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The secret to increasing community college success: An interview with One Million Degrees CEO Paige Ponder

05 / 13 / 2020

I recently had the chance to interview One Million Degrees CEO Paige Ponder about the power of community college and the ways in which OMD is helping students to increase persistence and prepare for a life of upward economic mobility. The following conversation from The Golden Mean Podcast has been edited for length.


Michael Golden:

Today we’re going to talk about what I think is an incredibly important subject, it is community college and before I bring this incredible guest on, I want to hit you with four numbers right off the top. 

Forty percent of first-time college students go to community college, not four-year universities, community college. People who graduate from community college can earn up to 30% more in their careers over their lifetimes. Right now, nationally, the graduation rate of community colleges is 31%. And in Chicago at the City Colleges of Chicago were tens of thousands of students go to seven different colleges, the graduation rate is 23%, that’s taken as a whole, the entire student population. 

I have an amazing guest to talk about this subject today. Her name is Paige Ponder. She is the CEO and has been of One Million Degrees, the scholarship project in Chicago that I’ve been involved with for a long time. She took over as CEO in 2012, so eight years now, and I can tell you that she transformed this organization and what it’s done for community college students in the city of Chicago and other community colleges in Illinois. 

She is an expert on community college and increasing graduation rates, which One Million Degrees has been working to accomplish for 15 years — and we’re going to talk to Paige about how.

Paige, it’s a pleasure to be side by side with you and I’ve been so excited to have this conversation about what can be accomplished in a space that I believe is one of the most undervalued resources in this country. Thank you for doing this.

Paige Ponder:

Thank you for having me on, Michael.


I want to start with a personal question. I want people to get to know this because I know you, and I want them to know you. What has inspired you to give the last decade of your life to community college advancement? You value every type of education, but you chose community college as the area to put your time, talents and energy into for nearly 10 years now. 


Yeah, thanks for that question. So I was interested in this job, applied for this job because my passion is in education and my interest always has been. So I was raised by educators. My dad, both my parents are retired now. My dad was a professor of curriculum and instruction, so he did teacher education and my mom was a high school English teacher for 40 plus years. 

Paige Ponder (left) with One Million Degrees staff and Mayor Lori Lightfoot the 2019 OMD Degrees of Impact Gala in Chicago


And so education is sort of in my blood. I specifically tried not to go into the family business, but then it pulled me back. But I’m not an educator in terms of I’d never had an interest in being in the classroom. And frankly, I don’t really, I mean I love my own children, but educating kids like my own is also not my interest. So I’m interested in people who are using education as a means to change their lives and if that is what you are interested in, then community college is the place to be.

And this is what I did at Chicago Public Schools, I worked in dropout prevention and recovery, so keeping students in school and building systems to keep them engaged with freshmen and track work. Those were my two kind of big initiatives, the things that I dedicated myself to at CPS. But when I took this job, when I was lucky enough to get this job, I didn’t have any higher education experience but I saw the connection to what I had been doing at CPS. And fortunately, you and the board saw that too, and then I proceeded to completely fall in love with community college students and the community college space. And I can’t imagine a better place for someone like me who’s interested in the things that motivate me, there’s no better place to be than community college.


So I started off with those statistics and let’s give people a bigger picture of this and an understanding, especially for most folks who don’t know what the challenges are for community college students and the opportunities and what drives the work at One Million Degrees. Here is the OMD mission, and this is an exact quote from the website: “To accelerate community college students’ progress on career pathways to economic mobility.” So the end goal is that they’re going to live a good life and be able to get a good job that’s fulfilling and can help them to raise a family or however they want to become economically upwardly mobile due to their hard work and talent. Let’s start by describing the community college student profile and the challenges involved in it and how you try to meet it at One Million Degrees.


Yes. So community college students, first of all, are an incredibly diverse group of people. I mean, they might be 18 coming right out of high school, they could be in their 70s. There’s a lot of returning adults, a lot of non-traditional students and that’s one of the many things I love about community college students. They tend to have a lot of responsibility, so they’re raising their own families, they’re helping to raise other members of their family. They’re taking care of elderly parents, they’re working at least part-time. Many of our students work full-time, some are working multiple jobs and they’re breadwinners for their families. And also in our program, we require students to be full-time, so they’re also going to school full-time.

Now, I will also say that one of the things I find most interesting and I reflect on my own experience, being raised by a teacher and a college professor, my dad used to always say: “Paige, you’re going to love college. It’s a combination of school and camp.” And he was right, I did love college, but I understood that college was my destiny, my rights, my entitlements, that it was going to happen. It was just a matter of where, right? Where would I go? And our students, that’s not the case for them. And it’s not because they’re any less talented or capable than me or anybody else who believes that college is our right and our entitlement, it’s just that they don’t necessarily come from a long line, that most of them are first in their families to go to college.

And so college in some cases even feels like an indulgence because their families need them to be out there earning money. Right? So they fight sometimes against feeling like they’re letting their families down by going to college because they need to be working. So it’s just, it’s really complicated emotionally and it’s just sometimes I have a moment where I really can like feel at a deep level how different my privilege of always being prepared and having 1000% the expectation that I would go to and graduate from college and also not having any other responsibilities that I had to worry about while I did that.

So, it’s very different in a lot of ways, but it has zero to do with their talent, their skill. And their drive to achieve is very often incredibly high, it has to be for them to persist through all of these challenges that they’re experiencing.

So the One Million Degrees model, which Michael as you know, because you were there in the beginning, was inspired by the advice and the wisdom and sort of the wishlist of a community college professor. Many years ago now, she put together this kind of recipe of what she thought her students needed. And we’ve continued to build on that and evolve that over the last 15 years. And so the thing that, we create as an integrated and holistic system of supports for students that the system is built on relationships that they develop. So we have staff that work on 10 different college campuses, and they each support about 60-ish students at that college and they are thought partners. They’re accountability partners and they build relationships with students that really help us understand what the students’ goals are, what’s their vision, what’s their motivation, why are they in college, what are they trying to achieve?

And then help to navigate and work through the barriers that are going to come up for anybody along the way. We also engage, we have over 500 volunteers who are matched with our scholars. We look for volunteers across industries and we try to match scholars with volunteers that are in the industry, if the scholar wants to go into to bring in that kind of window into the professional world, a bridge to build additional social capital to build your network and they also develop relationships with their scholars. We provide academic supports, additional tutoring if the student needs it and we provide financial support. So it started as a scholarship for community college students. We have now almost entirely gotten ourselves sort of out of the scholarship business because we focus on serving Pell-eligible students.

So there’s a whole huge free college movement, which I’m all, for but many students have already been going to community college for free for many, many years because tuition is so low at community colleges, their Pell grants completely cover that cost. So we focus on those students, but we provide an additional stipend of a thousand dollars a year. Students earn it through their participation in the program and they use that to defray other costs associated with going to college, buying their books, paying for childcare, buying gas, internet at home, whatever they might need. It’s up to them, we don’t track or monitor what they use that money for because they’ve earned it. And it is a performance based-stipend, so they earn it through, as I said, participating in the program.

We have a rubric that we’ve developed that very clearly lays out, these are the kinds of, like your GPA needs to be at or above this level. You need to be seeing your professors, you need to be seeing your advisor, you need to be talking to your program coordinator who’s our staff. You need to be engaging with your coach. So it really demystifies it, right? Like, if I’m a student that I’ve never done this before, I don’t have anybody in my family to help coach me through this. So this rubric would be at least one piece of, as we say, making the hidden curriculum visible. It very transparently lays out that this is what you need to do. And so, the student, the scholars will assess themselves using this rubric, like kind of reflect on their own progress a few times a year. And then our program coordinators do the same and then their stipends are attached to their performance, based on this rubric.

So there’s a lot of people involved, a lot of moving parts and some might say, wow, that’s really complicated and sometimes it is, but our belief is each individual student needs different things at different times, right? So there’s no magical formula to kind of surgically deliver the thing that each student needs at any given time because those needs shift, like things shift so quickly that we need this strong yet flexible system of relationships and resources and support. And in us staying very up on their performance and the data that we’re getting from the colleges so that we can try to be out in front of what might be down the road. If they’re not feeling good and they’re maybe going to fail their midterm — we’re all over that because obviously that has big implications for whether they pass the class. So we try to stay out in front of things that could derail the student. And that takes a lot of people in the mix and a lot of systems to help us kind of calibrate and track all those things.


And so to boil it down for folks, the range of support services, academic advising, right? Help them navigate the system. Coaching — we used to call it mentoring, now it’s coaching, one-to-one coaching. And in most cases we try to match a talent or area of expertise and interests, and stipends and then also tutoring to raise up academic performance. And accountability is part of this, too. And all of this has made all the difference in helping these hardworking students to get through the program and graduate in as few years as possible. 

Tell folks what you’ve learned, you’re the one who’s managed this random control trial test study of our scholars with the Poverty Lab at the University of Chicago. You are the one who drove it and managed it and got the data and motivated them to do it. It’s early still, but what have we learned? 


So we are in year four of probably an eight-year study, these things take time. It just takes time, the time to achieve the outcomes, like graduations have to elapse in order for you to know it’s happening. So these are by their nature long studies and so what we are seeing with the first couple of cohorts that we’re looking at is we see really big impacts on enrollment in college at all, persistence from fall to spring. So enrolling in both fall and spring and then persisting full-time. So taking a full-time course load in both fall and spring. And in particular, the big difference that we’re seeing is with our students coming right out of high school. So we have always had a mix of students that we recruit in who are already in community college and then we recruit them when they’re coming out of high school.

And we’re seeing a huge difference, between the students that we’re working with and the students in the control group, especially for those coming from high school. And the thing that was new information for us, we hoped that we would see these impacts on persistence for sure. And persistence being a leading indicator obviously to eventually graduating, but we didn’t understand that there was an impact on enrollment, right? So it looks like our recruitment efforts going out to high schools and saying: “Hey, come on this journey with us. Community college is a great option for you, we will be here to help and support you, it’s going to be awesome. Come do it with us.” That message seems to be having a pretty significant impact and what we’re seeing is like a doubling, like a hundred percent increase in the students in coming out of high school who actually enroll, who are part of our program versus those that are not.

And once the student submits an application, then the treatment, our program begins immediately, which is our team reaching out to the student, calling them, texting them and saying, hey, have you finished your registration? Have you done your financial aid? So all of those nudges, in our business they’re called nudges, seem to be having a real impact on whether students arrive in college at all.


So I want to read two actual numbers from the study: There’s been a 35% increase in full-time enrollment, the earliest result from the study, and a 47% increase in full-time persistence to the next term. 

So let’s broaden this out now. The great work that you and One Million Degrees are doing and that’s now helped more than 2000 students, which in one way sounds like a lot when we started with 25, but it’s really a sliver. You’re talking about millions of community college students in this country. Like I said, 40% of first-time college students in this country go to community college. I’ve used the term for years that community college somehow gets treated like the stigmatized stepchild of the higher education system. And I don’t like saying that, but it’s also true in terms of resources from the government, in terms of societally, in terms of local governments, even corporate sponsorships. 

People find it more glamorous to support a scholarship of an Ivy Leaguer or somebody who’s going to a marquis university. That is a much more glamorous thing. Community college students don’t have the same profile. Although when you look at their stories and profiles in the way that you have and One Million Degrees has, you see that they are extraordinary. What they do is a hell of a lot more inspiring than what I did when I was a student at a four-year university!

So why are they treated this way, Paige? In your experience, why is this the case? 


That’s a big question.


Take a deep breath and give it a second.


Yeah. I have found really interesting some of the research that has been coming out recently looking at colleges and universities’ contributions to social mobility, right? So what four-year universities are doing and the Ivys — and I am an alum of one — are the worst at this, is they are replicating and reinforcing the social and socioeconomic stratification that we have in the country. They’re not contributing at all to social mobility. The very few low-income students who get into these schools can potentially do really well, but it’s such a small number that it doesn’t matter, really. Community colleges, on the other hand, have been called engines of social mobility and I love that, because that is truly their bread and butter.

I mean, they are created for, as I said, low-income students who are trying to put themselves on a different path and put their families on a different trajectory. That’s what community colleges are designed to do, but they don’t have the alumni base, right? They don’t have the prestige, they don’t have, for the most part, faculty who are doing big prestigious research and getting research grants. So four-universities and elite institutions, the professors want to teach as little as possible and do their research and publish. That’s what they really want to do, right?


You publish or you perish.


Right. Community colleges is the opposite. The instructors and the professors who are there are there because they want to teach. And it’s not that they don’t do research, but that is not nearly as prevalent as it is in four-year universities. So it’s just, it’s an entirely different sort of economy in community college than it is in four-year universities, which frankly, the economy of four-universities is quite precarious right now. Right? I mean, lots of the research saying like this is a huge bubble, universities are putting in climbing gyms and lazy rivers and there’s also not the sports. Elite universities, four-year universities have this huge like sports industrial complex, which brings in tons of money. Community colleges don’t have that, so they just have a very different, just almost everything about them is different in a lot of ways and not as glamorous to invest in.


By the way, that’s an interesting point. There’s an irony to the term “community college.” The four-year universities have a built-in type of pride that people carry with them for the rest of their lives. “Go Tigers!” and all of that stuff… Community colleges are much more spread out, they’re much more diverse. The students and their specific challenges which we defined earlier — which are just facts of life and are badges of honor in my view and I know in your view — but they don’t get to have that sense of community as much.

And I think that One Million Degrees learned how to change that. A good example is the way that these OMD coaching sessions of a couple of hundred people at Roosevelt University on Saturday mornings has created community. It’s inspired these students and given them something new and valuable. Now we need to do that in the aggregate, right? 

Let me quote you and get to the next question to broaden this out. You’ve been published in all kinds of places. You’ve written about scholar accomplishment at One Million Degrees and how the program works. The numbers I quoted at the top of the program were from your piece in Crain’s Chicago about a year ago. 

Now you’re about to publish a new article and I’m going to quote you from the draft. You write:  “How do we seize this opportunity to think big and act boldly so that we don’t aim for going back to normal but aim for an improved new reality, one that is more equitable for hardworking community college students.” 

One of the things that Coronavirus has done is that it’s exposed weaknesses in our system that a lot of us knew existed but aren’t talked about a lot. But it’s also  shown the opportunity. So answer the question there. What does our country need to do? What can we do to make community college higher profile and get it more assistance and engagement? How do we get it the due that it deserves and give every single student the maximum opportunity to graduate?  


So what I argue in this op-ed that you’re quoting from is that because community colleges are truly in the community, they have relationships with their local employers in an entirely different way than four-year universities do, right? And community colleges play a really important role, not just in bringing new students into higher education, but providing an opportunity for adults who are already out in the world and working to upscale, to retrain. 

So my suggestion is, there’s kind of two big ideas. One is: Let’s continue to invest. Let’s double down on investing in community colleges because if they can become local centers of innovation and have those really deep connections with their employer partners, then the local economy can be more resilient, right? If we need to make a big shift, if there’s a global pandemic and all of a sudden everything changes on a dime. Community colleges are best positioned to respond to that because they have the closest relationships with the people in their communities.

So let’s invest more in them so that they can fulfill that mission. There are some really exciting examples in Chicago of things that are happening. There’s an advanced manufacturing facility that just opened up at Daley College on the Southwest side. And so there are lots of examples like that in communities across the country. Let’s build on that. 

And then a related piece, but another big suggestion is let’s focus on the relationships and the support, right? We have learned that community and relationships make all the difference for students. And one of the interesting things that we do at OMD is engage. So we go out to companies and churches and community groups, and that’s where we recruit our volunteer coaches. And what we hear from coaches as they get to know scholars is, oh my goodness, wow! I would love to have this kind of talent in my company. And so in an organic way, they are helping the students to get jobs either at their companies or at a friend’s company.

And so I think that having a real relationship with students, getting to know them, there’s this two-way exchange of information, right? A company, if many of its employees are volunteering to be these coaches for community college students, could be helping to sort of identify talent, develop talent and give these students a window into what it’s like to work at their company and go into their industry. And students, of course, are getting the benefit of that information. And so there could be this really interesting kind of win-win — where students get the support they need and then companies engage their employees. And this is something that employees really enjoy doing. The coaches get at least as much out of the relationship as the students, that the students do.


That is for sure.


Then the company can have a really interesting strategy of identifying and developing talent for itself. So could we think much bigger about how to engage people outside of the walls of the college in supporting students? And OMD happens to have a bit of experience doing that. So I’m hopeful that we can help think through how that might work.


So well said, Paige. Okay. One last thing for you. I want you to tell a story about a student. I know it’s probably hard to pick one, but a student that you and your team have worked with that inspired you. And maybe how that student inspired other students through watching his or her example. 


Yeah. Well…

Michael Golden:

I know. It’s like I’m asking you to choose one of your kids, right?


I know. I mean, one student who comes to mind, really, really talented, was valedictorian at her high school, but really struggled with seeing herself as a college student and spent the year after she graduated working with her mom cleaning hotel rooms. She eventually decided to give community college a shot, found her way into the OMD program and then eventually completely knocked it out of the park at Truman College, transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to the school of engineering, which is really hard to get into.

She pursued electrical engineering. She was one of a tiny number of Latinos in that program. And she told me a couple of years ago, she’s had all these really cool opportunities to do internships and to work while she’s finishing her degree. These companies want her so badly that they’re like, “we’ll figure it out. You need to finish your degree, but we also really want you to continue to work with us.” And she is so excited about what she’s doing. And she told me kind of very sheepishly, like way under her breath, that just in one of these internships, which isn’t even a part-time job, she was already making more than her parents had ever made. And so, not every story is like that, but that is a story. And there’s more like that than not. And I mean, this is just what is possible.

And again, an insanely talented person who if she had been in a different set of circumstances, right? There was no question that she could do it, but she needed to find it within herself. She needed to see herself as a college student. And that was a struggle. But she is prevailing. She’s not just prevailing, she’s …


She’s kicking ass.


She totally is. So those are the kind of stories where it’s really an honor and a privilege to watch. I’m just routinely amazed at what our students do.


Well, let me close by saying that I just can’t thank them enough for everything you’ve done and I hope that … Look, this is a hard subject. We could talk for hours about community college. There are minutiae that we could get into and there’s policy, and that’s hard to do in one conversation. But I hope that people got a good look from you, from your perspective of what the challenges are, what the opportunities are, what the successes are, and what ways are available for us, especially during this time that has exposed and shown community college for what it really could be. It’s just as important a subject when times are normal, but it’s especially critical right now due to the way things are changing. Thank you so much for doing this Paige, for coming on and talking about it. It’s an honor and it’s a pleasure.


Thank you, Michael. Same, same. It’s been really fun, I appreciate the time.