How Do Community Colleges Assess Their Capacity for Fostering a Student-Focused Culture?

How Do Community Colleges Assess Their Capacity for Fostering a Student-Focused Culture?

Although many higher education institutions want to improve student success outcomes and narrow achievement gaps, they become overwhelmed with initiatives and can jump to solutions without taking a comprehensive assessment of how their institution performs against best practices. Through fifteen years of working with community colleges to improve student success, Achieving the Dream (ATD) used field intelligence to develop a fundamental framework to help these colleges understand their strengths and where they could develop their capacities to implement reforms to improve student success.


Subsequently, ATD developed the Institutional Capacity Framework and the companion Institutional Capacity Assessment Tool (ICAT). The ICAT provides colleges with a baseline understanding of seven capacity areas that are essential conditions for fostering a student-focus culture and optimizing the student experience from connection to completion and to the workforce. From a recent chapter on the ICAT in New Directors for Institutional Research, we offer the following summary.


What is the ICAT?

Regardless your opinions on cats, know this has nothing to do with our feline friends. The ICAT tool is an online survey with 77 questions that fall into seven capacity areas: Engagement & Communication, Strategy & Planning, Policies & Practices, Leadership & Vision, Data & Technology, Equity, and Teaching & Learning. Institutions have reported that the tool is most valuable when it is administered to the broadest segment of the college community possible, including the board of trustees, full- and part-time faculty, staff and administrators.


What do ICAT results look like?

ATD returns the results of the ICAT with a disaggregated frequency distribution by the selected role of the respondents (e.g. faculty, student affairs, or adjuncts) to allow the college to consider if individuals in different roles report different knowledge or perceptions of the capacities. The survey also allows for respondents to say they “do not know” the college’s capacity regarding a specific capacity area which can provide information about communication gaps.


How can ICAT results be used?

Institutions that completed the ICAT have used the tool to inform their strategic planning process, as an internal environmental scan to support accreditation, and as a readiness assessment before undertaking large scale reforms such as guided pathways. Institutions also learned valuable insights, where perhaps two of the more important insights involved issues of equity and higher than expected levels of “do not know”.


College 1

In the case of one college, the results indicated that many college staff and faculty mistook equality for equity. This college was able to create intentional conversations to understand that treating all students the same is not the same as ensuring that each student receives what they need to be successful. Understanding that students come with different needs allowed the college to intentionally redesign the student experience, especially policies, to promote educational equity – not just equality.


College 2

The second lesson came from a small rural institution that felt communications did not need to be formal because everyone knew each other. The ICAT results indicated that approximately half of the college community responded with “I don’t know” to many of the items. These results prompted the college to be more deliberate about two critical student success capacities. First, was to reconsider how the college shared decisions and everyday operations within the college. And the second was how the college used data to confirm or question beliefs of how students acquired or not acquired success within the college. At a college-wide meeting, data were shared and small groups engaged in conversation to create a list about how to better communicate issues around distrust of data.


These two examples illustrate how institutions can use this type of assessment to leverage and improve capacities for student success. It also engages the college community to envision how to improve capacity.

The ICAT is not designed to be a psychometric instrument, rather it is meant to be an institutional self-assessment that provides a common language to spark conversation and inform strategic planning. The process in which a tool is used is often more important than the tool itself and a hallmark of the ICAT process is the hosting of a Capacity Café, based on the World Café method, to facilitate conversations and help institutions move from insight to action.


Over 200 institutions have completed the ICAT since it was launched in 2016 and used the results to improve their capacities to better assure students are successful. Learn more about the ICAT here, and read the full article on ATD and ICAT usage from New Directions for Institutional Research here.

If you’ve completed the ICAT, how did you use the results? If you’ve not participated before, how do you envision using such data or results on your campus? Let us know in the comments below!

Vasti Torres, Ph.D., University of Michigan
Linda Serra Hagedorn, Ph.D. Iowa State University, Achieving the Dream
Laurie T. Heacock, Achieving the Dream

Go Back