The State University of New York: Executing Change to Drive Collective Impact

The State University of New York: Executing Change to Drive Collective Impact

Driven by our core mission to provide every New Yorker with the opportunity for a world-class higher education, we at SUNY have taken on a challenge. We have committed to becoming the change leader New York needs to create the collective impact necessary to improve student outcomes from cradle to career.


It probably doesn’t come as news to anyone reading this that our country is facing a shortage of adults prepared to fill the medium- and high-skill jobs that support a healthy economy and a strong middle class.

To take New York State as an example, right now about 46 percent of adult New Yorkers have a college degree, but we are fast climbing to the point where about 70 percent of jobs in the state will require the knowledge and skills developed through higher education. So there’s a gap. And we need to close it.

At The State University of New York there’s a line we often repeat: We teach the students who come to college, ready to learn or not. If they come unprepared to take on college work, they must spend time taking remedial courses, where they get bogged down in non-credit-bearing classes. It’s costly, students get discouraged, and they are all too likely drop out.

Moreover, SUNY also trains 25 percent of the state’s entire teacher workforce, graduating 5,000 new teachers each year. This means we teach the teachers who also come to us as students, also ready for college or not. And because excellent teachers are the number-one in-school factor that determines student success, it’s a massive responsibility on SUNY’s shoulders to get that training right—to make sure we are not only making the best teachers, but that we are linking them up with the communities that need them most.

So here is the crux of the matter, the intersection of need and fact: New York, like every state, needs to prepare legions of adults who can succeed in a wide range of careers, including teaching. But the hard fact is too many students, because of where they were born or the schooling available to them, don’t have access to the opportunities and support they need to succeed.

In New York there are two stories to tell about education success. In 2015 the four-year high school graduation rate rose to 78.1 percent from 76.4 percent the year before, edging in the right direction, closer to the new national average, which, at 82 percent is at an all-time high. Still, about 7 percent of students who entered ninth grade in New York State in 2011—about 14,590 students—dropped out of high school. Black and Hispanic students, representing the fastest-growing segments of the population, are at greater risk than White students for dropping out. Among the 2011 cohort, 65 percent of Black and Hispanic students graduated high school on time compared to 88 percent among their White counterparts. Sixty-four percent of high-school dropouts in New York come from economically disadvantaged homes. And this is nothing to say of the college enrollment and completion rates. Year by year, as a cohort advances, the numbers fall off, resulting in just about a quarter of those 100 high school freshman going on to earn a college degree with six years after finishing high school. The college enrollment and completion numbers are even lower in economically challenged urban areas of the state, where large or majority portions of the student populations are made up of Black and Hispanic students. With numbers like this, New York, which is a little ahead of the middle of the pack for state college graduation rates, needs to do better if we’re going to close the gap between where we are and where we need to be.

SUNY as Change Leader

Driven by our core mission to provide every New Yorker with the opportunity for a world-class higher education, we at SUNY have taken on a challenge. We have committed to becoming the change leader New York needs to create the collective impact necessary to improve student outcomes from cradle to career. We decided that it was on us, that it was our responsibility as the largest comprehensive public university system in the nation, to step up, survey the entire, vast education landscape and see where higher education could do more and better to ensure that every student has the opportunity and the support to succeed in school and life.

In striving to meet these goals, we created the New York Cradle to Career Alliance, SUNY’s statewide collective-impact driver, in partnership with StriveTogether, the country’s premier thought and action leader on creating collective impact in cradle-to-career education. Together, the more than a dozen local partnerships form the country’s first statewide partnership of this kind.

In their 2011 article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, John Kania and Mark Kramer define collective impact as, “The commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving specific social problems.” It takes an admission on the part of stakeholders throughout the community—beyond education to include from government, business and industry, philanthropy, the social sector—that our most challenging social issues are shared social issues. That as a society we rise and fall together, and because of that we have the shared responsibility to learn and employ new ways to lift everyone up.

To do this kind of work—to clearly identify and articulate the challenge at hand; to assemble the right players at the table; to create and continually work toward a common agenda; to establish a real, shared sense of responsibility; to collect and use data to make the best decisions about how to move forward; to keep the stakeholders coming back to the table in the face of conflict, frustration, and other commitments—all this takes discipline, patience, trust building, and creating a mindset shift among those participating in the work. This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s slow, hard work. But, as Kania and Kramer demonstrate in their 2011 piece and in another that followed in 2013, it also may prove to be the most promising way forward in solving some of our society’s most daunting problems—health care, environmental issues, homelessness—and in the education sector, improving critical outcomes from kindergarten through college, such as kindergarten readiness, fourth-grade reading achievement, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment and completion, to name a few.

To begin to change so we can collectively meet these needs, we need leaders who understand the science of change, systems that are change-oriented and more adaptive, a culture of data-driven decision making across entities, and a renewed commitment to working together across sectors to scale up change. By improving our ability to adapt, we improve our ability to impact.

This is exactly what SUNY is doing at an unprecedented scale, and we hope that this work, this approach, can serve as a model for other states and systems that need to create the same kind of change.

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