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The Mixed Methods Blog
The Mixed Methods Blog

Can Innovation Scale? Lessons From the 2019 League for Innovation Conference

students in lecture hallUri Treisman wasn’t even supposed to be in the room, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the center of it.

Treisman, the founder and executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, once snuck into a ticketed presentation at a prestigious university and was stunned when the speaker scolded higher education for its lack of innovation. So, as he explained recently to a crowded ballroom at the 2019 League for Innovation conference, he engaged in a somewhat heated back-and-forth with the speaker. In his view, community colleges are not only rife with creativity, they are distinguished by it.

Two-year public colleges are constantly tinkering with their programs and trying new things to help students. In fact, Treisman said, the sector may actually be falling prey to another problem: too many ideas that can’t possibly scale. Or, as he described it, “innovation as ornamentation.”

The scalability of promising interventions is central in much of CCRC’s research. At the conference, CCRC staff described their research on the implementation of various reform efforts and interventions. Some of these, like the City University of New York Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), have been driven by their efforts to scale. Others, like faculty learning communities at Delta Community College, have raised red flags about the feasibility of expanding inventive but costly programs.

CUNY’s highly structured ASAP program attempts to address academic, personal, and financial challenges students face and cultivate a supportive community among its participants. ASAP launched in 2007 with money from the New York City Mayor’s Office and aimed to boost CUNY’s three-year completion rate, which at the time stood at just 13 percent, to over 50 percent. The first ASAP cohort included 1,132 students; 55 percent of those students earned an associate degree by 2010. ASAP now enrolls 25,000 students across nine CUNY community colleges, and an expansion effort is underway to enroll every eligible student at Bronx Community College (BCC).

CUNY leaders were able to build momentum for the expansion of ASAP by aligning the program model with broader institutional goals, the researchers said during their League presentation. ASAP’s record of success helped establish a foundation for more widespread reform, and, as a result, practitioners at BCC have found it easier to implement cultural and structural changes that are directly related to it. Ultimately, the reform’s effects have extended far beyond its own cohort of students, and the expansion has contributed to significant institutional shifts affecting such as admissions and advising. But that’s not to say there haven’t been any growing pains. In her conference presentation with representatives from CUNY and MDRC, CCRC’s Maria Cormier noted that scaling a whole-college reform is incredibly difficult, and it was particularly challenging for BCC to implement changes to areas of the college that are less connected to the ASAP program and expansion.

Speakers in other sessions emphasized the challenges they faced in scaling promising initiatives. For example, during a presentation on teaching and learning, Donny Winter, a professor at Delta Community College, described an intensive faculty development opportunity piloted at his school. In an effort to promote solidarity among adjunct staff members, the program created faculty learning committees and paired part- and full-time instructors who volunteered for the initiative to team-teach courses. Winter said the initiative, which compensated both participants for the teaching of each course, was “one of the most valuable teaching experiences [he’d] ever had.” He said the program, which CCRC is examining as part of its work centered on the experiences of adjunct faculty, fostered collegiality among participants and benefitted students who learned from two instructors.

But there’s a catch: The faculty development cycle was funded by an Achieving the Dream grant, and an administrator in the audience noted that Delta College may only be able to sustain a limited version of the program over the long-term.

Finally, CCRC’s Lauren Pellegrino, Serena Klempin, and Tatiana Velasco shared lessons from a study of holistic student supports, which have also been challenging to implement at scale. The reforms emphasize frequent, targeted communication between advisors and students, aided in large measure by technology tools. Yet the technology itself “can be a major stumbling block” for institutions, Klempin said.

What’s more, Velasco said, the student support system looks quite different from one community college to another, and it has been challenging to draw any broad conclusions about the effectiveness of this approach. Another complication is that advising reform is rarely undertaken in isolation. Indeed, a key aspect of the reform involves how advising and student supports are connected with virtually every other area of the college. Institution-wide change is a big lift—and it can be an expensive one, too.    

But such sweeping changes are not impossible. The success of CUNY’s ASAP model is a promising reminder that integrated, intensive programs can dramatically improve academic outcomes for more than a handful of students at a time. It’s also a strong example of how a targeted reform can scale not only out to other institutions but also up within an institution. It’s difficult to parse out whether widespread cultural change encourages the successful implementation of a reform effort, or vice versa. After all, shifting the culture of a college is not a small task, and buy-in from faculty and staff is often crucial for ensuring an innovation has a chance to work. And yet ASAP was able to scale up to influence other parts of BCC because it flourished within its niche first. Ultimately, until an intervention is proven to be adaptable and successful outside its initial context, it is unlikely to inspire widespread reform across a singular campus or the broader community college sector.

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