Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

3 Student Success Lessons That Power EAB’s “Moon Shot for Equity”

Episode 32

October 27, 2020 33 minutes


EAB recently launched a national initiative, dubbed “Moon Shot for Equity,” to erase equity gaps in college completion for underserved student populations. One of the first schools to sign on to the project was Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

MATC President Dr. Vicki Martin joins EAB Vice President of Partnerships, Tom Sugar, to talk about why the project is so important to the Greater Milwaukee area in particular, and about why it’s time for American higher education as a whole to stop admiring the problem and act to solve it.

Mr. Sugar shares the three most important lessons all institutions can take away from the successful model employed by Georgia State University. Dr. Martin and Mr. Sugar also talk about the institutional changes that have to be made and about why the higher education model, built for a customer that lived 100 years ago, must evolve to fit today’s students.


00:12 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours. We’ve heard a lot recently about the negative impact COVID-19 has had on retention and graduation of college students. And in particular, you might have seen a lot in the press related to the growing equity gaps for historically underserved student populations that have been exacerbated by COVID. However, this isn’t a new revelation, and frankly, we’ve been marveling at this problem for a very long time. On today’s episode, we’re gonna talk about taking action to solve these equity gaps. EAB’s VP of Partnerships, Tom Sugar, is joined by Milwaukee Area Technical College President, Dr. Vicki Martin, to talk about EAB’s recent initiative, the Moon Shot for Equity, which boldly seeks to erase equity gaps in America through the use of technology and best practices in student success. They’ll discuss why this project is so important to the Greater Milwaukee area in particular, and what are some of the three most important lessons they can learn from other success stories. Finally, they’ll talk about why the model of higher education, which was built for students 100 years ago, needs to evolve to meet the needs of today’s students. Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:24 Tom Sugar: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Tom Sugar, and I’m new to the podcast, but I’ve been working in higher education for a long, long time. I’m absolutely delighted to be joined today by a dear friend and the President of the Milwaukee Area Technical College, Dr. Vicki Martin. Welcome, Vicki.

01:43 Dr. Vicki Martin: Hi, Tom. Good morning and thanks for having me on your podcast.

01:48 TS: Well, thank you for agreeing to do this with us in these bizarre conditions. I think you’re at home, I’m at home, so I apologize in advance to any listeners who may hear an occasional dog barking, but I think we’re all in that world these days. Vicki, we’re getting together for this recording on October 20th, and that is the beginning of a very, very important and exciting week. And I’m not talking about the new release of the latest Borat movie, I’m talking about the announcement of the Moon Shot for Equity. And let me just for a moment, Vicki, if you don’t mind, for our listeners, unpack what the Moon Shot for Equity is and why this is such an important part of what we’re doing together, and how this week will capture a very important announcement for the initiative.

02:39 TS: The Moon Shot for Equity is an unprecedented public-private partnership that EAB has created to engage regions across the country, both two and four-year schools working together in a highly structured integrated way to adopt all the best practices and policies, the technologies, the leadership skills, all based on achieving a big audacious goal, and that is the elimination of equity gaps before the next decade is out. And the reason this week is so important is because we are on the cusp, in fact, tomorrow we’ll be officially announcing to the country that we have selected the very first of what we hope will be seven regions in this country, the very first region to stand up and launch the Moon Shot for Equity. And I’m absolutely delighted to say that that first region will be the Milwaukee-Kenosha region, and that’s why it’s so important today that we have Dr. Martin with us, my friend Vicki, because she runs the most significant community college in the Milwaukee area, Milwaukee Area Technical College, and has just served as a pivotal leader in the efforts over the last several months to marshal enthusiasm and support to join the Moon Shot for Equity and to convince EAB they have the right stuff to make this work. So Vicki, tell me how you’re feeling right now. We’re a day away from launch. As you’re reflecting on how far we’ve come and where we’re going, what comes first to mind?

04:18 DM: Well, just obviously the excitement about being part of this nationwide initiative that is so critical to the success of our students and to our region and our nation, and I think just trying to really make that difference in our students’ lives, especially our students of color. That equity agenda is critical as we start moving forward. So we’re pretty excited to be able to scale up, work with some of our key partners, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside and Carthage College, that together, along with our other two and four-year partners that are part of our HERA group, and HERA stands for Higher Education Regional Alliance of Southeastern Wisconsin, all of the two and the four-year, we’re very excited to be able to learn from the best practices that we’ll be gleaning from this particular initiative.

05:20 DM: And so we know it’s going to be hard work, we know it’s going to take a long time. I’m reminded of John F. Kennedy’s comments around the Moon Shot at Rice University in 1962 when he said, “We choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” We know this is going to be difficult, but we are committed to working together and making sure that we make a difference in our community, that we move that needle, that we erase, we eradicate those equity differences that we know are holding back our communities from those prosperity measures that are so important. So we’re looking forward to it, we’re excited by it, and it’s just going to, I think, demonstrate to our region, to our state and to our nation what actually can be accomplished when we all work together collaboratively.

06:11 TS: I’m so delighted that you cited that JFK speech, the Moon Shot, and I guess the term “moon shot” gets thrown around a lot these days, but it’s just so appropriate when we think about the task before us. I think back, Vicki, on all the millennia that must have passed with people looking up and wondering what it might be like to walk on the Moon someday. And it wasn’t until the 1960s when they thought they finally had maybe just enough knowledge to reach higher and to try to achieve the thing that most thought were out of reach. And I think we know more today about eliminating equity gaps in higher education than they did when they chose to go to the Moon. And I think the adage is so perfect, the metaphor is so perfect, because the closure of equity gaps has been a problem that’s sort of been too long admired but not acted on.

07:11 TS: And I think the equivalent to achieving this is, what seemed like such an out-of-reach goal, the elimination of equity gaps must feel exactly like the notion of walking on the moon and reaching higher and being able to accomplish that goal. And so it really is about leadership, and I wanna unpack that for a moment with you, Vicki, because when folks ask me, “How are you gonna choose these regions, Tom? What’s the secret sauce you’re looking for?” It really begins and ends with leadership. It requires some courage. Lots of people have heard speeches from our friend Tim Renick from Georgia State. He’s been, of course, begging people to replicate what he’s learned and the achievements, the success he’s had with eliminating equity gaps, and yet folks haven’t been very quick to pick up that torch. But in Milwaukee, you chose to do so. You chose to take the reputational risks to tell the entire community that your success, Vicki, will be measured on your ability to eliminate these gaps within 10 years. Tell me, what was the spark that pushed you over the edge? You had the Higher Education Regional Alliance doing good work, why did the Moon Shot feel like it was the moment to stand up and be counted?

08:26 DM: Well, as you know Tom, when you had dinner with us and you gave me the little postcard that talked about Moon Shot for Equity, it just really sparked my imagination, and I could see the vision of what you were trying to accomplish. And I have to tell you that, given what’s happening in our community and the many failures we’ve already had, just like the Moon Shot. They didn’t succeed initially. In fact, they had some pretty horrific failures, life-ending failures in fact. And that’s what I feel, lives are on the line here. So many of the folks in our community are facing the economic disparities, health disparities, and right now with COVID, it’s worse than ever. And as you know with what’s been happening around the country, race relations is at an all-time low, and so when you have so many students of color like we do, about 60% of our students are students of color, and we’re in a large urban environment, of course they’re gonna feel the effects of that.

09:32 DM: And so for years, we’ve been working on a number of different initiatives, and first we started with our Promise Program, which is really about having access to our institution and finding that most economically disadvantaged students, especially Milwaukee public schools, were not coming to college because they didn’t think they could afford to. But I have to tell you, once they came, we found that now they had access and they had free tuition, but what they didn’t have was all the support around them. And we had just started with Guided Pathways, and now we’ve moved to Achieving the Dream. But part of HERA was also CCA, Complete College America, which, Tom, I know you’re very familiar with obviously as a leader, a former leader, of that organization. But those are all based and predicated on research that Dr. Renick and others, Lumina, Gates Foundation, have shown us the way, have shown us what needs to be done.

10:30 DM: And it’s not really about fixing the student, and I think we’ve spent so many years in failure around fixing the student. And oh, if I remember my early days at MATC when I was a counselor and an advisor, and just talking to students and just saying, “Oh my gosh, they’ve never been successful.” And now they’re coming back as adults and they now want to have a better life for their families, now they know they need education to get out of poverty and to have that difference made. So when you really look our history and all the things that we had been working on, I have to tell you, it’s like, we’re making progress, we had Dr. Renick in a few times, we saw the way, we did the Guided Pathways, we’re on that journey, we know equity is at the heart of all of those things, but then to think about the region being able to move the whole state, because part of HERA, and I’m a co-leader on Goal One with my colleague Dr. Ford from UW-Parkside, and our goal is college completion.

11:35 DM: And so we want to… Our state has a goal, it’s called 60 Forward, that 60% of our citizens in our state, have some sort of post-secondary credential. We’re at about 51%. We moved the needle a little bit, but not enough in my mind. And what they told us, Lumina did, is that if we in Milwaukee County and Racine County, which is where Dr. Ford and I, that’s our backyard, that’s where we work. If we could move that needle with our students of color and attract more students of color to come to our institutions and complete, we can move the whole state. So when you presented that little postcard, that sparked my imagination and my dream for a better future for our region and for our state. And so I brought that back and I showed that to Dr. Ford and we got very excited, and we spent a lot of time talking to our colleagues about the importance of this particular initiative.

12:33 TS: So for our listeners, the postcard that you’re referring to, Vicki, was really the very first time I spoke publicly about this idea of a Moon Shot for Equity. I looked up in my calendar, that was April 2019, April 2019. And you and Christine Manion charged at me after my little brief, it was actually a toast before dinner, where in five minutes I explained what we were thinking about doing to test any interest in the room. This room was filled with presidents and provosts, it was a dinner. Lee Lambert from Pima Community College also charged at me, as did Marie DeSanctis from Broward College, so I knew that we were on to something. And I think what you were responding to, Vicki, is the fact that we’re trying in the Moon Shot to pull together now everything that we’ve learned these last 10 years to address all the capacity needs, the technical assistance needs in one cohesive effort.

13:38 TS: Because what I’ve learned at Complete College America, and thank you for mentioning CCA, I’m still very proud of the work that I did there as a co-founder. But what we learned over that timeframe was if you want to replicate Georgia State, you have to have three key things. You have to have uniquely committed leaders who know how to manage change. So that’s one thing together, but it’s really two pieces. You can be a committed leader, but if you don’t understand how to manage change, change management, which is a learned skill, you won’t be able to marshal your people forward and sustain the changes over time. So you have to have that. The second thing you have to do is you have to, with fidelity and at scale, deploy all the best practices and policies that we have proven now through research to show will dramatically improve student success and erase equity gaps. You have to do them. And it’s not sort of a smorgasbord of choices, you have to do all of them. You have to do remediation reform, you have to do mathematics aligned to careers, you have to have how you structure the Green Maps or Guided Pathways, as you said. You have to have programs that offer older students a better deal to attract them back in order to complete unfinished degrees, and a number of other things.

14:58 TS: And finally, the third thing you have to have is you have to technology, and I discovered that through my years at Complete College America. Back in the early days, Vicki, the software or the technology was pretty poor, honestly. And at CCA, we thought that we could maybe do something to get industries to respond to improve the quality of their products. Around that same time, Tim Renick had developed predictive analytics with EAB, and it was really one of the first examples of how we can really apply big data and be smarter about and more efficient about advising student success. And so we laid out a national competition, a seal of approval, and we said to software companies, “We’re gonna make these standards harder to meet every year, and we’re gonna keep raising those standards, and we’re gonna give away awards for those who really we believe are really best positioned to support student success.”

15:50 TS: And every year, EAB won those things. And so it really opened my mind about how the technology, of course, we all use technology to organize our daily lives, but it isn’t just that. It makes us smarter, it makes us more efficient, it reveals new data, early warning systems to help students in a proactive way instead of a responsive way. And it also puts down new guardrails to structure our progress and our changes and our reforms, but it also allows us to sustain those changes over time. And so when you have those three things, they are synergistic with one another, and that’s when you’re cooking with gas, or as we like to say in the Moon Shot, that’s when you’re cooking with rocket fuel. And so I think in that room that day, as I unpacked what we were trying to do and how it was gonna have those components, I think a lot of folks in that room just felt like, “Okay, that’s sort of an all-in proposition that brings all the pieces together.” Was that what your reaction was, Vicki?

16:53 DM: Oh absolutely. And so as you talked about the training that’s necessary in change management, and it is a learned skill, that’s why we had brought Dr. Renick in as part of our HERA group to talk specifically about change management and what they were able to accomplish. That is really critical. The other thing I’d like to say, and you mentioned it, is being data-driven is so important to drive that change, because you have to convince people to do things differently. And to show those best practices where other people actually have made those differences, now you know it’s possible. Because you start seeing it being replicated in small places, but when you think about doing it collectively to move a whole region, that’s what really… It really inspired us and made the difference.

17:38 DM: And let me just talk a little bit about technology and why that’s so critical. We have been working with EAB for quite a while in improving our systems and our practices through Guided Pathways, and so we totally reorganized around those pathways, those three pillars of Enter, Stay and Learn, and so what we found is that we really needed the software, it was so labor-intensive to go through some of these processes. And then working with EAB on best practices, when they saw the software, they said, “Oh my gosh, this is exactly what we need. This will support those changes we just made that we thought we’d have to be calling research to get all of that information every day.” That predictive analytic piece is so critical and Dr. Renick talks so eloquently about looking at that, and can you imagine after all these great changes he’s made, after all of these years at their institution, that they still rely upon that system and looking every day for small changes and those small changes always add up. Anybody who’s gone to a hardware store knows you put a few screws and a couple of hammers and pretty soon you’re over $100, the same sort of ideas that these small changes add up to big changes for students, and that’s what EAB and the Moon Shot for Equity brings to us, into our region.

19:01 TS: We always have to double down on access to make sure that our colleges are affordable and accessible, and we’re delighted that as part of the work and what we’re doing in Milwaukee, EAB is providing for free to the Milwaukee region, a program called College Greenlight, which is a recruitment and enrollment tool platform, specifically focused on under-represented populations, Black students, Hispanic students, low-income, first generation students, and so access is extraordinarily important. But once you have them in, the name of the game, of course, Vicki is retaining them and seeing them progress through their programs, and as you suggest, the technology can be very, very helpful. I do wanna clarify for our listeners that this relationship with EAB isn’t an ordinary one, lots of our listeners may be familiar with the company and of course, the significant presence we have, in not only technology for student success, but also research enrollment services, financial aid optimization and the like.

20:03 TS: But this isn’t just sort of an ordinary relationship we’re having with you, we’re equally committed to the same goal, we’re putting out there, just like you are, the reputational… Assuming the reputational risk that we believe within the next decade, we will achieve the goal of helping these regions to raise their equity gaps, but we’re also putting skin in the game. Across the four colleges in Milwaukee, EAB will be investing $4 million over the next five years, almost $4 million, about $3.85 million over the next five years to support you for institutions, and we do that through various mechanisms, various resources at cost consulting, discounts and technology and the like, and as I said, the College Greenlight gift essentially to you to support the access aspects of what you’re engaged in.

21:01 TS: And so we have skin in the game, you have skin in the game, and then jointly, we’re going out there with you and the other presidents and chancellors to solicit support from philanthropy, and that’s all because just like the Moon Shot of old, we believe that we’re gonna accomplish this goal, it’s gotta be an all-in proposition, activating all of the creativity and intelligence that we’ve been able to learn in the private sector, in the not-for-profit sector, in the institutions, in our philanthropies, and that’s how they got to the moon. We would have gotten to the moon by now, but there’s no way we would have gotten to the moon by 1969 if it hadn’t become an all-in proposition. And that is so important when we think, Vicki, about the students that we’re targeting here, the ones we most want to advance in order to achieve those goals, as you mentioned for the State of Wisconsin. It takes that coordinated care network, community-based organizations, all of us working together. Can you talk a little bit about your own experience at MATC and maybe the success coaches that you brought on board, if you thought about more holistic support for these students?

22:13 DM: Right. So as we began looking at what strategies were really working, as I mentioned earlier about the promise, we had met with a number of different funders to really support our initiative, and we had one funder in particular who said, “What about that infrastructure? What is that gonna look like?” And he said, “I’ll give some funds to that, but I also want to bring on a success coach.” And we already had an initiative called Men of Color, because we had found through looking at our data, because we’re data-driven, that Black men in particular were not succeeding at the same rate as our other students were, and so we looked at one program and it was our automotive program. And as it turns out, this funder was from the automotive industry and said, “How about if I fund a success coach?” And we were like, “That’d be great. We could do case management, which we’re not able to do now because we don’t have the resources.” And so what we found is that bringing that success coach in truly made a difference. Retention really went up, and I’ll just give an example of a story. One of the students was sleeping in class and the instructor was like, “I’m not sure the student is gonna be successful, they can’t stay awake.” And that, “This just isn’t appropriate for students to be sleeping in class, obviously.”

23:36 DM: The success coach reached out to the student, found out his story, and his story was that he was working in a bakery. And then he would come to school and then he would go home and take care of the family. So he was getting very little sleep, and unfortunately, he was sleeping in class is what was happening. And so through all of the connections and the support we were getting from this automotive company, we said, “How about if we got you a job in the automotive industry that paid more than you’re making at the bakery, we’ll get you at least experience in your field.” And that’s exactly what occurred by having those connections, those resources, we were able to get that student into the field. So he was awake during class, he succeeded, he finished, and now he’s on to his career. And so we learned so much from that, we learned that that was definitely the way that we needed to go. We knew that we had to do more of a case management approach, so we expanded that to our Promise Program students, but we also expanded that to our other programs, and now we’ve completely restructured through Guided Pathways, our advising model, and now we have pathway teams that include a retention coach.

24:50 DM: And that’s the difference that having that data and understanding what it can really do and really help students by that personal touch of really understanding their stories. And that’s what equity is, if you really think about, equality is everybody gets a pair of shoes, but equity is everyone gets a pair of shoes that fit, and so really deciding and talking to students about what are their needs and how can we help make them successful and keep them on their career path so they complete and get into their careers is really critical, or if they wanna transfer, they can do that as well.

25:24 TS: Sure. Well, that’s such a powerful, powerful story, ain’t it? And it’s still all built around this fundamental paradigm shift, because an instructor could have looked out at that sleeping student and said, “You’re out of here, buddy.” And that was it. But instead, you reflected and asked questions and asked yourselves, “What structural changes can we make inside that student’s life and how we serve that student in order to enable him to succeed?” And that is so fundamentally different in the way that higher education used to behave, which is, “We open the doors, the rest is up to you.” There’s nothing wrong with thinking more deeply about how to better serve the students or the customers, if you wanna say, that we have today, and Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State, he’s famous for saying a lot of brilliant things, but I was at a convening once and he was talking about higher education as a machine, and he said, “Why are we all surprised by the outcomes that we’re getting? The machine is elegantly built for a customer that existed 100 years ago, and it’s the same machine today, and so it still turns out exactly what it was designed to do, prepared, privileged, often White students make it across the graduation stage and the others, the machine was never designed to serve, don’t. Surprise!”

26:44 TS: And to rebuild the machine, you gotta tear apart the systems and to change metaphors, bake it into the cake, make it part of what you do every day. Let me turn, Vicki, you’re a lifelong Milwaukee resident, right? So you know your community well. Let me turn to the personal here a little bit with the time that we have left, obviously, everyone in the country was absolutely mortified by the events this summer, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, and Kenosha, of all places, and of course, Carthage College and UW Parkside, two of our Moon Shot partners in the Milwaukee region are actually in Kenosha. And so it’s been a pretty raw time, it’s been a time of crisis and focus, and you’ve been living that out in the hallways of MATC. You and I were on a call a couple of weeks ago, and you were sharing with me the importance of the equity mindedness training that’s required as part of the Moon Shot, and your absolute passion about getting that up and running and as quickly as possible. Give me some sense of what’s going on in your hallways and how do you take advantage of this moment, and as they say, make sure that we don’t waste this crisis?

27:58 DM: Well, thanks for that, Tom. Yes. I was a little relentless in calling you because being a native of Milwaukee and growing up here, and I’ll just tell a quick story. When I was a child, there was some rioting in our city and some destruction, and my father took us in the car and showed us the next day when it occurred, and I just was just shocked by the devastation. And he kept saying, “What do you think caused this? Why do you think this happened?” And that’s been a life-long question for me that I’ve been trying to answer, and I think we’re starting to hear the answers and understand it. But if you look at Milwaukee, we’re one of the most segregated cities in the United States, one of the worst places for Black men. We rank near the bottom, if you look at metro areas our size, on prosperity, economic prosperity measures, we’re at the bottom on almost all of them, if not all of them. And so there’s just so much happening here. If you look at the incarceration rate, we’re one of the worst. We have a zip code that’s one of the worst in the country.

29:08 DM: So the American dream is really dead here for our students and our citizens of color here. I think the events that occurred magnified it, amplified it and gave voice to it, and I think that as leaders, we came together and we had a lot of great supportive statements but the response we got back is, “That’s great. It’s time for action.” And what concerns me, and I shared this with you, is what concerns me is that we’re going to forget and we’re gonna go back to the way we were and we can’t afford that, that just cannot happen. And our community is finally having these conversations, we’re talking about it, we’re gonna work together to leverage all of our resources, but at MATC, I’ve made the commitment that this is part… Moon Shot is part of one of our strategies, a key strategy for us to really make sure that our students are successful, but I also care about our employees deeply and as one person on our team said, this is a difficult time. Her love for her country is not being returned to her.

30:12 DM: And so it’s one of those things that people are really experiencing a lot of concern, fear, angst, and just creating a better place for them, a better environment for a safe place, a place of belonging, a place where the student experience and the employee experience is so much better, but our community experience has to be better and our national experience must be better, and that’s what we’re gonna work on and it’s gonna take that bold, relentless leadership that we bring to the table.

30:43 TS: Well, you certainly provide it every day, Vicki and it’s just an honor and a pleasure to be able to work with you and I’m so excited about the years ahead and the progress we’re going to make in partnership with one another through the Moon Shot for Equity. And I just can’t tell you how absolutely thrilled I am that the Moon Shot for Equity is arriving at this moment, when your staff and your students are looking for examples of tangible action. And yes, hard work, and thank goodness we can slide this initiative right into that gap and say, “We’re not just offering thoughts and prayers and flowery rhetoric, we’re offering a path forward. It’s an all-in proposition, activating every aspect of our community to help you succeed, and when we do, and we will, we will fundamentally change Milwaukee and Kenosha in this part of Wisconsin and ultimately the entire state, because we started here.” And that’s what it takes. It takes summoning the will to say, “It can be done, therefore we will do it.” And so thank you so much, Vicki Martin, for your wonderful leadership, not only at MATC, but the national example that you’re gonna set for the entire country as you rise as one of our key leaders in the Moon Shot for Equity. I also wanna thank our listeners too. Vicki you wanna sign off? It’s fine.

32:01 DM: Yes. And I just wanna say thank you, Tom, and I really look forward to our work together on Moon Shot for Equity. Thanks again for having me.

32:07 TS: You bet. And to our listeners, if you’re interested in learning more about the Moon Shot for Equity, please go to We’re on the hunt for six more regions like Milwaukee,. We would love to have conversations with you about why you think your region has the right stuff in order to accomplish this big, audacious goal with us, so please reach out. I look forward to our conversations, and I look forward to this unified effort to not only improve higher education, but we believe, save our country. Thank you.

32:47 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us next week when we’re joined by David Pluviose, Executive Editor of Diverse, Issues In Higher Education, for a discussion about what colleges and universities can do to recruit and retain diverse faculty. Until then, I’m Matt Pellish for Office Hours with EAB.

More Podcasts


Mitigate the Pandemic’s Impact on Equity Gaps this Fall and Beyond

EAB’s Meacie Fairfax and Ed Venit discuss equity gaps in higher education and ways the pandemic and recent…

A Silver Lining? COVID-19 Reforms May Improve Student Support

EAB’s Meacie Fairfax and Ed Venit discuss ways the pandemic is forcing colleges to change for the better…

Dr. Tim Renick Shares GSU’s Playbook for Eliminating Equity Gaps

Student success guru Tim Renick discusses GSU’s journey to eliminating equity gaps and shares scalable, replicable best practices…