Diversity and Democracy

Working across Professional Roles to Transform Community Colleges and Broad-Access Universities

Institutions of higher education are under great pressure to improve completion rates. Old approaches to reform, such as pilot or targeted programs, have not created the attainment gains required in the new millennium (Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins 2015). To improve completion rates and ensure student learning, colleges and universities need to substantially redesign how they are structured, how they engage with students, and how they approach the educational enterprise. In short, they need not only to reform—they need to transform.

Those leading transformative reforms need insight into how best to shepherd change in ways that resonate with institutional stakeholders. One key insight from my colleagues’ and my research in six transformation-minded institutions is the importance of achieved and assigned characteristics—professional roles, responsibilities, reputation, and authority—in the institutional change process. In this article, I examine the role that differences in these characteristics play in transformative reform, and describe two of these colleges’ efforts to help institutional actors work effectively across those differences.

Transformation and Higher Education

Over the past decade, policymakers and educators have broadly coalesced around a “completion agenda,” shifting the focus of higher education reform efforts from increasing access to college to improving college completion (Bailey and Morest 2006; Executive Office of the President 2014). The need for this shift is well-substantiated: while access to college has increased, college completion rates remain stubbornly low, particularly in those institutions enrolling high proportions of students who are low-income, first-generation, and/or from minority backgrounds (US Department of Education 2015). Moreover, institutions of higher education are seeking ways to ensure that completion goes hand-in-hand with high-quality learning experiences (Arum and Roksa 2010; Humphreys 2012).

Previous reforms tended to address only a small part of the student experience. But discrete reforms such as learning communities and first-year seminars usually have positive results, such as increased semester-to-semester retention rates, that fade over time (Rutschow, Cullinan, and Welbeck 2012; Visher et al. 2012). More comprehensive approaches are necessary—and beginning to get underway (see, for example, the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Roadmap Project, the American Association of Community Colleges’ Pathways Project, and state initiatives supported by Complete College America).

These new reforms are efforts in transformation because they encompass the entire institution and engage all stakeholders in change to improve student outcomes. Transforming colleges engage three interconnected change processes at the same time: structural change, shifting the organization or design of systems and business practices; process change, defined as shifts in individual engagement and interpersonal interactions; and attitudinal change that shifts core attitudes, values, and beliefs (see, for example, Kezar 2014).

Given its complexity, institutional transformation is difficult. To understand the conditions that support or inhibit such change, my colleagues and I conducted an in-depth case study of six colleges engaged in a specific type of transformative reform effort. The institutions included four community colleges and two broad-access universities, and they varied in terms of urbanicity, size, and student demographics. They had all sought funding from a private foundation to engage in technology-mediated redesign of advising and student supports, sometimes referred to as “integrated planning and advising for student support” (iPASS).

Our data come from visits to each of the case study sites, conducted before and after implementation of the redesign. During the first visit, we examined project plans and organizational culture. During the second, eighteen months later, we assessed institutional and individual change. During both visits, we conducted semistructured interviews with key personnel, administrators, advisors, and faculty (101 interviewees pre-reform, and eighty-nine post-reform); surveyed participants to capture information about their backgrounds and roles within the organization; and conducted “guided observations” of advising tasks to assess changes in student service delivery.

We found that three of the six colleges used iPASS to begin transforming, displaying shifts in institutional structures, processes, and attitudes over the course of the project. At the other three colleges, we saw small shifts in one or two dimensions of change, but not along all three.

Differences in Professional Roles at Case Study Sites

The six colleges in our study all approached implementation by engaging stakeholders from multiple departments and across hierarchies. This approach represented a deliberate effort to ensure widespread buy-in and emphasize the broad nature of the reform. It was also practical, as iPASS reforms require expertise in both technology and advising.

Such a multifaceted implementation approach created challenges, however. It required individuals to work with new colleagues from across the college, many of whom had different worldviews and frames of reference. It also required cross-hierarchical collaboration and navigation of the power differentials that result when individuals with different levels of authority come together. In other words, in the context of institutional transformation efforts, “difference” manifests in the form of professional roles, responsibilities, reputation, and authority—achieved and assigned characteristics.

Differences in these achieved and assigned characteristics color individuals’ worldviews and interpretations of events. At all colleges in the study, project teams had trouble communicating the overarching goals of the iPASS reform to one another and to the broader college community. Members of information technology (IT) departments tended to view the project in terms of technology deployment, requiring discrete steps to make a new tool available to users. In contrast, student support staff were more likely to think about how technology could influence their day-to-day activities, in interaction with other, often complicated, redesigns of advising services and provisions of student support.

These two groups of stakeholders often spoke different languages (speaking of “deployment” and “system integration” versus “case management”), defined terminology differently (understanding “training” as learning to access a new tool versus learning to perform job duties in a new way), and even saw the intended timeline and goals of the project differently. At some colleges, like Crescent Community College,1 these differences were so dramatic that they delayed the project and shifted how project leaders presented iPASS to the wider campus community. Even at the end of the initiative, stakeholders at this college lacked a clear understanding of the reform’s purpose and thus did not use the new tool in ways that led to meaningful change.

Differences of status and power occurred within the projects because all colleges needed institutional leaders (such as presidents and provosts) to direct the reform process as well as day-to-day project leaders to shepherd the work. At some colleges, status differences were counterproductive. At Forest Hill University, the university provost provided us with a detailed rationale for transformation and a clear vision of how iPASS could improve student supports. But this vision did not reach project personnel, who were left to implement the initiative without a clear understanding of its purpose or expected impacts. They shared with us a different, narrower vision for the reform, and indicated that their efforts were due to the influence and expectations of college leadership, not their inherent belief in the change. Not surprisingly, we did not observe transformative change at this school.

Similarly, at Treetop College, college and project leadership were not aligned in their understanding of the potential for iPASS to be transformative. Project staff wanted to use technology to spur redesign of student supports, while institutional leadership was nominally supportive but did not put the weight of their offices behind the efforts. Left to their own devices and lacking institutional support, project leaders were unable to marshal change. Moreover, we repeatedly heard that project leaders felt powerless, given their lower institutional status, to encourage college leaders to provide more support. Ultimately, the narrow vision of the reform held by more powerful constituencies won out over a more transformative vision held by less powerful project leaders.

Working Effectively across Professional Differences

Though working across role-related differences was challenging at all institutions, three of the colleges successfully did so—and these same three colleges were able to leverage iPASS for transformative change. Here, I describe lessons garnered from two of these institutions that may apply to other colleges seeking to navigate role-related differences.

Leaders at Bluffview College deliberately sought to align worldviews among those holding different professional roles. The college’s implementation of reform was jointly driven by IT and student success professionals. Moreover, the IT director was included on the team responsible for setting the college’s student success agenda and developing new student support approaches. This enabled the IT staff to become invested in and prioritize iPASS. At the same time, the advising lead had deep knowledge of IT processes and needs and could “understand [IT]’s communication … and jargon.” In essence, these two individuals were able to code switch, enabling them to explain the overarching vision of the project in ways that were understandable to multiple sets of stakeholders.

In addition to staffing the project strategically and inclusively, the college overcame differences in worldview by devoting substantial time to cross-staff engagement and knowledge sharing. Project staff met regularly, engaging with one another as colleagues who each possessed unique and important expertise. Freeing up staff time to generate shared worldviews was a key way this college leveraged the iPASS reform for transformation.

Participants at Lakeside College struggled with status differences, which at first impeded their progress toward transformation. At the time of our first visit, institutional-level leaders had a clear vision for their iPASS reform and had shared that vision with project-level leaders. However, project-level leaders had not in turn communicated the vision to support personnel throughout the institution, in large part because they did not see the necessity of sharing information with those of lower professional status. Implicitly, project leaders seemed to expect support personnel to engage in change because they were told to do so by those higher in the institutional hierarchy. This created substantial resistance to iPASS on the part of the very personnel who needed to engage in the greatest degree of process change.

Halfway through the project, college leaders realized that a mismatch in power dynamics was impeding progress and deliberately attempted to bridge status differences. They brought in a different day-to-day project lead, who understood their vision for reform and who was respected by support personnel. After confirming a shared vision, college leaders gave the project leader wide latitude to communicate that vision to her peers. Moreover, they used their institutional status as a bully pulpit—communicating the importance of iPASS reforms, supporting the project lead’s efforts, providing her with resources, and empowering her to make day-to-day decisions.

The combination of two types of power—institutional influence and peer respect—enabled this college to move quickly. Once personnel at Lakeside College learned to use differences in professional status and power to their advantage, they created multidimensional change that is likely to be sustained over time.

Conclusions and Implications

Our case study research in six colleges and universities indicates that the transformative change necessary to improve college completion rates is challenging, and not always successful. One important commonality among transforming institutions was the ability to work across professional role differences. We found that differences in role-related worldviews and status created challenges for some project teams—but opportunities for others.

This finding underscores the importance of recognizing differences in achieved and assigned characteristics. Colleges that recognized these differences and actively sought to bridge language, professional orientation, and status divides among team members were able to leverage difference rather than be stymied by it. At successful colleges, project leaders and participants used the relative strengths of their professional positions to complement one another. Project leaders rethought professional roles, gave project members time to get to know one another and learn about the worldviews of other team members, and ensured that everyone truly shared an overall vision for the project. When colleges did these things, their projects were more successful. They turned the challenge of difference into an asset.


1. All college names are pseudonyms.



Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. 2010. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bailey, Thomas R., Shanna S. Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins. 2015. Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bailey, Thomas R., and Vanessa S. Morest, eds. 2006. Defending the Community College Equity Agenda. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Executive Office of the President. 2014. “Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students: Promising Models and a Call to Action.” Washington, DC: White House.

Humphreys, Debra. 2012. “What’s Wrong with the Completion Agenda—And What We Can Do About It.” Liberal Education 98 (1): 8–17.

Kezar, Adrianna. 2014. How Colleges Change: Understanding, Leading, and Enacting Change. New York: Routledge.

Rutschow, Elizabeth Z., Dan Cullinan, and Rashida Welbeck. 2012. Keeping Students On Course: An Impact Study of a Student Success Course at Guilford Technical Community College. New York: MDRC.

US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2015. The Condition of Education 2015 (NCES 2015-144). Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Visher, Mary G., Michael J. Weiss, Evan Weissman, Timothy Rudd, and Heather D. Wathington. 2012. The Effects of Learning Communities for Students in Developmental Education: A Synthesis of Findings from Six Colleges. New York: National Center for Postsecondary Research.

Melinda Mechur Karp is assistant director of  the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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