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Altered State: How the Virginia Community College System Has Used Achieving the Dream to Improve Student Success

Kay Mills

Virginia illustrates concrete strategies for moving toward data-driven student success. Altered State, by Kay Mills, summarizes the progress of the Virginia Community College System in Achieving the Dream and provides a powerful example of how one system has leveraged participation in the initiative to make student success a central focus across all of the state’s community colleges.

When Achieving the Dream was launched in 2004, most states focused on college access as a central policy agenda for community colleges. Since then, this initiative has dramatically changed the policy environment in the 16 states that signed on. In each, community college student success particularly for low-income and underprepared students, is now a central priority.

Central to that priority, participating states and JFF (the initiative’s lead policy partner) have identified a student success policy framework that guides state planning and decision making. This report documents the state policy work that’s been done in the context of this framework, which emphasizes:

  1. A clear public policy commitment to student success;
  2. A strong performance measurement and data-driven accountability system;
  3. Assessment and placement policies that accelerate the progress of underprepared students;
  4. Incentives to promote student persistence and completion; and
  5. Aligned expectations and transitions across educational sectors.

Using this framework, Achieving the Dream states created detailed action plans to move their priorities. States have assessed their progress annually against their own baseline data and against other states’ progress on 57 distinct success policies that cluster under the framework’s policy priorities.

Achieving the Dream includes over 100 community colleges, 16 states, and many partner organizations improving outcomes for students, particularly those from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds. The initiative’s policy component, which JFF manages, is designed to make it easier for participating colleges to succeed in broadly institutionalizing and sustaining change. The policy efforts also move lessons from participating colleges to all institutions in a state and nationally.