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  • Writer's pictureStudent-Ready Strategies

The Missing Piece to the Postsecondary Transformation Puzzle: Tackling the Capacity Issues that Hinder Institutional Equity and Progress

“Transformation” is a hot-button word in higher education, but what does it actually mean? At SRS, we say that institutions are transforming when they are actively working to change policies and processes that have consistently marginalized students, in an effort to make their institutional structure more equitable and inclusive. Different people may define transformation a bit differently, but they will generally agree that it means some level of disruption to the status quo. 

So if everyone is talking about transformation, why isn’t it happening more quickly? As an organization squarely situated in this space, we wish to elevate three universal truths related to institutional transformation that cause effort after effort to get stuck and allow inequitable systems to persist.

Truth #1: Colleges and universities are the unit of change. 

There are many organizations working to support and/or regulate higher education - philanthropies, legislatures, state governing and coordinating boards, system offices, nonprofits, scholarship organizations, research organizations, advocacy organizations, member organizations… but nobody graduates from them. Students graduate from colleges and universities, period. Of course, these groups all serve critical functions in educational equity spaces, but none can meaningfully influence student outcomes unless their work is somehow implemented at colleges and universities. Thus, the professionals who work at postsecondary institutions across the country are the ones tasked with dismantling and rebuilding the proverbial plane while it is still in the air, ensuring that all the students on board experience a smooth ride and a safe landing. A true Herculean feat - with dire consequences if not achieved.

Truth #2: The professionals working to transform their institutions are short on capacity

Capacity for change requires more than just extra time. It also requires:

  • Expertise - On top of their current job duties, professionals must be well-versed in the dynamics driving the challenges they are trying to address and stay abreast of the most recent research and best practices. 

  • Creativity - These professionals must often start from scratch when considering how to implement a strategy or process. This takes a great deal of creativity: articulating a new vision, designing a change management process, and creating myriad documents like policies, process guides, and slide decks. Unfortunately, that creativity is often quickly depleted throughout the day on core responsibilities, and there is little left over to fuel transformation. (Why do we love generative AI? Because we hate blank sheets of paper.)

  • Motivation - It’s not that higher education professionals don’t do things out of the goodness of their hearts. It is that when choosing between helping the student in front of them or tackling structural transformation, the real-time student needs will always take precedence. This goes back to rebuilding the plane while flying it. I’m interested in designing a more fuel-efficient engine, but I’m highly motivated to make sure my current engine doesn’t break down. 

It is difficult for an individual to summon the time, expertise, creativity, and motivation needed for change all at once, and consider that structural changes within institutions have to be implemented by cross-functional teams. How can we expect a team of 10 or more to find all four components of capacity simultaneously when projects can already stall for months simply because people can’t find a common time to meet? These capacity challenges are even more pronounced at institutions disproportionately serving Black, Latine, Indigenous, poverty-affected, and adult students. Community Colleges, HBCUs, HSI, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and adult-serving institutions have consistently done more with less, but there are limits. To achieve student equity, we must be able to provide institutions with equitable support - each institution getting what it needs to bolster its capacity to engage in transformation. 

Truth #3: Our current approach for supporting transformation does not meet the test of institutional equity

Some institutions have discretionary funding. Many don’t. Some have sufficient staff and structures to tackle new initiatives. Many don’t. As a field, we try a lot of things to solve for monetary scarcity, and try to find efficiency in doing so, but our solutions often further stretch professionals’ time and capacity.

  • We create free toolkits. But professionals must have the time and energy to find them, digest them, contextualize them, and customize them.

  • We “train the trainer,” convening institutional leaders to learn how to transform their institution. That requires travel time, of course, but these leaders must also design and execute a full-blown change management process when they return to campus - and the panel of experts doesn’t come back to campus with them. 

  • We do light-touch consulting and coaching. Professionals get good advice, but again, must implement it independently.

The alternative is true technical assistance, where the provider does work with and for campus staff, contextualized and customized for that institution. This type of support bolsters the time, expertise, creativity, and motivation of busy campus professionals. Unfortunately, it is expensive, especially for funders and states supporting many institutions at once.

The result of these three truths is that we have not achieved institutional or student equity. Institutions are not getting exactly what they need to truly transform, and students continue to make their way through inequitable systems and not surprisingly, experience inequitable results. 

Enter ConstellationEd

SRS believes that we cannot ask institutions to transform while still continuing to do our own work the same way it’s always been done. Our organizational equity philosophy compels us to innovate to alleviate some of these troubling trade-offs between serving more institutions or serving fewer more comprehensively. To ensure we can meet our mission and honor our equity philosophy, we built a technical assistance platform for institutions that is scalable and lower cost that addresses the core capacity challenges:

  • Time: Teams can work asynchronously AND collaboratively, contributing when they have time and not waiting for the elusive 90-minute time block when everyone is free. 

  • Expertise: The platform weaves current research and SRS’s expertise into the change management process in actionable ways, presenting digestible information in the context of discrete decisions the institution needs to make to move its work forward.

  • Creativity: ConstellationEd tackles the blank sheet of paper, articulating a future state and embedding a proven change management process, then creating policies, process guides, slide decks, student handouts, and more, that are customized to the institution’s context and choices in their branding. 

  • Motivation: The team working in ConstellationEd must bring some initial motivation to the platform - they see firsthand the challenges their students are facing and they have a directive from leadership or grant outcomes they must meet. While ConstellationEd cannot create that initial motivation, it can help sustain it by accelerating the pace of progress and giving institutional teams meaningful wins, quickly. 

ConstellationEd isn’t appropriate for every institution. Some will continue to need more hands-on support, and others will be fine with an even lighter level of support. It is, however, a strategy for supporting institutions that solves critical capacity challenges in a new way, without breaking the bank. For funders and states looking to maximize impact, it has the benefit of being inherently scalable in a way that high-touch support is not. 

Advice for Overcoming Capacity Constraints

Regardless of role, there are things equity advocates can do right now, to do a better job addressing capacity constraints.

Philanthropies: Remember that time isn’t free. If the project requires change management and implementation at the institution, fund the institution directly to hire staff, bring in high-touch technical assistance providers, and/or embed ConstellationEd access into the project to take some of the work off the institution’s shoulders. 

States and Systems: Make sure campus-level capacity support is a consistent component of your policymaking processes and master planning. Think about how state-level staff could share the implementation workload, and turn the typical state convening into an action-oriented workshop with transformation happening on-site and in real-time. Consider whether ConstellationEd would be an affordable and unimposing way to strengthen the relationship between your office and your institutions.

Institutions: Be strategic about the supports you select for yourself. If you have money to bring in a TA provider, ask directly what they will take off your plate and what they will put on it. If you have time to use a toolkit, make sure the one you pick has actual tools. If you have the opportunity to go to convenings, ask what part of your to-do list you will accomplish by the end of it. If you have only a little time and a little money, give ConstellationEd a try - it was designed for institutions just like yours. 

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