Change of any kind is difficult. From small daily habits to broad social change, we’re up against powerful forces. Our individual and collective inertia prefers for things to stay the way they are, setting our heads, hearts, and willpower up for a battle over which future will win: the future we’re heading towards or the better future that could be.
At CCA, we’re no stranger to the powerful forces at work shaping our higher education systems and institutions. Our work has often challenged those forces head-on, offering new strategies and ways of thinking to disrupt the status quo. We’ve also seen new, positive forces emerge. Data-driven decision-making is now the rule, not the exception. Putting students at the center is increasingly the starting point for discussion. And a broad commitment to removing barriers to equitable outcomes is shared by much—if not all—of the sector.
Systemic problems require systemic solutions.
Despite all of our work to confront what’s harmful and cultivate what’s helpful, change seems to come too slowly. As impatient reformers, that can be a hard reality to accept.
In 2019, we celebrated our 10-year anniversary here at CCA. We invited you all to dream with us about what the next 10 years might look like, how we might build upon our successes, and how we might learn from our missteps to unlock the next wave of innovation in higher education. A lot has happened since 2019. Last year, while battling a global pandemic, we introduced a framework for organizing student success strategies around four critical areas along the student journey: purpose, momentum, structure, and support.
Since then, we’ve been thinking a lot about systems.
We’ve long believed that systemic problems require systemic solutions. To paraphrase a common saying, systems are perfectly designed to get the results they get. In our pursuit of better results for students, we’ve worked with states, higher ed systems, and consortia of institutions to build diverse teams drawn from multiple parts of the system to develop and implement broad-based solutions. Through that work, we’ve learned that there are three forces that must work together to make sustainable change at scale a reality.
The force of perspective.
The force of practice.
And the force of policy.
Change starts when perspectives begin to shift. We begin to see problems differently, and in some cases, redefine problems altogether. We begin to see ourselves differently and reconceive our role in making change happen. Old assumptions begin to erode, and hope energizes us as we imagine new solutions to what we once saw as intractable problems.
Inspired by our new perspective, we start to try new things. We reexamine our habits and patterns and wonder, “What would happen if we did it this way instead?” We start to conspire with others, experimenting with new ways of working, and—when those experiments produce better results—sharing proven practices far and wide.
These new perspectives and practices need support to persist. They need funding, institutional buy-in, and incentives to become more than just activity on the margins. And so those with the power to remake policy must join in the work of making a better future possible.
Higher education has a choice.
We believe higher education has a choice. We can choose to see problems differently, adopt new practices, and change policy, or we can sit back and let systemic challenges persist. We can either reflect the racial, social, and economic injustices of society—or we can be an engine of equity, prosperity, and hope.
Our annual convening this year was entitled United for Change. Together, we looked at how we can align policy, perspective, and practice to reshape the systems shaping student outcomes.
We know we are not alone in our belief that better is possible. Every day our partners and collaborators across the country inspire us to dream bigger about the system we can create. We hope this year’s event likewise inspired you—we are glad you chose to join us.