Enhancing the Path to Success for Community College Students
While Karen Stout was always a top student, she points to athletics for helping shape her into the leader she is today.
A standout in three sports, she was consistently at the center of the action. “I was always distributing the ball, setting people up, playing middle of the field,” she says.
That’s how she sees her leadership role now.
“I look at the leader as the one who has to set up the systems and distribute the ball, to help other people score the victories,” she says.
Stout has scored her own share of career victories, first as a top administrator or president of several community colleges. Now she’s president and CEO of Achieving the Dream (ATD), a national nonprofit dedicated to helping community colleges improve student success with customized coaching, data analysis, technical assistance and other supports. Conceived by Lumina Foundation in 2004, ATD now leads the most comprehensive nongovernmental reform movement for student success in higher education history.
Its network of more than 220 postsecondary institutions, 100 coaches and advisers, and numerous investors and partners working throughout 40 states and the District of Columbia is helping more than 4 million community college students. ATD also serves as an invaluable data-coaching partner to Siyaphumelela (“We Succeed”), which is a project of Saide, a South African organization committed to increasing equitable success in postsecondary education.
“Karen is always able to bring things back to what it feels like to be a student.” — Pam Eddinger, Bunker Hill Community College
Those achievements did not come without hard work and self-examination. When Stout took the helm in 2015, ATD’s model looked strong. The organization enjoyed solid partnerships, healthy philanthropic support and considerable loyalty from the colleges benefiting from its work.
But as time went on, Stout explains, it became evident that ATD had lost its voice and was no longer leading the narrative describing the arc of higher education reform.
“We also failed to effectively embrace our failures as lessons for improvement and our successes as moments to leverage momentum,” Stout says.
She took on those challenges by approaching them from the perspective of someone who had worked in the field.
“I didn’t have any understanding of what nonprofit leadership looks like and what nonprofit finance models look like,” Stout admits. “But I was able to take (to ATD) what I had learned about being a community college president and building alternative revenue systems to keep a college viable.”
She made the case for why ATD’s old model was not sustainable and, with her team, came up with a new one.
“Our new model moves from a one-size-fits-all approach of leadership and data coaching only to one that focuses on building fundamentals with leadership and data coaching and the offering of customized coaching supports in areas like holistic student supports, guided pathways, teaching and learning and equity,” she says.
Getting there required a difficult restructuring — one that needed leadership qualities her admirers say Stout has in abundance: courage, discipline, passion and eloquence.
“Karen brings a relentless focus on impact,” says Robert Templin, former president of Northern Virginia Community College and the founding ATD board chair. “She drives herself hard, sets a high standard, and that is what the field needs.”
Adds board member Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, “Karen is always able to bring things back to what it feels like to be a student.”
Transformation: Personal and Organizational
Stout entered the field essentially by accident. The first in her family to go to college (the University of Delaware), she hoped to become a sportswriter. But a community college admissions job and a succession of college president mentors helped steer her in a different direction.
Her first mentor told her she could be a community college president someday, which taught her that it’s important to let young people know when their potential is evident. Her second mentor became her “No. 1 ally and No. 1 critic,” she says. She appreciates the third for giving her a project that became a memorably instructive failure — successful in process, but lacking because she underestimated “the political context within which it was being shaped.” Now she routinely considers politics when making decisions, noting, “Process plus politics plus people usually equals success.”
Stout is proud that ATD’s network of educational institutions has grown under her watch — and now includes almost all of the tribal colleges in the U.S. She’s also happy that ATD has helped colleges adopt open educational resources — publicly accessible teaching aids versus costly textbooks — and further customize holistic student assistance.
“Thanks to a lot of support from Kresge, we’ve been able to strengthen our strategy and be right in the middle of the new demand for supports that community colleges need,” she says. “What brings me joy is seeing firsthand the influence we have on the lives of students and their families. Seeing the transformational ripple effect keeps me energized, excited and engaged.”