Effective Collaboration to Increase Adult College Completion

Note: This post is adapted from “Effective Collaboration and Coordination: Lessons from Research and Practice,” published by WICHE earlier in 2014.

The Adult College Completion Network was partially founded on the premise that improving certificate and degree completion by adults with prior college credit would require collaboration among diverse stakeholders. The workforce system, state higher education agencies, institutions, businesses and employers, local governments, community-based organizations, and others all are working in some capacity to eliminate barriers and improve outcomes for returning adults.

With funding for degree completion efforts always being limited, improving coordination with other entities is a strategy for leveraging existing resources and building program sustainability. No matter what the future landscape of adult degree and certificate completion looks like, the need to develop and implement effective mechanisms to coordinate programs and policy will remain.

Collective Impact

Recently, there has been significant research into coordination and collaboration under the “collective impact” banner. As a concept, it involves broad collaborative efforts to address significant social challenges. Research identifies a wide range of examples where such cooperation has helped address problems in education, environmental degradation, economic development, and community health.1 Researchers from Stanford University looking at successful examples of collective impact have identified five necessary commonalities:

  • A common agenda: Participating entities must share a common view of the problem and the steps necessary to solve it.
  • Shared metrics: Related to the common agenda, effective collaborative efforts must have a common method of measuring and evaluating progress.
  • Mutually reinforcing activities: The different entities in a collective effort should undertake complementary activities playing to their own strengths, while taking care to avoid redundant or competitive efforts.
  • Continuous communication: All those participating in collective efforts must develop trust and appreciation for the others involved. Effective initiatives require frequent, regular, formal interaction, as well as the informal communications between partners.
  • Backbone support organizations: Effective collective efforts require an organizing entity to undertake the work necessary to provide facilitation and cooperative planning among all partners. This entity serves as the hub that manages the flow of information, including measurement data, between partners.2

In addition to these commonalities, researchers find that there are three crucial precursors to successful collective impact efforts: garnering the support of highly influential champions, securing financial resources necessary for two to three years of operation, and developing an argument that urgent change is needed.3

This research also suggests a progressive, three-stage approach to developing collaborative efforts across many partners: initiating, organizing, and sustaining.4 During the initiation phase, research suggests focusing on making an argument for why the change sought is important. During the second phase, partners must unite around the shared goals and metrics. The final phase emphasizes undertaking sustainable actions and setting up processes to track progress towards the ultimate goals of the effort.

This is a straightforward model and provides a reasonable framework for developing collaborative approaches to difficult problems. The researchers suggest discrete steps for each of the five commonalities. For the common measures of success, for example, they suggest identifying and gathering baseline data as part of the initiation step; developing common metrics in the organization phase; and collecting the data and providing progress reports during the sustaining phase.5

Network Research

Other research has taken note of the rise in networks as a common means for governments to deliver public services in recent years. While these networks can take many forms, they typically involve actors from multiple levels of government, and the nonprofit and private sectors.6 Understandably, research into the factors that can lead to effective collaborative networks has become an important topic for those studying government performance, as well as those looking into specific policy areas such as education, health, and the environment.

One review of the academic literature on collaborative networks looked at 92 separate studies of the factors that help determine their effectiveness.7 The findings echo some of the characteristics identified above. In particular, the literature shows the following factors are associated with positive outcomes for the target population:

  • Having a central coordinating agency and stable, long-term leadership of the collaborative network.
  • Developing a steering committee.
  • Using common outcome measures.
  • Establishing trust and cooperation among partners.
  • Devoting time to joint planning activities involving staff of the multiple entities.
  • Having network partners interacting with the target population.8

Additionally, this research has examined the factors associated with networks’ sustainability and capacity to reach goals, which are important considerations for those looking to establish collaborative arrangements. Those factors include:

  • Exhibiting strong leadership in establishing the network and its goals.
  • Providing suitable financial resources.
  • Devoting time to joint planning activities involving staff of the multiple entities.
  • Using common outcome measures.
  • Incorporating diverse community partners.
  • Establishing trust and cooperation among partners.
  • Providing technical assistance to network partners.9

The overlap between these lists and the research cited earlier suggests several important considerations for those working to establish collaborative efforts to increase access and success for low-income students. Clearly, state higher education agencies are well-positioned to take a strong coordinating and leadership role in developing these networks. This process can start by establishing the ultimate goals for the collaborative effort, backed by data showing its urgency. 

The importance of using common metrics is also clear. While college-going and completion rates seem to be a logical starting point for this type of collaboration, ensuring that there is commonality in the definitions and metrics is not necessarily easy. As a hypothetical example, consider the definition of an “returning adult student.” Some partners may focus only on age, while others may set a credit threshold, GPA limit, or other qualifying criteria. Still other programs may focus on a particular sub-population of adult students, such as active duty military or veterans, low-income adults, or single parents.

College progress and completion is another deceptively difficult metric to define continuously. The traditional federal definition, used by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), currently relies on first-time, full-time status, which leaves out returning adults, as well as those attending classes part-time. This points to the necessity of developing new data reporting mechanisms that can accurately track the population of interest.

Coordinating Whom?

Turning more specifically to adult degree completion programs, a first step in developing a successful collaborative network is to identify the numerous potential partners. Partnerships can include a variety of local, state, and national entities from the public, nonprofit, and private sectors. Clearly, there are numerous and diverse stakeholders with wildly different mandates and interests. Attempting to immediately engage all those potential partners would likely result in an unwieldy effort that is too complex to focus on the necessary activities to accomplish its goals. It is important to recognize that coordination and cooperation are not cost-free activities. Staff time to initiate and attend meetings is substantial; involving more organizations and agencies can slow program development and implementation; and differing missions and goals can lead to complications. But carefully developing relationships that reduce overlaps, leverage resources, fill unmet needs, and lead to improved services and outcomes for students can be done with thoughtful and strategic planning. This investment of effort at the outset can help save time and resources in the long run.

Research also suggests that the size of a network has an influence on its success and failure. The best guidance here, however, seems to approximate “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”: the size of a network needs to be “just right” – big enough to take advantage of diverse partners and their resources and talents but not so big that it becomes unwieldy. Some researchers have found that effective networks cap their membership or establish strict criteria for participating to ensure a cohesive and effective operation.10


Examples of Collaboration and Coordination:

Louisville’s 55,000 Degrees ProgramThis metropolitan collaboration brings together city leaders, the chamber of commerce, institutions of higher education, the workforce system and others in an effort to increase the number of city residents with postsecondary degrees.

Cincinnati Health Careers CollaborativeThis partnership between medical care providers and area institutions provides a pathway for employees to earn certificates and degrees, while guaranteeing employers a pipeline of educated and trained workers.

Georgia’s Adult Learning Consortium – This collaboration brings together institutions of higher education from across Georgia. The institutions agree to adopt adult-friendly practices, while the state carries out a marketing campaign and provides technical support and professional development opportunities.



1 John Kania and Mark Kramer, “Collective Impact,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, 56 (2011), accessed 15 August 2013 from <www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/collective_impact>.

2 Ibid.

3 Fay Hanleybrown, John Kania, and Mark Kramer, “Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work,” Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog, 26 January 2012, accessed 15 August 2013 from <www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/channeling_change_making_collective_impact_work>.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Graeme Currie, Suzana Grubnic, and Ron Hodges, “Leadership in Public Services Networks: Antecedents, Process and Outcome, Public Administration 89 (2011), 243; Carolyn Hill and Laurence Lynn, “Producing Human Services: Why Do Agencies Collaborate?” Public Management Review 5 (2003), 65.

7 Alex Turrini, Daniela Cristofoli, Francesca Frosini, and Greta Nasi, “Networking Literature about Determinants of Network Effectiveness,” Public Administration 88(2010): 535-539.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Mary Brown, Laurence O’Toole, and Jeffrey Brudney, “Implementing Information Technology in Government: An Empirical Assessment of the Role of Local Partnerships,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 8 (1998), 522; Alex Turrini et al., “Networking Literature,” 542; Bryan Weiner, Jeffrey Alexander, and Howard Zuckerman, “Strategies for Effective Management Participation in Community Health Partnerships,” Health Care Management Review 25 (2000).


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