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.
The People Involved in Transformation
Transformation, as observed in the Frontier Set, is not just a technical challenge — it is a human one. A common theme among all Frontier Set institutions was the critical role and competencies of people effectively contributing to their institution’s transformation journey. Though individuals who drive transformation vary by institutional type, culture, and available resources, transformation happens when people demonstrate communication that fosters collaboration. The importance of people was consistent across all sectors of Frontier Set institutions and is highlighted in all four insight articles.
Senior leaders in cabinet-level positions, such as presidents or provosts, set bold visions for equitable student success that sparked transformative change. They supported these visions by setting goals in strategic plans, aligning appropriate structures, committing resources, and opening communication channels. Mid-level leaders, such as deans, department chairs, and vice-provosts, built relationships, fostered buy-in and collaboration, and coordinated key initiatives to expedite change. In departments such as advising, information technology (IT) and institutional research (IR), core and frontline staff provided the infrastructure, tools, and resources needed to identify and address student success barriers and monitor progress. While their job titles and actions varied by institution, people were the engine of the transformation process in all cases.
Senior Leaders Set the Vision
As discussed in Catalysts That Ignite Transformation, leaders should create and widely communicate a clear vision for equitable student success supported by goals prioritized in strategic plans. Institutional change requires leaders to help the individuals driving transformation connect to the institutional vision and to work collaboratively to take actionable steps toward progress. Clear and consistent communication of the vision is key: A leader who effectively opens communication channels, articulates their strategic priorities, and encourages and empowers others to act on that vision, sparks transformational change.
This was evident in how San Jacinto College District managed its communications across multiple campuses with a commitment to synchronizing messages. These internal communications practices started at the top, with the chancellor, deputy chancellor, president, and senior administration engaging in open, timely communication with all employees.
Mid-Level Leaders Do the Heavy Lifting
The Insights To Act On: Mid-Level Leader’s Role in Accelerating Equity-Focused Transformation, points out that the responsibility to implement senior leadership plans often falls to mid-level leaders. They sit at the intersection of the strategic vision set by leaders and the practical realities on campus. Mid-level leaders translate, communicate, engage, and act as a bridge between senior leaders, core and frontline staff, faculty, and students. Their ability to engage stakeholders across different departments to influence student success-related decision-making is essential to developing and implementing equitable change.
Sinclair Community College described the multi-faceted roles played by its mid-level leaders in this way: Mid-level leaders saw their role as “feeding information to senior decision makers.” They bridged communication between students, faculty, and senior leadership within the institution. Mid-level leaders worked to gather “frontline experience data” and ensured it was presented during senior leadership meetings. They had to effectively listen to students, peers, and their team. They relayed this valuable information to leadership. (AIR 2021 Institutional Case Summary)
Frontline Staff Implement Solutions
Student-facing staff, such as faculty and advisors, are on the front lines where the practical application of a strategic vision comes to life. Their proximity to the student experience allows them to maintain and model an equity-centered mindset and greatly influence the culture. Their ability to hear directly from students about the effects of specific initiatives and to communicate those stories back to their department chairs, directors, and/or deans is invaluable.
Many initiatives undertaken to improve the student experience in the Frontier Set involved these frontline staff, such as changes to advising practices, redesign of developmental education, and expansion of digital learning. Staff often had to learn new technologies and engage with students in new ways to advance these efforts.
At Delaware State University, new advising tools were created that allowed frontline staff to more quickly identify and support students at risk. Delaware State University found success creating advising tools such as the Individual Development Plan (IDP). IDP helped improve student success and resources within the institution’s advising department. Delaware State also made consistent changes in developmental education after identifying current courses weren’t allowing freshman students to accumulate 15 credits a semester.
2021 AIR Institutional Case Summary
Core Staff Provide Perspective and Essential Decision-Making Support
Core staff — those on the frontlines of an institution, such as advisors, IR/IT staff, and program managers — were most often cited as partners in the pursuit of student success. Specifically, Frontier Set institutions took steps to incorporate IT and IR staff into the decision-making process. IT and IR made data accessible and created tools for analysis and visualization that produced actionable information in support of student success.
A great example of this in action was observed at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College which added key positions within IR that helped departments and internal project teams ask the right data-backed questions (2020 AIR Institutional Case Summary).
The Importance of Competencies
Beyond individuals’ job titles and responsibilities, certain qualities effectively moved the student-centered agenda forward. These competencies went beyond the technical proficiencies and abilities required for their roles and included communication and collaboration skills, among others. For institutions in the Frontier Set, these skills also varied by role:
For senior leaders, success increased based on their willingness and ability to widely communicate their vision for equitable student success, to encourage collaboration, and to leverage data in decision-making. An additional essential skill was the ability to help campus community members, such as mid-level leaders or frontline staff, understand how their roles contributed to accelerating a vision for change.
Mid-level leaders needed to be especially adept at cross-functional collaboration, breaking down silos, and innovative problem-solving. These skills helped their role of consulting with senior leadership, while translating and working with frontline and core staff. Data fluency was also important in these roles, as it helped mid-level leaders use student success and outcome data to monitor the progress of key initiatives and to maintain accountability.
Mid-level leaders are the solution creators. They understand the ways daily operations and student needs intersect, which creates opportunities for creative solutions. Executive leaders do not have this same nuanced understanding of student needs or daily operations.
Spokesperson from University of North Caroline at Greensboro as cited in Insights to Act On: The Role of Mid-Level Leaders in Accelerating Transformation
Enabling Factors That Support People Engaging in Transformation
Differentiated Decision-Making Structures Help Advance Transformation
Using both centralized and decentralized decision-making structures and processes helped Frontier Set institutions drive transformation efforts. Centralized decision-making, in which decisions occur within a single unit, was highly effective for strategic planning. This centralized approach to setting the vision for transformation allowed senior leadership to set the tone and direction for transformation efforts at the institution and to create consistent messaging on how that vision would be enacted.
On the other hand, decentralized decision-making, in which decisions engage multiple stakeholders and authority is distributed across the institution, was more effective when allocating resources to support transformation initiatives. Increasing the transparency of budgeting mechanisms allowed stakeholders to understand how resources were being deployed to support key efforts, and to ensure sustainability beyond the initial implementation phases.
Professional Development is an Important Link
Developing key competencies among faculty, staff, and administrators enabled people at Frontier Set institutions to meaningfully engage in transformation efforts. Common across all levels and functions were professional development programs that built data capacity and improved data literacy and used to inform decision-making.
Many professional development activities trained faculty and frontline staff in new pedagogies and technologies in order to deploy key student-success initiatives, such as digital learning and advising reform.
Overall, professional development opportunities were key to advancing teaching and learning initiatives, as well as building data and technology capacity on campus.
People Make the Difference
While their individual titles, roles, and responsibilities varied, it was clear that people — dedicated, passionate, empowered people — were the common denominator in making institutional transformation happen. The lived experiences of dedicated professionals across the Frontier Set underline that transformation is indeed a team sport that demands the engagement of all departments, especially the students themselves.
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.
- How does your leadership express the institution’s vision and support for key initiatives on campus? Do these statements reflect a priority given to equitable student success? Are these priorities reflected in the institution’s strategic plan?
- How do current structures and processes support or detract from your ability to engage and collaborate across the campus community in order to take actionable steps toward achieving strategic goals?
- To what extent do mid-level leaders, core staff, advisors, and faculty understand your institution’s equity goals and know their roles in contributing to them?
- What mechanisms does your organization’s senior leadership have to bring the perspectives of mid-level leaders, core staff, advisors, and faculty into decision-making?
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.