Building a Culture of Completion With an Equity Lens

Michael Gavin and Kathy Bolton
Project Highlight

At Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), we recognize the completion agenda as a transformational call to action. Recent seminal works from the American Association of Community Colleges and others leave no doubt that “taking on bold ideas and dramatic change is the only way to meet college completion goals” (American Association of Community Colleges, 2014, p. 3). Further, as a member of Achieving the Dream, we know that dramatic change cannot happen without “designing all interventions with equity and scale in mind” (Achieving the Dream, 2017, para. 1). This article explores the use of data disaggregated by race/ethnicity, gender, and/or Pell status as a catalyst to help transform campus culture from its traditional focus on access to a broader focus on access and completion, strongly rooted in equity.

Our journey began in January 2016, when AACC President Dawn Lindsay challenged the college community, at convocation, to focus on designing and implementing structured academic and career pathways for all students in order to increase completion of high-quality academic credentials. From the beginning, the President and Vice Presidents made it clear that this work is different and we continue to mentor our teams through cultural transformation. Nationally, for students who enter community colleges, “fewer than four of every ten complete any type of degree or certificate within six years” (Bailey, Jaggers, & Jenkins, 2015, p. 1). This is particularly concerning considering the vast majority of students who enroll in community colleges do so with the goal of attaining a degree. While AACC’s completion rates are on par with national averages, the status quo was not acceptable as we strove to more fully understand barriers students faced along their journeys and to move the needle on completion.

As AACC leadership rolled up its sleeves and dug deeper into student outcomes at degree, program, and course levels, it became clear that completion numbers had a powerful story to tell. We realized that data had traditionally been used at the college as a means to study certain patterns, but was infrequently used to catalyze change or interventions in real time. Through this work, we had to implement a shift in how we used and presented data. Rather than sharing data on a limited scale after a semester or academic year was complete, we sought to transform to a culture that used data frequently and with broader audiences at important milestones, to gauge in real time if we were going to meet enrollment, retention, and completion goals.

Most importantly, no longer would data be presented only in the aggregate, but instead would be presented collegewide, disaggregated by race/ethnicity, gender, and/or Pell status at all levels. Our case for change was solidified when it became clear that moving the needle on completion was a moral imperative, possible only with a simultaneous commitment to understanding and eradicating equity gaps at all levels.

Outreach to Campus Stakeholders With an Equity Lens

Immediately after convocation, college leadership “hit the road” and met with stakeholders from all levels of the organization to share the vision for change and introduce the completion agenda, framed in compelling disaggregated data, which many had never seen. Most critically, “indicators of equity-mindedness” (Center for Urban Education, 2016) and its fundamental importance to this work was introduced. It was fortuitous that this outreach in early 2016 coincided with the timing for development of the college’s new strategic plan. Key participating constituency groups included:

  • Board of Trustees: The President and Vice Presidents conducted a retreat with the Board of Trustees to explore the completion agenda, disaggregated data, high-impact practices, and equity. Leadership felt it was critical to develop a shared definition of equity as fundamental to guiding the work and ultimately, the new strategic plan. Thus, the college adopted Achieving the Dream’s Equity Statement: “Equity is grounded in the principle of fairness. . . . Equity refers to ensuring that each student receives what they need to be successful through the intentional design of the college experience.”
  • Senior College Administrators: The President and Vice Presidents conducted a retreat and regular meetings with senior administrators to further the sense of urgency toward building a culture of completion based in data decision making, embracing the equity imperative, commitment to academic excellence and pathways, and how all of this could inform the new strategic plan.
  • Faculty and Staff: Numerous meetings and open forums were held over several months with faculty and staff attending together, along with affinity group meetings that were for faculty only or staff only. Open forums were also held at the college’s two satellite locations. By reframing the conversations from the traditional focus on access only to one grounded firmly in course and completion outcomes using disaggregated data, many employees experienced “aha” moments. For some it was as basic as seeing the actual percentages of students who completed a degree in two, or even four years. Another aha moment related to one of the fastest growing areas of the college, dual enrollment. When data was disaggregated, it was clear there were equity gaps and this spurred lively discussion.

Over the course of several months, and many courageous conversations, we could feel momentum and excitement building. It was also important to reframe the conversations from focusing on what we could not control to what we could control. What emerged from these efforts was a shared sense of urgency that shaped the college’s new strategic plan, Engagement Matters: Pathways to Completion, which was approved by the Board of Trustees in June 2016. Striving to create the ideal conditions for student success with focus on equity and completion, the plan’s three goals reflect important milestones in the student journey: engagement and entry; progress; and completion. Each of the goals has concrete objectives and those, in turn, have specific initiatives, all of which are measurable through Key Performance Indicators that are disaggregated. Permeating every goal and objective is a commitment to academic excellence, while examining institutional policies, procedures, and resources to provide all students with the opportunity to progress to degree completion, transfer to a four-year college, or to find a career associated with their degree.

Because of the groundwork laid in the first half of 2016, almost 300 faculty and staff volunteered to serve on 20 cross-divisional Engagement Matters teams in academic year 2017. The teams were charged with writing implementation plans, firmly rooted in equity and data decision making, that would recommend new ways of doing business. The first team report was completed in January 2017. By July 2017, all 20 team reports were complete. In total, there were 247 recommendations and 362 milestones that sought to fundamentally redesign the student experience by fall 2018.

Enhancing Learning With an Equity Lens

Faculty expertise and the classroom experience are paramount to understanding and successfully addressing equity gaps. As a result, several Engagement Matters teams focused specifically on improving teaching and learning at the course level, including gatekeeper and developmental courses. Further enhanced by grant funding from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, AACC piloted Equity Resource Teams (ERTs). These teams have proven fundamental to building a completion and equity agenda, while affirming that academic quality and rigor will remain high. The first ERTs, comprised of faculty and instructional staff, were formed in summer 2016. The teams worked through fall 2016 to develop best practices for culturally responsive teaching in highly-enrolled courses in biology, business, chemistry, math and psychology. Professional development sessions around inclusive excellence and culturally responsive teaching were held throughout the year. Critical to this work was faculty exposure to course outcome data that were disaggregated by race/ethnicity, which clearly demonstrated pervasive equity gaps. There was not much history of faculty working with data in this way. Once faculty was comfortable and understood the data, they rolled up their sleeves to find solutions. What emerged were four broad strategies that all disciplines could apply to increase student retention:

  1. Provide the opportunity for faculty cohorts to participate in yearlong professional development programs that incorporate weekly online activities emphasizing equity, student success, and academic excellence.
  2. Focus on teaching excellence by implementing required group assignments in classrooms (both face-to-face and online) that emphasize student engagement.
  3. Increase access to textbooks via strategies such as using open educational resources or placing copies on reserve in the library or academic departments.
  4. Ensure that each course’s content is inclusive of a diverse set of identities.

Providing on-campus professional development to faculty in cohorts is already paying dividends. In the words of Dr. Lori Perez, Chair of Psychology and Sports Studies, “It has forever changed the sense of community I have with the colleagues who attended this training. It has created a culture of student success ambassadors within AACC.”

New Data Tools With an Equity Lens

As a direct result of Engagement Matters, AACC’s Office of Planning, Research & Institutional Assessment is undergoing a transformation from its traditional focus on producing reports and responding to ad hoc requests as the primary way to transmit data to the campus. The office is crafting a series of dashboards and scorecards (Figure 1) that clearly identify areas impacting student success and completion, disaggregated by race/ethnicity, gender, and Pell status so that disparities are routinely monitored.

Figure 1: Dashboard - Equity Gap by Race/Ethnicity, Gender and Pell Status

Beginning in fall 2017, all employees have direct access to dashboards, scorecards, and trackers allowing real-time access to data for the first time at this scale. Data will reflect characteristics of our student body and their progression to completion. A major benefit of this collegewide access to data will be in communicating the assessment of our initiatives at key points, where changes or enhancements can be made to assure we meet our goals. These lead measures, or reflection points, provide opportunities for recognition and assessment of the initiatives that were identified by the cross-campus planning work in the previous year. As access and understanding of data increases, the focus on achievement gaps becomes inescapable for the college community.

We have come a long way in a short period of time, but there is still much to do. As we progress in this journey toward building a culture of completion over the next several years, we strive to distinguish ourselves with equity remaining the guiding force for all strategic initiatives across campus.


Achieving the Dream. (2017). How to join the Achieving the Dream national reform network. Retrieved from

American Association of Community Colleges. (2014). Empowering community colleges to build the nation’s future: An implementation guide. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Anne Arundel Community College. (2017). Engagement matters: Pathways to completion, FY2017-FY2020. Retrieved from

Bailey, T., Jaggers, S., & Jenkins, D. (2015). Redesigning America’s community colleges: A clearer path to student success. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Center for Urban Education. (2016). Indicators of Equity-Mindedness. Retrieved from

Michael Gavin, Ph.D., is Vice President for Learning, and Kathy Bolton is Special Assistant to the Vice President of Learning, Anne Arundel Community College, Arnold, Maryland.

Opinions expressed in Project Highlight are those of the author(s) and/or submitting college and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.