Why Institutional Leadership is Critical to Student Success

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

September 5, 2023

As if today’s higher education leaders don’t have enough on their plates. They’re already experiencing intense pressure from the community to improve campus diversity, shore up support for at-risk students, and rewrite the academic agenda to meet emerging post-pandemic labor force demands. However, achieving any level of success with strategies aimed at these initiatives may not be enough if, at the same time, those learners are not going to or can’t find the social, occupational, and economic benefits they expect to attain from completing their program.

Possible responses to these concerns will be part of the discussion we will have on October 26th during the 5th Annual Future of Work Conference hosted by the Economic and Workforce Development division (EWD) of Pasadena City College (PCC), from 8 AM to 2 PM, on campus at the Crevelling Lounge. Of the three primary topics to be covered, one focuses specifically on the unique position that community colleges and their leaders hold in generating ‘student success’ in the workforce development sector.

These schools wield enormous power – they consume billions of public dollars to produce a never-ending supply of ‘well-trained’ workers and workforce contributors. They also face enormous challenges – as society evolves to embrace a more divergent and technologically advanced industrial complex, they must pivot their existing resources to address the concerns arising from those uber-immediate realities. And when the connections between the school and its local and regional industrial colleagues are few and far between, it’s even harder for those leaders to know how to move forward into that unknown workforce development environment.

The conference attendees will explore possible best practices and strategies to ensure that community colleges and their regional EWD collaborators align national and state priorities and ‘student success’ metrics to improve or enhance student and institutional success and economic growth.


Why Strong College Leadership Matters Now (More Than Ever)

In pursuit of conventional mandates, a ‘successful’ college is one that generates positive data related to well-defined ‘student success’ metrics. Those metrics reflect how well the student body – individually and as a whole – is attending classes, persisting through programs, and graduating within reasonable time frames. Those successes are achieved because the school leadership team members – the President, Superintendent, Board of Trustees, Etc. – have aligned campus activities and aspirations with legal and educational requirements related to those standards. As a group, the stewards of the college or university have worked as a team to develop and implement the systems that both provide appropriate teaching resources and sufficient student support to guarantee a high level of graduates.

Today’s concerns, however, require the higher education system to go beyond those earlier mandates that focused solely on the learner’s academic achievements. The traditional goal of getting a cohort group to graduation is gradually being pushed aside in favor of launching a well-trained class that finds appropriate and gainful employment within their field of study and then contributes positively to the economic foundation of their society. Social, industrial, and political drivers are now compelling school leadership teams to assume responsibility for achieving this goal, too. Just as they did to achieve previously established directives, as a group, the team must now work together to assess what changes are needed and where, who and how to execute them, and, ultimately, the new slate of indicators that will track and measure the then-evolved standards of ‘student success.’


Aspen Institute Weighs In

The think-tank Aspen Institute (Aspen) asserts the need for strong college leadership as an imperative for this new mandate, too. In its 2021 report, ‘The Role of Presidents, Trustees, and College Leaders in Student Success,’ which explores the leadership backgrounds of the winners of its “Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence,” the agency discusses the critical impact that successful higher ed leadership has on student success. Notably, an assessment of the ‘C-Suite’ of past Prize winners reveals that they all had ‘exceptional presidents’ who successfully steered their institutions through multiple evolutions and reforms.

Aspen notes that each school’s President (and supportive Board of Trustees) used their innate strategic ability and commitment to student success to overcome some of the sizable obstacles learners face that prevent them from attaining their best achievements. Collectively, the inputs and efforts of these leaders clarify several reasons why a strong leader in the presidential role is critical to the student’s success.

1. Redirecting Cultural Expectations

Meaningful change requires adjustments in multiple school divisions, not just in the ‘student success’ or ‘student support services’ departments. One concern facing all members of the upper leadership team is the cultural norm that facilitates significant autonomy for department chiefs and faculty. While laudable for allowing individuals to direct resources as they best see fit for their immediate constituents, that segregation of authority can also interfere with school-wide communications and protocols.

Administrative decisions flowing from ‘division self-governance’ are just one way individual divisions can cause problems if theirs don’t align closely with broader institutional initiatives. Professional development requirements, for example, can be very technical to the subject matter but not necessarily conducive to student success. Developing a common, school-wide strategy for advanced accreditation that also supports enhanced student success metrics benefits both the school and the learner.

2. Financial Allocations Must Change, Too

Especially in these days of reduced enrollments, colleges must be extra careful with how they allocate their funding options. Previously, ‘student success’ was not necessarily considered when making monetary decisions, except, perhaps, within those specific departments. These days, however, if the intention is to have more employed graduates, then every school dollar should be tied to at least one step of the way toward that goal.

3. Aggregated Data Speaks Loudly

The college system itself can learn from its industry colleagues: success comes from maintaining focus and effort on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Data generate those KPIs. Divided departments don’t always share information, and even when they do, the data gathered may not have relevance outside that division’s doors. Consequently, leadership may not have access to the data it needs to make genuinely significant decisions that further the career possibilities for students. A strong ‘C-Suite’ can mandate the type of data required to ensure all divisions are working toward the student success mandate.


The President/Superintendent’s job is already over-wrought with challenges; emerging mandates to enhance the ‘college-to-career pathway’ only add to that burden. However, as the Aspen Institute notes, several schools have already mastered the task and developed a template that should transfer to virtually any school that intends to follow their lead. The leaders attending the Future of Work Conference will surely have their own input on these issues.



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