The Frontier Set was a select group of high-performing, high-potential colleges, universities, state systems, and supporting organizations committed to eliminating race, ethnicity, and income as predictors of student success by transforming how institutions operate. They came together to understand transformation, collaborate, and share insights with the foundation and one another. The key insight: Equity-focused transformation is possible.

As you review the insights about the individual components of transformation, the key drivers that make it possible and help sustain it, keep in mind that while each is discussed separately, in practice they are very much interconnected.

What Are the Catalysts of Transformation?

In the work of institutional transformation, a catalyst is anything that significantly impacts the forward momentum of transformation within an institutional setting. A catalyst can act as a spark that helps initiate transformation, or as something that helps it progress — and some catalysts can serve both roles.

Internal catalysts: These are institutional policies, processes, practices, and people. For example, common internal catalysts were visionary senior leadership, changes in senior leadership, board engagement, and changes to institutional structures, such as governance, a merger, or consolidation of departments.

External catalysts: These include state-, system-, or community-wide policy changes and/or legislation, and the external people participating in these activities. The most common external catalysts centered around student success-oriented partnerships, state or system policy mandates, and engagement with outside consultants or advisors.

Equity-focused catalysts: These are institutional structures, practices, and people that initiate or sustain transformational change specifically intended to improve equity in student outcomes. The most common equity catalysts focused on senior leadership’s vision for equity, the effective use of student outcomes data, as well as the role of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion personnel, committees, and structures.

The Three Most Prevalent Catalysts

While catalysts varied across institution types, we found that internal catalysts had the most impact because individuals within local organizations can influence institutional processes and culture change. Institutional transformation may be propelled by 1) a clear and actionable vision from senior leaders, 2) buy-in from mid-level leaders who are closer to the student experience, and 3) the support of trusted colleagues and formal support networks.

Visionary Leadership

It’s clear that catalytic leadership helps drive transformation. For example, when an existing president has built trust over time they can set forth a compelling vision, agenda, and resources for achieving equitable student outcomes. A newly installed leader acting on a mandate to create change — or building on the work begun by a predecessor — can also be effective in advancing transformation.

Delaware State University identified President Harry Williams (2010-17) and his administration as helping further transformation on campus beginning in 2013:

Multiple staff and faculty described how President Williams and his administration brought a specific focus to improving students’ degree completion by improving the student experience. With the student experience in mind, President Williams and his administration helped ready the institution for broader transformational change by communicating and emphasizing the need to create a student-centered model for advising going forward. (2020 AIR Institutional Case Summary)

When talking about catalytic leadership, we are often referring to a leader’s competencies; specifically, their ability to articulate a clear vision and to create a culture of buy-in through data-driven decision-making and self-reflection.

Leaders are everywhere. While the vision and actions of executive leadership are essential, strict hierarchical dynamics are ineffective. When leaders express a clear and compelling vision — and when it is effectively communicated — it contributes to a cultural shift that empowers individuals across the organization to take risks and act as advocates for student-centered institutional change. This is most significant among the people who are charged with helping realize an executive leader’s equity agenda or vision. Because they sit at the intersection between senior leadership and those in more student-facing roles, these mid-level leaders have the potential to exert tremendous influence over transformation initiatives.

Changes in Senior Leadership

A change in senior leadership, such as at the president or provost level, can create transformative culture shifts at an institution. A new leader may bring a student-centered agenda, have an opportunity to build on previous efforts, or act on a mandate to change the status quo. For the College of Staten Island, CUNY, a new provost ushered in structural changes and a support system to carry them out:

In 2015, the new provost of academic affairs prompted significant structural changes. These changes included the centralization of Undergraduate Studies and Student Success under Academic Affairs, which meant that CSI leadership could better coordinate student success efforts. The provost also created (and hired for) a new associate provost position. The new associate provost formed a team dedicated to student success. Much of the CSI student success team’s progress in transforming itself has been attributed to the associate provost’s championing of student success initiatives, as well as the team he built. (2021 AIR Institutional Case Summary)

Partnerships and Networks

No one can take on a challenge of this magnitude alone. The Frontier Set offered an opportunity to connect, engage, and learn from other institutions, including those from other sectors. We referred to this as a networked approach. Participants were able to openly discuss their respective challenges, insights, and possible solutions with one another as they embarked on their transformation journeys.

Student success-oriented partnerships or networks can help create a similar structure as the Frontier Set. Be sure to identify institutional networks that support data-driven decision-making and sharing of best practices for institutional reform.

Frontier Set appeared to serve as a catalyst for institutional transformation at William Rainey Harper College. The institution saw several visible changes related to improving student success shortly after the start of the initiative. (2021 AIR Institutional Case Summary)

We heard from Frontier Set participants that transformation is a team sport, and that there is value in reaching out to intermediaries and others for guidance and support. Many Frontier Set participants expressed that they benefited greatly from the personal connections, sharing, and support of others in the network. Taking advantage of student support networks, especially for community colleges, was a way to better understand and use disaggregated data from peer institutions, or to replicate models that worked for a similar population of students. Both Completion by Design and Achieving the Dream were cited as being especially helpful. To paraphrase the sentiment expressed by several leaders: Transformation is essential, and the process can be complicated and messy, but it’s also rewarding. Look for opportunities to collaborate.

Additional Insights

Beyond the most prevalent catalysts discussed above, several other observations are worth noting:

  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution
    The Frontier Set cohort included a diverse set of colleges and universities, each with their own operating model and capacities. This influenced which catalysts they were able to leverage. For example, while visionary leadership was identified as being pivotal across the cohort, student success networks were most often cited within community colleges, and outside consultants were most popular with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
  • Context matters
    Assessing your institution’s capacity or readiness to leverage opportunities effectively is important. Because each Frontier Set institution was in a unique place in its transformation journey, some could leverage several catalysts concurrently, while others could only take advantage of a limited number. While there is an opportunity to learn from what others are doing, keep in mind that what worked for them may be specific to their context.
  • Disaggregated data is a must-have
    The most common equity catalyst among all institutions was the disaggregated measurement of student success. Data is a powerful tool to inform decision-making, and disaggregated data specifically allowed institutions to see how groups of students were or were not thriving.

Davidson-Davie Community College examined data to identify gaps among different populations. For example, data they received from the Systems Office was disaggregated to show differences between African American students and their peers. That disaggregated data was the driver of some of the institution’s initiatives designed to address gaps in student success. (2020 AIR Institutional Case Summary)

It’s worth noting that, except for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which were created with an explicit equity mission, many universities within the Frontier Set cohort are still at the very early stages of their equity journey. The fact that disaggregated measurement of student success was the most frequently noted equity catalyst indicates that most institutions have taken an important first step in understanding the challenge.

Capacity can be a barrier

The most prevalent barrier to transformation was that of limited capacity. For example, a lack of funding, a shortage of staff, or the inability to integrate a new technology platform could inhibit an institution’s ability to leverage a particular catalyst effectively. Understanding the realities of your context and taking advantage of existing capacity will help focus your efforts. It’s important to have a clear assessment of where you are and start there.

Reflection Questions

Use these questions to reflect on your own, or discuss with colleagues to inform and accelerate your institution’s transformation progress. For additional insights and guiding questions, please download our collection of Insights to Act On.

  • Does your institution have a clear, compelling vision for student success?
  • How might a change in leadership impact your institution’s current and future student success goals?
  • Which membership organizations or other network partnerships does your institution belong to? Does your institution engage in their programs and services?




A note on citations: Examples from the Frontier Set institutions are cited from reports and case studies which may not be publicly available. Each example referenced has been approved by the institution for inclusion on this site.

Frontier set

Insights to Act On

Use these questions to reflect on your own, or discuss with colleagues to inform and accelerate your institution’s transformation progress. For additional insights and guiding questions, please download our collection of Insights to Act On.

The Role of Visionary Senior Leadership in Equity-Focused Transformation

Download PDF