EAB’s Meacie Fairfax returns to the podcast for a conversation with College Possible CEO Craig Robinson. The two discuss the power of community partnerships in giving underserved students greater access to higher education and stronger pathways to successful careers.
Mr. Robinson suggests that colleges must be willing to change their mindset in order to serve their students and their communities more effectively. Embracing the challenge of joining with community partners who offer complementary skills and assets is an important step along that journey.
0:00:11.4 Speaker 1: Welcome to Office Hours With EAB. Today, Craig Robinson, CEO of College Possible, joins EAB's Meacie Fairfax for a discussion on how to build effective community partnerships. It's a skill that doesn't come easily to every college president, but Craig offers some tips and suggests that the benefits of these partnerships can have lasting positive effects on students, surrounding communities, and schools themselves. Thank you for listening and enjoy.
0:00:47.3 Meacie Fairfax: Hi everyone, and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. I'm Meacie Fairfax, Associate Director of Student Success Research here at EAB, and I'm thrilled to have Craig Robinson, CEO of College Possible, a community-based organization. Now, before I give Craig the mic, now I know that sounded a little bit like a '90s rap, but I wanted to share that prior to my time at EAB, I spent a majority of my career with nonprofits in the CBO, so I cherish the work they do to support and uplift the communities, and I'm pleased to have a moment, and for you to have this moment with us to welcome Craig to the program. So Craig, if I could, welcome to the program.
0:01:27.2 Craig Robinson: Thank you, Meacie, it's a pleasure to be here.
0:01:30.4 MF: Thank you for coming on board. Now, if I could just ask you to share a little bit about what your organization does and some of the ways that you look to influence higher education leaders.
0:01:41.4 CR: Sure. Well, College Possible is a college access and success program, as our namesake suggests, and we're founded in 2000, and we use a near-peer mentorship model that's based on the AmeriCorps program. And our ultimate goal is to close the degree divide based on race and income. So we like to see ourselves as an opportunity pathways program. We're one of the largest college access and success programs in the country, and frankly, we are the first to use the AmeriCorps model to provide that delivery service. And we use a research-based curriculum to reach students, to help them navigate institutional barriers. So when you talk about how we work with higher education, a big part of it is making sure that students have the college knowledge and information and supports they need to be able to apply and ultimately persist through graduation.
0:02:33.7 MF: Well, I think it's very interesting what you said there, in terms of not only the AmeriCorps tie-in, but also with the near-peer model. I know a lot of conversations that I've had even in our own research, there's been... Especially during the pandemic, but even before then, a lot of concern in terms of student support and student belongingness. Now, would you mind just for a moment talking a little bit about that peer model and just why you decided that that was so important for your program?
0:03:04.8 CR: Absolutely. Well, there's a saying that says, "In order to be something, you have to see something." And so having a person who's navigating the process that you aspire to go through yourself is particularly helpful; just knowing that, that someone has not only done it, but to also hear that from them, what their challenges were and how they learned to overcome those obstacles. And so it's really powerful when you have somebody say that they, A, believe in you, that they are there to support you, and that they're there to serve as a guide. So I almost think about it like a Sherpa, someone who can help you climb that mountain, someone who who knows the pathways, who knows the dangers and pitfalls. And so, having a mentor who's relatively close in age and experience seemed like the ideal model to help guide a student through college.
0:04:01.5 MF: Yeah. And I think you touched on something very important 'cause there is the larger conversation that we're having, but then higher education is almost the homogeneity of it, that there aren't necessarily folks who have a diverse lived experience, don't necessarily represent the students who are coming on board. We know that we're going to be increasingly having demographic changes within our student body, that we can't continue to serve them the way that we have. So I wonder if, for a moment, we could talk a little bit about what are the specific ways that these community partnerships can even help higher education even become more inclusive and serve students of color better?
0:04:42.8 CR: Yeah. Well, to your first point about diversity, one of the things I've come to appreciate from my own lived experience is that you can actually have people from different backgrounds still be a resource to you. One of my personal barriers that I had to overcome was accessing faculty advisors or forming study groups with students who were different than me. So I think diversity has a role to play in it. To your broader point about partnerships, I think no matter what walk of life, there's a belief that a college degree can be transformational and so we wanna make sure that students from all walks of life know that. Now, if you have a parent who's going to college, that information is gonna be handed down to you from day one. That expectation is gonna be set. But yeah, we recognize that a degree is still influenced more by race and income now than by talent or true potential.
0:05:47.6 CR: And so, community partnerships have the ability to highlight a value of coalition building with higher ed, where K-12 institutions and college access and success programs, along with institutional partners can really bridge a pathway for students to be in a position to cultivate a life of choice and opportunity. And many of our institutions in this country are very old, yet it feels like a new opportunity for so many students who may not have someone in their life who went to college before.
0:06:21.0 MF: Absolutely. Well, there are a couple of things that you talked on there that I kind of wanna unpack a little bit because I think they are very important, even as people think about doing this equity work. I think one of them that you talked about, representation, diversity has its place, right? You wanna make sure that you see others who are succeeding. But then the other one you talked about is all walks of life, right? This is collectively all of our work to do this and there is something that we all can share with them. So would you mind kind of just talking a little bit? I love that philosophy that you shared there. Could you talk a little bit about just what you've learned in terms of even maybe even talking about your own organization? Because I can imagine that depending on who your staff is, that they don't necessarily match the race or the income level of your students.
0:07:10.3 CR: Yeah, so I mean one central theme I wanna come to and come back to is this notion about bridging the divide...
0:07:17.5 MF: Yeah.
0:07:17.5 CR: Right? And so I think when you're trying to bridge a divide, it does not have to be two equals on each end, to create that connection. In fact, often, by the fact that there's a divide means that there's a difference that exists, to try to connect students or potential to institutions of opportunity is a bridge to be crossed. And so I think there's a few ways I like to think about that. I think you can bridge that largely with people, you can bridge it with ideals, and you can bridge it with resources. And so when it comes to the people component of it and the role that we play is to be an ambassador, we want folks to realize that there's just so much talent in so many communities across this country. We don't serve just one population of student and we don't just serve one community. We see talent in a rural community. We see talent in a suburban community. We see talent in an urban community. And we recognize that our institutions are places of opportunity, that when students have access to those opportunities, they're gonna go on and do great things, not just in the communities they're from, but frankly, all across this country.
0:08:26.1 CR: And we have so many needs as a society and yet we have... The jobs of the future are gonna look very different than the ones of today. And yet, our students have... They see the challenges, they live in the challenges, they see the challenges of clean water, they see the challenges of safety, they see the challenges of just real-world issues, and their minds, they're percolating, because they're living in this world. And so the exciting part about bridging these opportunities and bridging this divide is to say, how do you bring need and opportunity together?
0:08:58.8 MF: That's right.
0:09:00.6 CR: And that's what programs like ours help to do.
0:09:01.8 MF: Well, I love what you said there too, because there's a sense of... I've been having these conversations where folks say, "Well, I think we've kind of done the work, right?" And I said, "Well, I don't think you've quite done it." Right? So even when we talked about the coalition building and what does that look like, to look like to reach back to the K-12, and work with community-based organizations and work with others within, with employers and others, right? In terms of the outcomes and making sure that from, kind of K through 20, how we're supporting all of that work.
0:09:31.5 MF: So I would love to have your sense about, how do you or how have you kind of put together that coalition building, working with those institutions, getting folks on board to think about these partnerships in a different way? Because what I'll share and I think what you probably know, historically, some of these, and a lot of these partnerships can end up being a little bit top down. So how do we all get there together to be on the equal playing field to support the work that we all know that we want to do?
0:10:00.5 CR: Well, I think one of the most important principles about effective partnerships is about combining resources on both entities, right? It's like, what is the benefit that you can both bring? Not just what you can get from the other person.
0:10:14.2 MF: That's right.
0:10:14.7 CR: So effective partnerships have to do with trust, it has to do with mutual respect, and if we're gonna be real, there's a certain benefit to be gained from that partnership. One of the places we try to do that in College Possible, as an example is in our Catalyze Program, where we train and partner with universities to deliver our near-peer coaching model on their own. So a good example of that, this was a conversation recently with the president of Morgan State University, one of our partners. And one of the values that he mentioned about the partnership is that we're using their student alumni and training them to actually go back and support their incoming freshman class so that they have a better likelihood of persisting and graduating.
0:11:04.3 CR: So we're not coming in as a partner saying we have all the answers. We're saying we have a tool. We have a resource. We have a shared interest around improving student outcomes, and we have a willingness to train and share those resources with you and leverage your own institutional resources: Your alumni, your professors, your support services to help you achieve your goals, which, frankly, are mutually shared by us. And so that's when I think partnerships truly work when it's a matter of respect. We don't see you from a deficit perspective, we see you from an asset perspective. And we wanna partner together to achieve a shared outcome.
0:11:42.1 MF: Well, and you say a good point, too, because there's been a lot of conversation, even as we talk about this equity work, about the kind of the deficit in the asset-based mindset, and I think that, what you just said as well, doesn't attribute it to the students but to organizations and others of the like of who you're trying to partner with and what those conversations are. So Morgan State, got to give a shoutout because they are a EAB Starfish customer, so I definitely wanna give them a little bit props here on the podcast. But it's exciting to see that work. And so for folks who want to get in or have those conversations or start to reopen those doors, what would that look like? How did your partnership with Morgan State come together and come to fruition?
0:12:27.0 CR: It's actually a pretty unique partnership. Number one, I guess I appreciate your shoutout because I just think they are a great example of an institution committed to not just access, but to success. And so they already have a shared purpose and vision for wanting to do this work. We were actually able to get connected to them in part, through the Travelers Foundation, which is also a supporter and a mutual funder of both organizations. And they invested in this unique initiative because they saw a common ground and a shared opportunity. So I give a shoutout both to Morgan State but also to Travelers but it also speaks to how unique partnerships can form when you bring entities.
0:13:07.1 CR: Here you are, you have a corporation with a philanthropic arm and an institution of higher education, and a nonprofit coming together around a common cause. And frankly, I think that speaks to some of the potential opportunities for solving bigger issues that we have in our society, and frankly just in education in general is how do we bring different groups together? How do corporate interests, how do state government, how does K-12, how do nonprofits and higher ed come together to tackle some of these issues? And I think it's going to... I think these are the opportunities we're going to begin to see, particularly coming out of, not just a response to COVID, but a response to economic recovery, and a response to some of the societal ills and some of the racial inequalities we see in our country.
0:13:57.6 MF: That's right. And one of the points that you brought up, in terms of thinking about bringing these students forward or moving them forward, there's been that conversation, we all know that this is a knowledge economy. We know that students are thinking about many things more broadly. So I'm curious in terms of what future employers are thinking about. So are you seeing a strong interest among the business and community leaders just writ large and partnering with colleges that have been hit hard? Because we know that there's a lot of money out there, we know that it's gone to a lot of initiatives. But what does that look like in terms of the conversations that you might have been having, or even some of your colleagues might have been having with the business community?
0:14:38.3 CR: Yeah, well, I think you see a strong response from business community, which I think is very exciting on the one hand. And on the other hand, there's a caution that you see in response to any crisis, a hurricane, an earthquake, is that immediate response, and the question becomes, how do you create this sort of sustained effort? And so one of the things as an example, the pandemic, I think has exacerbated many systemic social challenges that also hits the corporate sector's bottom line. Businesses know that access to a diverse workforce is a critical part of staying competitive, particularly in a global marketplace. And they have a vested interest now more than ever to improve college access to build that diverse workforce.
0:15:24.4 CR: So when we see trends where fewer students are applying to college or fewer students are submitting to FAFSA, which is an important process to apply for financial aid, or fewer students are persisting, that doesn't only affect higher ed, that affects corporations, that affects communities. So there's really gotta be a shared interest around getting ahead of some of these concerning headlines and building traction, and I think that's where unique partnerships can really come to play. And I think that's where corporations and organizations like ours can really bring about some real permanent change to create equitable college access and completion that's going to also lead into more corporations having a skilled workforce for the future. So there's a real need, corporations are being responsive. The hope is that there's a sustained effort, not just sort of an immediate response to the crisis at hand.
0:16:21.9 MF: Yeah, and I think the other part too, is that as you talk about that pipeline and coming through the business community, I think there's always also the other sense of, as we're kind of becoming equitable within our own institution, so just what that may look like for you, a College Possible, what that may look like at us at EAB is that even though you may be supporting this work, what does that look like when it comes into play in terms of actual the admissions? Or in our case, bringing on new hires and others, what are those supports you put in there?
0:16:52.8 MF: One of the larger things that we've been talking about is a little bit of the changing of how quickly we had to change the way that they were operating, and now there's this larger push for racial equity. And so, we've talked about a broad number of things in this conversation so far, but I would like to bring it back to a conversation though, about this kind of race conversation. This conversation that we haven't had yet. And one of the bigger questions is, what do colleges and universities need to do to break that inertia, to change the culture within their administrations? Because we know that the culture and those climates aren't necessarily helpful, and actually in many ways can be harmful and detrimental to the continuation of students at their institution. So I guess putting it in other words is kind of saying, how do you motivate leaders and staff to commit to continuing to do this difficult work, putting in the partnerships in place and getting those key stakeholders to buy into the work?
0:17:51.0 CR: Well, it goes back to a term I think you said earlier around coalition building, and I sort of reinforced that with this notion of bridging the divide. And I appreciate hearing that an organization like EAB, certainly, it's true for an organization like College Possible, we all have to deal with this reckoning. COVID-19 on the one hand was not simply about a virus, it frankly also laid bare real disparities that exist that are fueled, frankly by race and resources.
0:18:28.0 CR: And so collectively, I think we have to tackle these issues if we're gonna move forward together, so I think that one of the most important mindsets we can all have is that we don't have to do it on our own. And that frankly we're working through this together, and I think that the notion of combining resources and assets to get farther faster than we could on our own is really important, and that requires a deep level of humility. We often don't want to talk about issues of race as though it's the problem or challenge that it really is, we often like to celebrate the work we're doing, the progress we're making, things aren't as bad as they used to be. But until we accept the fact that we all have biases, that this is a big boulder to push uphill, and until we acknowledge our inherent biases, and we acknowledge the systems that create and perpetuate those biases, then we won't be able to deal with it.
0:19:25.2 CR: And so sometimes, it's reassuring to be able to deal with it amongst like company. So if we come together and I say, "Hey, we have a problem here too" and I have a problem, let's make it personal. I have biases, I was raised a certain way, I'm informed by society, I'm informed by all the images and messages that I've been assuming over the course of my life, that impacts how I think about others, how I think about myself, how I experience privilege, how I experience privilege in some instances as a man, how I experience certain privileges in certain instances as a leader, as even as a person of color. And I think that, that acknowledgement individually and collectively, the willingness to partner and bring, change our mindsets that we have not just a challenge, but a commitment to do something about it, and then a willingness to go on that journey with others is really important. And so, I think there's space for that. And if COVID-19 taught us anything, we move faster and farther than we would have ever moved on our own...
0:20:36.7 MF: That's right.
0:20:38.0 CR: Without this forcing mechanism. I see this every single day. My third-grade daughter is more proficient in Zoom than I am. She got thrusted into technology, and the schools, whether it was elementary schools or higher education, had to pivot in new ways around technology, around remote learning, around remote work. Now, imagine if we take that same agility, that same nimbleness, that same willingness to be responsive to issues of race and other disparities, and said, "We have no choice but to deal with it and we want to deal with it now," that will allow us to accelerate our impact. So I'm encouraged because if there was any silver lining to an otherwise dark and challenging time that COVID reaped for all of us is the fact that it showed us what's possible when we come together, when we recognize that we, in fact, have to do something different.
0:21:42.5 MF: That's right, that's right. And you said so many good things there. I think the one... There's a couple of things I'll pull out, in terms of when you were talking about the humility piece. I think they're such a big part of that because I think folks, for many ways, thought that they knew what they were doing, that we were doing the work in some form or another, and it's the welcoming of the conversation. So I would say, and I think you might agree with me, that in our 40 plus years or whatever, I never thought I would have this conversation at work or anywhere. I thought these conversations would continue to kinda be in these corners or with folks who, across my intersection of identities, I could connect with, or folks who felt othered, who had that shared feeling. And so I'm the same as you. It's very inspiring to be able to have this and have this conversation, to have these spaces and to continue to have this space to talk through it. But what do we do with it?
0:22:44.5 MF: And so the response that I've seen in terms of the colleges and wanting to do the work has been explosive, but where we're gonna tend to get hung up with is gonna be... But how do we do these things we thought we did better? How do we reimagine the things that we've done? And I think that's gonna be, as the work continues for folks to continue to have those conversations. And I think too, right. I think this brings us... What is the response from our students? So one of the bigger things, folks, we've always been talking about this equity gap, we've talked about it in different ways, whatever we think of, we're talking about as equity gap and not as an achievement gap. But the bigger thing that's happening now, that we're seeing a little bit of a splintering is regarding trust, right? We're talking about a racial trust gap in the last couple of months and probably in the last year, in terms of actually, "Is this what's going to happen? Do these schools care about me? Does this community support me?"
0:23:48.9 MF: And I think that's a really important distinction to make here because we've had many colleges, students, others, family members who've gone on to college, didn't get that degree and have said, "Maybe this isn't for me, maybe they don't care about me, or just maybe this isn't the way that I need to go about it." So my next question is pretty much around how might parents, schools, businesses, others work together to help students make these right decisions, decide what might be right for them? Because we talk about the knowledge economy, but there's also other things out there in terms of trade and others, how do we get them to figure out and have those deeper conversations about what may work for them?
0:24:32.2 CR: Yeah, this is a really foundational question, this is a deep one, and it's really often rooted in, what's the right decision for a child to pursue and sort of College for All often gets brought in into this debate. But I would contend, I think it's a little bit of a false debate of this, go to college or don't go to college. I think college has its... A critical purpose and career has a critical purpose. But I think a better question is, how do we position students for success in their lives? And what are the experiences that they will need to have and what are some of the relationships that will need to be formed? And what are some of the skills that will need to be developed to lead a life of choice and opportunity? Data immediately tells us that your earning potential is gonna be higher with a college degree, yet we also know that where you go to school and what you study, all those things matter as well.
0:25:41.6 MF: Yeah, and if I could... I was about to say, if I could interject, because I think that's such an interesting point... [chuckle] Not to bring myself into it. But there is... You've seen those charts where it says, Black with a college degree and White with a high school degree and it's the same income level.
0:26:04.1 CR: Right. But that speaks to a set of other more complicated issues. So I think about this... You sort of started the question...
0:26:13.9 MF: Sure.
0:26:14.2 CR: And I immediately thought about it from a lens of a parent, on what would I want for my child, and you talked about this notion of like trust with institutions. And so how would I best prepare my child? And ultimately, I feel like my goal and aspiration of a parent is ultimately to position my child for a life of choice and opportunity. And having gotten a college degree and being in a profession, that means I'm aware of their data that suggests that a college degree will increase your earning potential, your lifetime earning potential over a high school diploma, I think all those things are true. But I also recognize that college completion or life for that matter isn't a linear path.
0:27:04.4 MF: That's right.
0:27:04.9 CR: Right? And so how do we create space for life? [chuckle]
0:27:07.7 MF: That's right.
0:27:08.2 CR: How do we create space for learning? How do we create space for development? And so I think it's important to be able... And to also be aware as a parent even, as you learn your own child, what are their interests? What are the aptitude that they're showing? What are the things that energize them? What's the job that will not feel like a job, but they'll get up every day and be energized to do it and wanna do it even without a paycheck? And that takes a little bit of discovery. But I don't wanna minimize the importance and value of both a college degree and/or credentials and all this. We live in a society where credentialism is another ism, right?
0:27:53.0 MF: That's right. Yes.
0:27:54.7 CR: So that's really just important to be aware. So how do we arm... I don't wanna be naïve in this debate either, so I know for my own children that I will certainly do everything within my power to make sure they have college knowledge and have the ability to pursue college, and also have the experiences and exposure to different jobs and skills and interests and trades and relationships that will enhance their ability to pursue that life of choice and opportunity. So I just think it's important to both celebrate and elevate access to all pathways...
0:28:35.2 MF: That's right.
0:28:36.4 CR: And not have a narrow mind to focus about this discussion.
0:28:40.3 MF: I love where you put that because I think we get... Easily, folks get into a discussion about tracking, right? And I don't necessarily... I think that's a valid concern. But I also think, to your point, where and how do we want them, how do we grow and support them through their life choices? How do we get them to be more in the citizenry, right? To be great and have those skills for their life. I love that point. I could talk to you for a while. So I know...
0:29:08.3 CR: Enjoying every bit of this, too, Meacie. I appreciate just the opportunity to have this dialogue with you, this is a great discussion.
0:29:15.8 MF: And there's so many things that you touched on about... And I think there's larger conversations, I would probably say, if we have any parents who are listening, don't be alarmed. I know you might want some of them to be lawyers or doctors, but that might not be the path for them. And I think that's the other part about making sure that they're happy and passionate in terms of what they want to pursue, and making sure that we have those pathways for them.
0:29:36.9 MF: So let's talk about, we're coming towards the end of our conversation, but I do wanna talk about kind of what are the three key takeaways? What are kind of the top three pieces of advice that you will give a university leader about how to move forward with this work, to be more productive and to make sure that, again, speaking even just to what you just spoke to, and what we spoke through throughout this conversation, about getting students on that path?
0:30:04.9 CR: Yeah, I mean, this is a great question. And I almost think about it from the real estate perspective. If someone said, what are the three most important things about real estate? You often hear location, location, location, right? And I will say this, that when it comes to partnership and even this discussion of education in general, I would argue, it's value, value and value. And I'll tell you about what I mean here. I think first and foremost, we have to value the student. We have to meet students where they are, as opposed to asking students to meet colleges where they are. And that's one of the biggest challenges of why this space has not evolved because we have not acknowledged the fact that our students are evolving faster than the environments they're going into.
0:30:51.8 MF: That's right.
0:30:52.1 CR: So I think we have to rethink how we value students, so that their true assets are celebrated and rewarded. And we are seeing lots of programs in this area, like test-optional programs. I wanna give a nod to the Common App removal of the school discipline question.
0:31:09.4 MF: Yes.
0:31:09.6 CR: I think there's a lot of work happening in this space where we're starting to remove some of the hindrances and think about, how do we value the lived experiences of our students? As a former admission person, we often use the language that we talked about, hooks. What are the hooks students bring? And we gave a little bit more value to certain experiences around being a captain of a team or a first chair around instrument, but I would also argue that there's a value for students who may be caring for an adult in their life or maybe caring for a younger sibling, or who may be volunteering or who may be working. So, valuing the whole student is the first thing I would say.
0:31:51.3 MF: Yes.
0:31:51.9 CR: The second is valuing the partner, and this is what goes to the earlier point. But how do we think of other... Each partner as equals with unique assets that they bring to the table? How do we explore the combination of those resources to achieve something greater and bigger than we can do on our own? And that's what's gonna allow us to scale... Change faster and farther, by seeing the value in other partners and what they each bring.
0:32:19.2 CR: And a big part of that value is also seeing the communities. We often talk too disparagingly about communities, but the communities have to be seen as an asset, as part of the partnership. And then a third and final value, I would highlight falls in both near and long-term. We see our students as customers, we have to have a vested interest in understanding what will bring them the most value, to them. It's important to look at how partnerships deliver the value to the students. Completion rates is a big one. We're helping our students think of themselves as informed customers and we're encouraging them, look at the graduation rates of those institutions overall, we'll also look at the graduation rates of students like you, who come from your background.
0:33:05.1 MF: That's right.
0:33:06.1 CR: We're helping them to be educated consumers, and a big part of being an educated consumer is thinking about affordability. And affordability has to be considered part of the value proposition, so that access to quality education is both attainable, but we also think about the return on investment. And then that can only be fully realized upon graduation, so our institutions graduating the students that are coming through their doors. I think there's a great opportunity to both celebrate and think about value from a perspective of valuing our students, our communities, valuing each other as partners, but also thinking about the value of the return on that investment and the long-term outcome as part of that partnership.
0:33:50.4 MF: That's fantastic. Well, I won't even... I think that's our wrap up there. I just wanna thank you, Craig, for the time. Thank you for being here with us and thank you for our listeners here for joining in with another Office Hours With EAB.
0:34:04.5 CR: Absolutely, Meacie. Thank you for the opportunity to spend this time with you and a big shoutout to EAB for putting on this session. I really appreciate the chance to be with you.
0:34:20.5 Speaker 1: Thanks for listening. Please join us next week when our experts discuss the steps that higher ed leaders need to take now to make the most of the latest COVID-19 stimulus package. Until then, thank you for joining us on Office Hours With EAB.
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