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Higher Ed's Serious Need for Sustainable Reform With Dr. Dhanfu Elston

Dr. Dhanfu Elston, Complete College America - Steppingblocks

Season 1  |  Episode 6  |  Dr. Dhanfu Elston, Complete College America

Complete College America believes that higher education has a choice. Sustainable reform relies on participation from the classroom to the capitol and every system in between. CCA insists that equitable outcomes for students is a responsibility we share and can realize through policy, perspective and practice.

Dr. Dhanfu Elston, Chief of Staff and Senior Vice President for Strategy at CCA, explains that true innovation for student success is scale. Listen in to learn how he's leading innovation for critical reform and opening his playbook for structural change.

Listen to this episode on Spotify!


[0:05] ERIN KING

More people than ever are questioning the value of higher education. We are here to explore why they're right, why they're wrong and which institutions are rising to the challenge. In Season One, we're investigating the new normal caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing challenges in higher education. Dr. Bonne, would you like to introduce our guest today?


Thank you, Erin. Yes, I'm really excited to be here with Dr. Dhanfu Elston, who is the Chief of Staff and Senior Vice President for Complete College America. Dr. Elston, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself and what drives your passion for students success?


Sure, I'd be happy to, and I'm extremely excited to have this conversation. You know, I was one of the students that we talk about all the time. I grew up in southern California, ended up starting off at a community college, transferred to a larger research institution, and then ultimately graduated from a historically black college and university in Atlanta, Georgia. All of that, as a background, provides me the focus and really aligns with the work that we do at Complete College America, which is to ensure that institutions are more student-ready than the other way around.

And the reality is that many of the things that we are challenged with are structural, and we get a chance to make some critical reforms that we think can transform not only institutions but higher education to ensure that more individuals are retained and receiving a degree of purpose and value.

[1:46] BONNE

That's phenomenal. I was going to ask you next: How do you define student success? But I'd love to sort of shape that question in the lens of what you just shared about student-ready institutions. So maybe tell us a little bit about that: this idea of defining student success through student-ready institutions.

[2:10] ELSTON

Yeah. Our organization has nearly twelve years, and it was the complement to the enrollment agenda, the access agenda. For many years, we said a college degree, whether that be an associate's or a certificate, is a pathway to a better life. And then we realized that most students (even though more students were getting to institutions) very few of them were finishing and definitely not in enough time, with too much debt, excess credits, all those things that we know are larger challenges.

And so when I think about that, I think making sure that institutions are structurally sound and designed in a way to ensure that students have the most clear path, and even those that have some concerns (maybe there are issues of preparedness,  maybe it's just not knowing where you want to be and who you want to be), but that process shouldn't leave you with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. I'm saying there are ways and solutions to make sure that those structures are in place. And I think that's the larger goal.

And these ideas are not new. To me, the true innovation is scale. There are high impact practices that we've been talking about for decades. The goal is to put them in practice at high levels for those institutions and those students that need the most.

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[3:34] KING

Dr. Elston, can you talk some about what those solutions are for these students?

[3:40] ELSTON

Yeah, I'd be happy to. The thing that most folks know Complete College America for is what we call our Game-Changer Strategies. We knew that time to degree was an issue, so guided pathways, developmental education concerns, corequisite support and the 15 to Finish, and all of those other strategies. And they are still game changing strategies ... We keep talking about what's the 2.0 of work. There are still a lot of institutions that have not done the 1.0, for a variety of reasons. The way that we have framed and talked about these strategies now is that they're complex and they're layered and they have other components to them.

So now we've been discussing and sharing broadly these kind of core ideas of institutional transformation. What are the foundational pillars that will transform the student experience? And we think they fall in a couple of buckets:

It's helping students identify a sense of purpose early on in the process. Having those structures that we've talked about (guided pathways, math pathways, meta majors, maps) you've got to do it with a sense of momentum. So all those typical hurdles that students run into (debt, making sure that multiple measures don't impact who gets in and out of programs, credit for competency for adults and then support), how do you ensure that when students fall off the track, which they will, that we have a system to address those needs and barriers to academic success, including the things that sometimes are not always academic, like basic need support and all those other pieces?

All of those things run in tandem with one another. And I think those are things that really can be key structural changes that we can make to ensure more students are successful.

[5:38] KING

You use the word barriers. Can you talk some about what those barriers are for these students?

[5:44] ELSTON

When I say structural barriers ... for every single one of those strategies that I just mentioned, there is an institutional problem that goes along with it. And so when we think about time to degree, institutions have not done a good job of showing students, especially first-gen students and minoritized populations, what it means to do college. And how do you do it quickly, and how do you save money?

We know that black and brown students have been overwhelmingly overrepresented in developmental education, and we realize they don't necessarily have to be. There are multiple measures to determine what other ways [there are] to get through gateway courses. And then you've got things like corequisite supports where more students are finishing in one semester than the typical two and three year cycle.

Those are just a couple of examples that I think are barriers. I think a big one right now in this COVID-19 pandemic era that we're in is that we now are seeing that there are students that are not traditional age. Most students are working and have families, and so they're working learners, adult learners, but our institutions are still designed for 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds. So if you've got to work, a structured schedule is great for you, so that you can know how you can work, how you can pick up your kids.

Those institutions that move in that direction are designing institutions for the students that they have, and not the other way around.

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[7:22] BONNE

What would you say are some of your wins or really some of the ways that tangibly you feel like Complete College America has helped move the needle on some of these issues?

[7:33] ELSTON

I think we've always fashioned ourselves as a policy and advocacy organization. We do institutional transformation, but through states and systems. So the fact that you can log onto Twitter and type in "15 to Finish" and see literally hundreds of institutions now telling students something that they were not telling them ten years ago, those are wins. The fact that "guided pathways" is now part of standard vernacular, those are wins. Our founding president created the term "corequisite" support, and so for us, the magic is when you see institutions doing the things that they should have been doing and you see more students being successful as a result of having those barriers removed. They may not even know what these strategies are, but they are transformational because they're saving lives.

[8:32] KING

So who would you say some of these model institutions are, and do you collaborate with them in any kind of way with your student success strategies?

[8:40] ELSTON

All the time. I mean, obviously, I'm a product of Georgia State. I led student success efforts at Georgia State. I think Georgia State is an exemplar, and there are all kind of institutions.

I think there's a unique story to be told, because the institutions that are really doing some of the best work, they aren't even on the radar; because they're busy doing the work. What we try to do is amplify those strategies that are working and ensure that they're replicated in scale in other locations. The things like coreq models ... there was an institution doing that. There were individuals doing that, but they were doing it for their campus. And so we tried to figure out: How do we surface some of these great opportunities and share them publicly, and illuminate, and amplify, use the microphone, but also the megaphone, to let folks know: You know what? This problem you have, someone else has it, and they figured out how to solve it.

So institutions can no longer say, "Well, we're unique. You don't understand us." Actually, we do. Most states, most institutions, their data looks the same, and it's typically bad. And I'm talking about everyone that's not an Ivy League, highly selective institution. But then when they find out that they can learn from other individuals who have the lumps, but also figured out a solution, that's how you move things through and accelerate them in a much more efficient way.

[10:17] BONNE

You touched on the data there for a moment. I'd love your perspective on how institutions are leveraging data, tracking some of these post-graduation outcomes, and perhaps your thoughts on what we can all do to to leverage the data in new and innovative ways as well.

[10:36] ELSTON

I think the gift and the curse of the completion agenda (the student success agenda) was that early on we were only tracking access and completion, and I think people have started to look ... so every one of the CCA strategies, many of these student success strategies that are being discussed, implemented, scaled nationally, there is an associated metric that goes along with that. The problem is too few institutions are using them and turning them into an action-oriented agenda.

So access and completion? Yay. But most institutions are not looking at progression and efficiency and equity metrics, and so things that are happening — like with the National Student Clearinghouse and encouraging states and institutions to join the post-secondary data partnership where they can track their transfer students and really dig deeper into equitable outcomes — I think are key.

And then in the environment we're in, where we're in the midst of an economic downturn and in an inequitable kind of recovery in many communities now, institutions have to think about cost and post-college outcomes, and those things are rarely measured by institutions. But if we're going to be sustainable, it's going to be all of those pieces together.

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[12:00] BONNE

What are some other tools or resources that you've seen to be effective or have helped institutions throughout their student success strategies?

[12:10] ELSTON

I once worked at an institution, and we were doing amazing work; but we were on an island. We were just doing what we knew to do. There was very little professional development opportunities. Those individuals who could go to a conference weren't always bringing the information back.

And now we're in this space where everyone is working, from Zoom and from home, and they're learning online, and I think they're utilizing technology to give individuals access to to ideas, to partners, to peer learning networks, I think are unique.

And so when I think about those tools, I think every single organization that's working in the student success college completion space has a website, a portal, but how do you get that information out and share it?

I think that all these blogs and podcasts, there's a lot of information, but practitioners, most of the time, they just want like, give me the toolkit and ... we fashion ourselves a think tank, but also a do tank. And for people who want to do the work, you've got to lay it out for them in the most simplistic way. So I, of course, always refer people to the Complete College America website, because what we try to do is not hoard information, but share ideas, share impatient reform or knowledge, and be able to say, "And if you want to do this, here's a toolkit. Here's something that you can quickly take and make actionable in a short amount of time."

[13:47] KING

I love that reference: the think tank versus the do tank. I feel like that's something that not anyone is doing right now. There's all these ideas out there and then actually putting them into action I think is a problem, not just in higher ed, but across the board. I think that's a great piece of advice: to change your thinking in that way. So what does the outlook of 2022 look like for Complete College America when it comes to student success?

[14:18] ELSTON

I think it's bright. I'd be remiss if I did not acknowledge the fact that institutions, especially the ones that are serving some of our most vulnerable students, (community colleges, regional institutions) they're looking at issues around enrollment declines.

Students are now trying to make decisions on the value of college, and if you can get a job that pays you a few more dollars, you may decide that it's a better move for you to take that job than to enroll in higher education.

We know the data tells us that's not accurate ... Higher education is the best process to put you in a career or an area or field that is recession-proof. But also, it's not just the job, but how do you become a better person? And so for us, the goal when we think about 2022, is to acknowledge, honor the noble work that's going on right now to manage a very tough situation and also try to get the country and institutions to think about not where the ball is, but where the ball is going to be.

And to me, if you don't do and implement many of these strategies, you're going to have a problem being a sustainable institution, because students now realize that they can make choices. They can take and they know they can enroll online in a program that will allow them to meet their life obligations. And so institutions that don't make those adjustments are not going to be well positioned to serve the populations of students that desire some form of additional credentials and higher education attainment.

[16:08] KING

Well, Dr. Elston, this has been really great insight, and we really appreciate you sitting down with us today. Do you have any closing remarks before before we leave?

[16:19] ELSTON

You know what, I continue to be excited about the future, and you can't do this work and not believe in our students, but also in the people that do the work.

So to me, when I think about people who face the challenges head on and use that as an opportunity to make our institutions better, make them stronger, that's the backbone of our country. American dreams are fueled by college completion, whether that's reskilling, upskilling, certificates, associate degrees or four-year degrees. But we're going to play a critical role in where we go. And I think that we should rise to that challenge, and I'm excited to be a part of impatient reformers that are doing that work.

I think we tend to think about student success and college completion in a very linear way, and if you're going to make true, true reform (you're going to have a movement in this moment) there's some field-building that has to take place.

Most of our discussions are around practice, engaging on the ground with institutions, and sourcing new ideas from the field, but there's also some perspectives that have to take place. You've got to win the hearts and minds of the communities and the institutions. You've got to have cutting-edge ideas. That's the landscape clearing that gets everyone interested in the strategies. And then, all of those two things are complemented by policies, because if you've got good policy, then you can bake it in. You can lock in the learnings to further support institutions, whether that be the financial models or the institutional policies that impact students on a daily basis.

So I think that combination of policy, practice and perspective, that's what it's going to take for large-scale transformation. None of them on their own are going to make it happen. You've got to have all of those three pieces working in concert with one another. That's what ultimately is going to drive the change.

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