Belated Notes From an ATD Kickoff Conference

Last week I attended an Achieving the Dream kickoff conference in Charlotte, N.C. Brookdale has been selected as part of the latest cohort, so the college sent five of us there to get things started.

I’ve heard quite a bit about ATD over the years, and I’m a longtime fan of Karen Stout, its president. But this was my first time on the inside, to the extent that we were.

A few takeaways:

  • The “student-ready college” locution seems to have stuck. I’m eagerly awaiting the updated version of the book of that same name, but in the meantime, it’s a good organizing principle.
  • One president of an ATD school shared with us the way that she started an all-campus meeting to illustrate the importance of attacking equity gaps. She asked everyone to stand up and imagine that we were new students. Then she asked all but a small fraction to sit down. She asked the few who remained standing to look at all of their friends across the room and to imagine that they had all dropped out. It was jarring, which was the point.
  • Clarity of purpose was a consistent theme. One college mentioned that its internal employee giving campaign was devoted entirely—and explicitly—to paying off small balances from students who owed money, so those students could come back. Employees who might not have wanted to give to the college as an institution were willing to give to students. That helped the students directly, and it helped the college indirectly by allowing it to tell prospective external donors about its internal culture of giving. External donors like that sort of thing.
  • Apparently, the state of Florida has designed its performance funding mechanism so that the only AS degrees it will fund are those in which graduates have an average wage, six years after graduation, of at least $52,000 per year. As one might imagine, that narrows the field a bit. I wondered what happens when a recession hits but didn’t get to ask.
  • One president mentioned giving hiring preferences to faculty candidates who had earned associate degrees along the way. The idea was that people who had been to community college are more likely to be able to relate to their students. I wasn’t personally sold on this, but I’ll give credit for creativity. It also gave extra credit for those who had been first-generation students themselves, and for those fluent in a second language. I’m not a fan of penalizing people based on who their parents are, but the second-language premium made sense to me.
  • The strategy of shortened semesters—seven or eight weeks at a pop, rather than 15 or 16—had a lot of support. As it should.
  • One of the ATD staff—I won’t embarrass her here—has some of the best comic timing I’ve seen in someone who isn’t a comedian. I mentioned that to her, to which she responded that it isn’t intentional. That made it even more impressive. Good comic timing can be learned, but some people just have it. The next day she presented again and got several full-crowd laughs, apparently without meaning to. It’s the comedic version of perfect pitch.
  • Although some schools have far more money, and some have different structures, most of the challenges are the same. That was reassuring, in its way.
  • The travel gods seem to be getting even angrier, for reasons unknown. The Charlotte airport was chaotic when we arrived, apparently due to a brief closure earlier that morning. The return flight was a nightmare: after several delays at the gate, we spent five and a half hours on the tarmac before finally taking off. I had planned to arrive home around 4:30. I got home at 11:30. A few others in my delegation were booked on another flight for which they waited 11 hours in the airport before it was finally canceled; they wound up renting a car and driving back to New Jersey from North Carolina the next day.

Travel aside, the conference was heartening and hopeful. There’s plenty of work to be done, but it was gratifying to see such a positive spirit. Now if someone could just appease the travel gods …

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