To reach the ambitious education attainment goals established by President Obama and a host of philanthropic organizations, higher education will need to use all of the tools in the completion toolkit, invent some new ones, and repurpose some of the old and faithful ones to amplify and expand on what they have been able to accomplish historically.
One high-leverage, but often-overlooked tool in the completion toolkit is networks.
A review of the literature identified mechanisms of social networks that enable change—communication systems, knowledge transfer, alteration of mindset, increasing problem solving, and accountability (Kezar 2014). Jobs for the Future’s postsecondary state policy team has been leveraging the power of networks to increase completion by working with a select group of state-level entities that are striving together to create the policy conditions that support community colleges’ efforts to scale evidence-based postsecondary reforms. Kezar’s mechanisms that enable change resonate with our experience over the last decade of supporting the Postsecondary State Policy Network.
The PSPN is made up of 13 states, each of which participate by virtue of postsecondary completion initiatives such as Completion by Design (FL, OH, & NC) supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Achieving the Dream (CT, HI, MA, OK, & VA) supported by The Leona M. and Henry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust; and the Student Success Center Initiative (AR, CA, CT, MI, NJ, OH, & TX) supported by The Kresge Foundation. The network has a large footprint, which creates opportunity for powerful impact. Forty-five percent of the nation’s community colleges are in PSPN states.
The PSPN functions as a cross-state, peer-learning group. The learning exchange is facilitated by structures that function as communication systems—semi-annual convenings of state teams and a quarterly newsletter. The diversity of the states’ size, demographics, political and fiscal condition, and higher education governance structures creates a rich backdrop for knowledge transfer across states and systems. State teams are able to leverage their sophisticated understanding of how community college reforms play out on the ground in different political and regulatory environments from the PSPN, which increases their inventiveness and confidence in their respective policy development efforts at the local level.
Source: Kezar, A. 2014. "Higher Education Change and Social Networks: A Review of Research." The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 85, No. 1.