Karen Stout | Achieving the Dream

Changing the achievement paradigm

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.

Karen Stout – Achieving the Dream (Photo by Matthew Rakola)

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.

Montgomery College and Bunker Hill Community College are participating in Achieving the Dream. (Photos by Matthew Rakola and courtesy of Bunker Hill Community College)

“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.

Success Coaching helps incoming students transition to college at Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts. (Photo courtesy of Bunker Hill Community College)

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

Dr. Karen Stout with international student Khadijah Parnell at Montgomery’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus. (Photo by Matthew Rakola)

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.”

Karen Stout

An Interview with Karen Stout

How would you describe your personal leadership style?

My personal leadership style really emerges from my experience in college athletics and even high school before that. When I was a little girl, my dad and mom were so supportive of my participation in athletics. And I think they saw my participation in athletics as an opportunity for me to have some social and economic mobility. Through athletics, I understand how important it is to tend to the fundamentals, to be prepared, to understand the context of the field. I was a field hockey player. And I played center midfielder, so being able as a leader meant I had to stand in the middle of the field, see the context, be prepared, have strong fundamentals, distribute the ball, and hope that your teammates can finish toward the goal. That's really, I think, a good metaphor for the way that I hope it I'm leading.

Why does your sector need strong leaders right now?

Achieving the Dream's model relies on institutional transformation, one college at a time, across the country, so that eventually all 1,200 community colleges are performing at a high-performing level. We know from our work with community colleges over the past 15 years that one of the distinguishing factors for improved student outcomes is leadership. And leadership comes in many forms on our community college campuses. So it's strong presidential leadership, it's stronger board of trustees leaderships, it's strong faculty leadership. That’s what happens within strong institutional transformations, so that it's not just those particular groups doing siloed kinds of leadership work, but rather they're horizontally aligned in their vision and understanding what the gaps are that they need to address. And then understanding the urgency of the calling around improving student outcomes with equity.

What’s one leadership challenge your sector faces right now?

The work around holistic student supports is new work for many of our community colleges, and my commitment to elevating and amplifying that commitment is based on my own personal experience as a college president. Listening to students, hearing their stories. Seeing their life situations.

Those were things that I was not able to see at that point in my career or anticipate. And now I have a very strong lesson from that failure.

Kresge's Take

Positioning Colleges to Support Success

For more than a decade, The Kresge Foundation has supported Achieving the Dream (ATD). The nationwide network of community colleges helps low-income and historically underrepresented students get to college and complete degrees.

Amarillo College has instituted a wide range of student supports. (Photo courtesy of Amarillo College)

ATD asks penetrating questions: Why aren’t more economically challenged populations going to college? Why aren’t they graduating?

When the resulting evidence reveals stark equity gaps, ATD then offers services to help colleges reach their goals.

“ATD has set the tone and helped define the strategy for postsecondary access and success in the United States and, increasingly, around the globe,” says William F.L. Moses, managing director of Kresge’s Education Program.

Student outcomes at Amarillo College have improved. (Photo courtesy of Amarillo College)

Among ATD’s partners is Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo (Texas) College. Working with ATD, his team learned that Amarillo students typically had fewer economic and social resources to support their college dreams. Many faced hunger and homelessness. The college instituted supports and its outcomes began to improve.

“There would be no Amarillo College story without Achieving the Dream,” says Lowery-Hart.

In April 2019, ATD announced a strategic merger with Gateway to College, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that partners with more than 30 colleges and 200 public school districts to help high school dropouts earn diplomas along with college credits. Together, the organizations are better able to serve at-risk students, expand dual-enrollment options and link ATD members with students who have yet to finish high school. Kresge’s newest grant to ATD supports the integration of the two entities, enabling both to expand and strengthen pathways from high school diplomas to postsecondary degrees.

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