Josh Wyner, Executive Director of the College Excellence Program at The Aspen Institute, and Lisa Castillo Richmond, PCC’s Managing Director, discuss their collaboration through the Aspen/PCC Equity Academy for ILEA Presidents & Cabinets and the state of higher education equity in 2021.


The first collaboration between the Partnership for College Completion (PCC) and The Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, the Equity Academy for ILEA Presidents & Cabinets, kicked off in July 2020, with 11 ILEA college and university presidents and their cabinet members*. The full group meets virtually twice each quarter for a series of discussions, presentations, guest speakers, reflections, and individual team breakouts to support the implementation of their institutional Equity Plans and overall efforts to eliminate racial and socioeconomic inequities on their campuses.

Lisa Castillo Richmond (LCR): Josh, how does this work with the PCC and ILEA Presidents and leadership teams fit into Aspen’s broader efforts to support college presidents and increase equity and student success across the country?

Josh Wyner (JW)Since our founding a decade ago, The Aspen College Excellence Program (Aspen) has been dedicated to advancing college students’ success, especially for students of color and low-income students who are too often left behind by our educational systems. We do this by identifying colleges that achieve the highest, fastest improving, and most equitable levels of student success and then researching and working to replicate the college-wide practices and leadership that led to those accomplishments. It is our pursuit of this final step — replication — that animates our partnership with PCC. As we came to understand PCC’s singular focus on helping colleges advance their equity goals, it became clear that we could have impact through our partnership by offering Aspen’s research-based professional development materials around advancing equitable student success.

LCR: It’s been a great partnership that has really come along at the right time to build capacity for both our team and our college and university leadership teams. As ILEA institutions are now in their first year of equity plan implementation and the presidents and their cabinets have come together around their equity goals, the support and structure provided by Aspen has been a big lift to our work.

What is unique about this collaboration? How do you see the learnings from this collaboration here in Illinois informing your work elsewhere?

JW: The partnership with PCC offers Aspen a unique opportunity to work with college teams across multiple sectors — including community colleges and universities. Our prior equity work has been done with individual leaders — mostly presidents and vice presidents — and most have focused in the community college sector. Through our partnership with PCC, we have had a chance to develop curriculum and gain insights about working with teams in the university and community college contexts that will definitely inform our future work across the country.

LCR: I think it was really important that we structured this as a team-based approach. The thing I love about working with these ILEA teams is the inspired leadership at all levels and across departments. While the leadership of the president is critical to the success of campus-based equity work, you also need the talent and commitment of many administrators, faculty, and staff across the institution that will creatively engage equity efforts in their areas. You also need high performing teams that are in sync with each other, a capacity we wanted to help build through this collaboration.

What are key takeaways you have learned in doing this work over the years with colleges and leaders?

JW: While earnest efforts have been made across the country to close race- and income-based equity gaps, too few colleges have achieved scaled, substantial improvements. A few things that distinguish those institutions:

First, senior leaders prioritize equity. This matters because what the president and cabinet members say, celebrate and reward on a regular basis gets attention, so if people regularly hear and see actions of leaders aligned to equity as an urgent leadership priority, they are much more likely to follow suit. Also, leaders have a unique ability to allocate resources, and colleges that make advances in equity often put institutional resources into things like need-based financial aid, better advising, and equity-aligned faculty professional development.

Second, strategies are scaled to match the equity challenge. If the goal is to close equity gaps in completion between Black and Latinx students and others, colleges that make progress adopt a series of interventions — clear program maps, strong student supports, inescapable advising, faculty training on creating classroom belonging, and more — that will reach all Black and Latinx students rather than relying solely on interventions that will help only the few students in a handful of specialized programs.

Third, data cultures are aligned with equity goals. Colleges that achieve strong equity outcomes regularly disaggregate data and find other ways (focus groups, secret shoppers) to understand the experiences of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income students — including those who left the institution. They work to create structures and incentives to ensure that those data are used in big ways — such as budget and strategic planning processes — as well as in the daily activities of faculty, advisors, and other staff, who must be given agency and support to regularly look at, think about, and act to close closing equity gaps in their daily work.

LCR: I couldn’t agree more. These are all things ILEA institutions are working to build into their campus cultures, and that the PCC team is working to support.

Speaking of leaders, the college presidency is a notoriously challenging job, but also an incredible platform from which to make a meaningful impact on society. What do you think are the most important things that leaders can do in this moment of social, political, and economic upheaval to deliver on their missions more equitably and effectively?

JW: Leaders can and should take advantage of the current disruption and shared sense of urgency to advance change. Two examples jump to mind. First, administrators are today acutely aware of the huge number of students of color — especially Black men — who are not returning to their institutions. That fact can be used by leaders to issue a call to action to the entire college — from the board and cabinet to faculty and staff — to double down on retaining and graduating diverse students. Second, on-line teaching has elevated awareness among faculty of how many students struggle to engage in their studies due to the lack of internet, computers, and quiet places to study. This in turn can be used by leaders to build urgency around the need to proactively foster a greater sense of belonging and connection to the college. Leaders can engage faculty in reconsidering policies and practices that don’t serve students well and to institutionalize innovative and flexible practices adopted during COVID that could increase effectiveness and equity in the long term.

LCR: The coronavirus pandemic has had a tremendous and still evolving disruptive impact on every sector including higher education, with disproportionately negative effects for students of color and low-income students. Given the alarming declines in college enrollment in many places last fall, particularly in community colleges and among Black and Latinx students, what have you seen leaders doing to address this component of an extremely challenging moment that will be with us for some time?

JW: Over the short term, leaders have worked to get support into the hands of students — both life supports such as food and housing, and academic supports such as internet access and computers. But college enrollment declines are not inevitable. There are examples of colleges that have not seen steep declines — such as Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, which has for 20 years been working hard to make sure that every student who arrives is put on a path to a credential of value, including the large number of Black, Latinx, and low-income students who attend. The lesson: students are more likely to enroll if colleges deliver what students really need, consistently and with intentional efforts to create a sense of purpose and belonging.

LCR: We are seeing that here in Illinois as well. Some of our institutions have increased enrollment and significantly increased retention during this period. We are also really inspired by the innovations that are coming from this period of difficulty and the doubling down in commitment to equity work.

Looking ahead, what are you most optimistic about as it relates to higher education?

JW: I have been blown away by the rising number of community college presidents we have had a chance to work with in the Aspen Presidential Fellowship Programs. I am incredibly optimistic because these diverse fellows — nearly half people of color and 60 percent women — reflect a younger generation of leaders who have the urgency and strategic capacity to move mountains. I am convinced they will lead colleges to a new level of excellence, animated by a deep commitment to ensuring the equity in classroom learning and program completion that students need to be successful in their post-college lives.

LCR: Yes! That’s wonderful news. We have a very diverse group of leaders within ILEA, one that is more diverse than leaders within Illinois as a whole, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

On a personal note — what are you most looking forward to doing when it is safe to do so post-pandemic?

JW: Seeing my friends — those at home as well as my many colleagues around the country who are leading the work on student success and equity.

LCR: Cheers to that.

  • Participants in the Aspen/PCC Equity Academy for Presidents & Cabinets include: Chicago State University, Northern Illinois University, College of DuPage, College of Lake County, Harper College, Harry S. Truman College (CCC), Joliet Junior College, Kishwaukee College, Malcolm X. College (CCC), Richard J. Daley College (CCC)

Learn more about The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and Partnership for College Completion today.