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Leaders From JFF’s Student Success Center Network Tackle Transformation Head-On

November 1, 2023

At a Glance

Jobs for the Future (JFF) held the annual Student Success Center Network (SSCN) convening in Chicago, Illinois, where leaders from community college systems in 15 states gathered. Together with JFF, postsecondary leaders elevated awareness of impactful and transformative models, innovations, and practices occurring at the state, regional, and institutional levels.

Kelley Evans Director, Student Success Center Network
Brianne McDonough Director, JFF
Sylvia Cini-Grenada Program Manager, JFF

About the Program

The Student Success Center Network (SSCN) uncovers and promotes impactful practices to help more than 4.5 million students across 17 states earn credentials that lead to quality jobs. Nearly half of U.S. community colleges are connected to the SSCN.


This year’s convening marked the first time the Student Success Center Network (SSCN) gathered in person for a multi-day event since 2020. Emerging leaders from community college systems in over 15  states took the stage to present a diverse array of bold topics, spanning from effective collaborations between community colleges and regional workforce development leaders aimed at aligning students with quality jobs, to advancing pathway initiatives in the context of the new economy and racial equity. Before celebrating the Network’s momentous 10-year anniversary, Kelley Evans, director of the SSCN, kicked off the event by acknowledging these milestones and highlighting the continued opportunities to enhance student visibility and impact.

The work of pathways is far from over, but our students and our communities want to know why the pace of change feels slow and why learners still experience significant barriers to their progress and success. We must recommit to answering these questions and moving forward substantive student success outcomes.”

Kelley Evans, Director of the SSCN

Marty Alvarado, vice president of Postsecondary Education and Training at JFF, outlined how the Network will continue to ground itself in JFF’s North Star: In 10 years, 75 million people facing systemic barriers to advancement will work in quality jobs. Alvarado prompted attendees to consider how they can distance themselves from ineffective systems and practices and instead usher in a model fit for the that embraces the agility of learners and remains responsive to evolving student and workforce needs. She also motivated attendees to welcome discomfort with change, strive for continuous improvement, and ask the challenging questions.

Equity: Is it an ‘Agenda’ or Something More?

In the opening plenary, “Equity: Is it an ‘Agenda’ or Something More?”, Alvarado led a discussion with panelists about the polarizing environment educators and policymakers operate within, emphasizing the imperative for maintaining and progressing equitable practices. The following experts joined Alvarado for the conversation:

  • Rebecca Butler, executive vice president, Columbus State Community College
  • Michael Collins, vice president, Center for Racial Economic Equity at Jobs for the Future
  • Marc LeForestier, general counsel, California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office

The panelists encouraged community colleges and partners engaged in regional economic talent development to avoid being distracted by the current legislative and policy swirl and redirect focus on the mission of serving all students to align them toward quality jobs instead.

Blurring Higher Education for Workforce and Education Alignment

Additionally, the Network emphasized the themes of partnership, collaboration, and workforce alignment in postsecondary education. Kyle Hartung, associate vice president at JFF, moderated the session, “Building Pathways to the Future: Blurring Higher Education for Workforce and Education Alignment” featuring:

  • Eric Dunker, founding executive director, Reach University
  • Maria Heidkamp, chief of innovation and partnerships, New Jersey Council of County Colleges
  • Ray Martinez III, president and CEO, Texas Association of Community Colleges

Each panelist described their organization’s approach to scaling efforts. This included establishing networks of employers and educators with shared goals, enacting policy changes, offering incentives to enhance equity through funding formulas, and expanding the implementation of work-based and experiential learning practices, like apprenticeships and earn-and-learn programs.

Susan Gouijnstook, chief solutions officer at JFF, shared insights drawn from the edtech industry on embracing disruption. She urged the audience to consider how we  shift from being content providers to solutions providers who better address learners’ evolving needs and expectations. Gouijnstook proposed that part of the shift requires colleges to leverage technology and establish partnerships with employers to drive transformation. This includes broadening access to comprehensive services, streamlining referrals, tackling students’ sense of belonging, and reducing turnover among academic advisors and administrators.

Focusing on Advancing Educational Attainment for Student Parents

The Advancing Educational Attainment for Student Parents community of practice within the SSCN held a separate meeting. The community united Center and college leaders to find ways to effectively support parenting students on campus, with an emphasis on Aspen’s Two-Generation approach. Participants explored potential organizational ecosystem partners capable of advancing resources and positive outcomes for student parents and began working on action plans. Additionally, participants listened to the experiences of student parents from Miami Dade College (Miami Dade, FL) and Triton College (Chicago, IL).

...One of the biggest barriers that many of our student parents face is not being financially stable or [not having] access to child care. Without that, going back to school is sometimes not an option. [To] have a support system in place, can really make a difference.”

Alma Mendez, Parent Ambassador, Miami Dade College

The session energized community members, who reinforced their dedication to advancing their initiatives at both state and institutional levels, aiming to provide more effective support to student parents. This work receives generous funding from the Casey Foundation.

Innovations and Insights From Across the Network

Participants also engaged with experts and peers from across the country, delving into topics related to education and workforce alignment, data, policy, and equity:

  • Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) based at the University of Texas at Austin and JFF shared results from the spring 2023 student engagement survey, which included discussions about Guided Career Pathways from 84,500 student respondents across 199 community colleges. The Ohio Student Success Center joined to share their related efforts to uplift student voices through a statewide focus group project.
  • Leaders from the Texas Student Success Center presented the state’s multi-pronged approach to building community college pathways to valuable credentials to address widespread poverty and unemployment. The Center’s program, Texas Reskilling and Upskilling through Education (TRUE), engages business and industry leaders to bolster career pipelines. Its work complements the related efforts of the Talent Strong Texas Pathways program and the Texas Association of Community Colleges (TACC) that focus on strengthening academic programs with Texas colleges and student credentialing to further align in-demand workforce skills.
  • Senior leaders from Northern Virginia Community College shared insights from their work to increase the number and share of Black learners entering and completing pathways leading to high-wage, high-growth careers. This initiative was supported by JFF’s Center for Racial Economic Equity.
  • The Centers from New York and Virginia co-presented strategies for implementing trauma-informed training in education settings and shared early insights on how their professional development series is changing campus and teaching practices in the classroom. New York also shared early feedback from their participation in Lumina Foundation’s Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Education (REACH) initiative and how the state is bridging these two related bodies of work.
  • Director of PEN America’s Freedom to Learn initiative, offered recommendations for how higher education leaders and practitioners can navigate an increasingly challenging political environment hostile to academic freedom and equity-focused initiatives and the chilling effect that occurs.
  • Student Success Center Network staff from Kentucky, Texas, and Washington offered insights and strategies on how they have elevated student voices as part of their statewide initiatives as well as their future priorities for elevating student experiences.
  • Arkansas, New York, and Wisconsin Network staff spotlighted their efforts to improve and build capacity to serve parenting students using a Two-Gen approach.
  • JFF led participants through a shared data deep-dive to explore facts and figures about the Student Success Center Network and discussed opportunities to leverage data to advance Network efforts to more equitable and innovative pathways to education and work.

We commend the organizations and leaders who contributed their expertise and engagement to this convening, representing various regions nationwide. JFF is enthusiastic about its ongoing commitment to bolstering the Student Success Center Network’s initiatives as a pioneering thought leader and visionary, and ultimately propelling transformative change.