Progress in the First Five Years

An Evaluation of Achieving the Dream in Washington State

| Davis Jenkins, John Wachen, Monica Reid Kerrigan, Alexander Mayer

In 2004, Lumina Foundation for Education launched an innovative national reform initiative, Achieving the Dream (ATD), with the purpose of increasing the persistence and completion rates of community college students, especially low-income students and students of color, through evidence-based institutional change. Originally consisting of 26 partner colleges in five states, today more than 150 colleges in 30 states and the District of Columbia participate in ATD, which in 2010 became a national nonprofit organization.

This report examines six community and technical colleges in Washington State that joined the initiative in 2006 (“Round 3”) and were provided with grant funding from College Spark Washington and the services of a leadership coach and data coach to facilitate their ATD efforts. The report (1) describes the progress each college made in implementing ATD’s “culture of evidence” principles for institutional improvement; (2) examines strategies implemented by the colleges to improve student outcomes, comparing them to interventions developed by the 26 “Round 1” colleges that joined ATD in 2004; and (3) charts trends in student outcomes in the period before and after the Washington colleges joined the initiative.

Key findings for the six Washington ATD colleges are:

  • Progress toward building a culture of evidence. All but one of the colleges made at least some progress. Two colleges made substantial progress, moving from a low level of implementation to a high level over the five years of their ATD involvement. Specifically, they strengthened student success goals and strategies, increased their institutional research capacities, created institutional effectiveness committees, and strengthened their program review processes.
  • Development of student success strategies. Several of the colleges — those further along in implementing the ATD culture of evidence principles — made significant systemic changes to programs and services. Compared with the Round 1 ATD colleges, the Washington colleges were more likely to have implemented changes in instruction as opposed to student support services and were more successful in operating improvement strategies at scale.
  • Student outcome trends after ATD implementation. The average student outcomes across the six colleges appear largely unchanged, as do the racial and economic achievement gaps. The colleges that succeeded in implementing improvement strategies at scale did so only later in the period under study. It may be too early to see their impact. On the other hand, most of the reforms implemented by the Washington colleges were at the “front end,” in that they involved changes to orientation and intake advising as well as to developmental instruction. Improving student completion rates may also require systemic changes to the design of academic programs to ensure that they are well structured and aligned with the requirements for success in further education and, for career-technical programs, success in the labor market.

The report also examines lessons from the experiences of the Washington ATD colleges for other colleges seeking to improve student outcomes.

This study was conducted during a period of both rapid enrollment growth and sharp cuts in state funding. Making systemic changes in practice in ways that the Washington ATD colleges have begun to do and in the other ways recommended in this report requires resources — resources for new and strengthened information systems, for professional development and training, and for coordination. The Washington colleges have shown that even during a period of dramatic cuts in funding, they have been willing to make major changes in practice. The fact that they have reallocated scarce resources toward practices that have the potential to be more effective illustrates their commitment to greater student success.