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JFF’s Big Bet: A Network of Networks to Reimagine Higher Ed Reform

August 8, 2019

At a Glance

JFF took a chance when we formed a network of states and community colleges to quickly spread successes in postsecondary education at scale. We figured a bet that would benefit millions of students was worth the risk.

Stacey Clawson Associate Vice President
Practices & Centers

In 2016, JFF made a big bet. We realized that if we were truly going to transform higher education to meet the needs of all learners, we needed better ways to spread the successes and accelerate similar changes across the country.

JFF had already helped launch Student Success Centers, organizations that provide guidance to community colleges on improving student completion. But each state organization operated independently, serving as the hub for a network of community colleges within state borders.

But what if those networks were linked together in a “network of networks”? While small numbers of colleges have made strides in increasing college completion, JFF is committed to reaching many more students—especially underserved students of color, low-income students, and first-generation college students. We projected that a wider web of states and colleges, working together to accelerate the best ideas, would help students across the country graduate and find jobs faster than if colleges worked in isolation.

We made this bet because students and their families have put so much of their financial resources into the promise that education will lead to a better life. And yet, more than half of students don’t complete college. And most of those students never go beyond their current economic status, nor do they break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Today, there are more than 500 colleges in our network, encompassing more than half of the community colleges in the country.

Before Our Big Bet

For half a century, community colleges focused on access, admitting as many students as possible who wanted to pursue the dream of a college degree. While this sounds like an inclusive strategy, in many cases, colleges didn’t follow through once those students were admitted. Students didn’t receive the supports they needed to thrive and graduate with a credential.

Completion rates continue to fall well below 50 percent for most state universities and community colleges, and the equity gap is increasing for students of color. The importance of earning a postsecondary credential has increased for everyone. And credentials have a disproportionally strong impact on diverse subgroups for jobs with labor market value and bigger lifetime earnings, according to a 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Network’s Reach

  • 16 states, each with its own statewide network of colleges
  • 52% of community colleges in the United States
  • 68% of U.S. community college students, 78% of community college students of color, 58% of community college Pell Grant recipients

Deciding to Go for It—JFF’s Big Bet!

With input from more than 60 investors across 16 Success Centers and 30 direct partnerships in the field, we developed a sophisticated infrastructure that enabled us to more than double the size of the network to 16 states. With this bigger and wider network, JFF expanded the potential of college reforms to influence community colleges throughout the country.

We collaborated closely with the early Student Success Centers and launched this partnership into a stronger, deeper network of cross-state coordination, including the development of a robust system of technical assistance and services for Centers and colleges. This next version of the network extended our reach and influence across the country and generated capacity for state Centers to scale reforms within their own states.

Networks have always been important to education, but postsecondary transformation had not been attempted in this way, at this scale. The complexity and size of our experiment is as immense as the potential. Since 2016, we have committed more than $20 million, connected hundreds of professional relationships, delivered more than 1,300 state consultations and other services, and supported more than 300 network events in the field to accelerate and scale college reforms.

States that use data to understand needs for their colleges have shown more relevant interventions for change.

What Have We Learned from Our Big Bet?

Through our journey with the Centers and other partners in the field, we’ve made adjustments and responded to early lessons. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Network health is more important than growth. Building capacity and expertise, as well as a culture of inclusiveness, are higher priority than adding new services or members. We learned that introducing too many services at one time was overwhelming to Centers. We also experienced our own capacity constraints. As a result, we slowed the addition of new states from more than one at a time to one per year so we could better respond to the needs of current network members.

Leading and learning are equally important. The role of network manager requires balancing leadership with a commitment to listening to the network. We learned that we needed more input on network decisions. We established a Network Leadership Team. We also created a learning feedback loop among network members and outside influencers to generate innovation and continuous improvement.

Network members make more progress by building on local work. Network engagement is stronger and faster when it’s built on existing local work. We learned that we would have more traction in states by meeting them where they are rather than expecting all members to be consistent in their approaches. We created a more flexible way to engage network states and colleges that started with familiar initiatives and local accomplishments, resulting in easier adoption and more progress.

Self-assessment and evaluation are critical in the beginning. States that use data to understand needs and prioritize supports for their colleges have shown more relevant and targeted interventions for change. We learned that requiring state data to understand colleges and inform participation in activities creates more rigor in reform efforts and aids the network’s commitment to learning.

Case-making is never done. Leadership turnover, policy conditions, and practitioner priorities are continuously evolving. We learned that all network members need support with case-making, whether at the beginning or years into student success reforms. We added extra communication services for Centers to help them regularly educate stakeholders and make the case for resources.

The Power of Networks

We’ve all experienced the power of networks. They drive social movements, create support systems, solve complex problems, spur innovation, and accelerate change. We can’t assume that the well-intentioned but scattered projects throughout the higher education landscape, and colleges reinventing solutions in isolated environments, will scale enough real change to reach the millions of students who are misguided and disregarded by our current systems.

Through the SSCN, JFF made a big bet that a “network of networks” would help students graduate and attain jobs faster than if colleges worked in isolation and competed for students and funding. We are gathering data to understand the return on this wager. The stakes are high, and we think a bet that will benefit millions of students is worth the risk.

We’re running out of time. Our world faces complex challenges that need complex solutions and new thinking. Higher education is no exception. Our leaders are now more than ever seeking ways to create change at a state and national scale. Higher education leaders and policymakers need to expand their focus beyond the college level and think bigger—think networks!

The Student Success Center Network:
made up of 16 Centers focused on supporting statewide efforts through community college reform
Learn more

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