the next grant and the next project. We wanted something in which our grantees would become so deeply invested that if we walked away from the work, they would continue it without us. I believe strongly that grantees have loyalty and dedication to what they design and create. What someone else imposes on them, they will view as a project and not a life’s work. Co-creation is the most basic principle when you want deep investment in social change.”
To oversee the demonstration project, Lumina first tapped MDC, an organization with a mission and expertise in improving education, employment, and economic security outcomes. MDC selected seven additional partners who would work together as peers, design the initiative, and take responsibility for key aspects of the work for its five-year duration. Over the next 10 months, the eight partners developed and tested all aspects of the design and an integrated action plan. By spring 2004, they had determined the initiative’s activities, expected outcomes, and work products.
The initial cohort of colleges included 27 institutions from five states. Those states—Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—had significant and growing populations of first-generation and low-income college students and students of color, and numerous community colleges that could participate. Lumina made year-long planning grants and large five-year implementation grants to each college. ATD, with Jobs for the Future, also planned to work with states to bolster policies to allow colleges to be successful.