Innovation with Excellence: A Look Inside College Now’s Organizational Culture
What keeps College Now’s 180+ employees focused and happy in their work? Lee Friedman, CEO of College Now, shares her insights about leading a growing, innovative non-profit addressing educational inequities in Northeast Ohio:
When you were approached about joining College Now as its CEO in 2010, what made you want the job?
It was because I’d spent such a long time in community economic development and saw the social inequity and disparity caused by the ‘haves and have-nots’ in education. I realized that the only way to create social equity — and also long-term economic health for our region — was to ensure that everybody had the opportunity to get a postsecondary credential.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I see myself as a strong stage-setter, but I like to create a collaborative, highly empowered team. I think people that like working for me are extraordinarily driven by excellence – they have a huge commitment to mission, they’re self-starters, but they also ‘play well with others’.
What are College Now’s best assets in terms of organizational culture?
I think this is a very supportive place to work. I think there is a high ethos around balancing career and family, friends, or other outside interests — sort of with the caveat that people put their work in an important enough place that the work is delivered with excellence. It’s not very difficult for a CEO to be flexible and try to support people’s other life if the work is great. It’s when the work isn’t great that it gets hard because then something’s being sacrificed. I think here, remarkably, considering it’s a large organization, those are really the kind of people that enjoy it and thrive here… I think that’s a big part of what we’re offering.
How does College Now support the professional growth and development of its employees?
We do that in many ways depending on the position. On our advising side, there are constant advising meetings and a lot of that is around skill-building and problem-solving. Our HR folks and professional development committee try to make sure that we’ve got things that match all the different parts of our employee population, especially because we have a lot of diversity of people that work here, in terms of their experience and their age, etc. We’ve certainly sent people to different kinds of training, whether its leadership training or skill-building. We do our best to try and make sure that people have what they need, but we kind of juxtapose it with the fact that we have a small budget for that sort of thing. Being mission–driven, it’s not like working for some big for-profit company where you can send people to those fancy trainings and leadership camps – we just can’t do it. But we do our best.
What makes you most proud of your team?
For me, and I hope the team feels this way, it’s a happy place to come to work every day. You spend a lot of time here [compared to] when you think about how much time you spend sleeping or your other time. It’s happy, I think, because we try to hire the most responsible, committed, and collaborative people. I think when people feel they can have some control over what they do in their every day, and that they’re well supported, well treated, and don’t have to be afraid of making a mistake — because everyone makes mistakes –I think that creates a happy culture.
College Now has a strong track record of retaining talent. What common characteristics do successful, long-standing employees demonstrate?
A real commitment to the mission and the organization, and commitment to their own excellence. Driving the extra mile to make sure the work is as good as it possibly can be. [Understanding] that we’re customer/client-first, especially because we do so much public-facing work – everything from our students and their parents, to other educators and school administrators, funders, Board members, community leaders, and other nonprofits; people with that same point of view and [those who] are the best kind of communicators and collaborators.
College Now was the first organization of its kind in the country. How do you maintain a culture of innovation to keep College Now at the forefront of college access?
Honestly, you have to reward it. And you have to instill it. You can’t rest on, ‘Well, we haven’t done it that way in the past.’ We’ve grown quite a bit in the last number of years and a lot of that is because people around the table – and I mean that in the biggest way – when they have new ideas, people listen to them. It doesn’t mean you can implement every new idea, and it doesn’t even mean that some of them that don’t get implemented are bad ideas, it just may not be practical right now. But you have to really emphasize innovation and you have to reward it in the culture.
College Now has a team in its downtown Cleveland headquarters, as well as a team of Advisors who work primarily within schools across Northeast Ohio. How does College Now maintain a culture of collaboration and inclusion within an organization that provides services in 185 venues?
Honestly, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. Because, you have to remember, when somebody goes to one or two buildings every day and never comes downtown, in some part, most of their experience is in that building. The culture of that building will have a huge effect on the way they view their job. And sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it‘s been a very difficult thing. [In the advising department], they have ongoing monthly meetings to bring everybody together to get back on the same page, to address concerns, to provide additional training, leadership, information, and news, and I think that’s crucial. It is one of the more interesting challenges because coming to the downtown office every day is an entirely different experience than going to one of the high schools or a library every day.
How does College Now’s work address economic inequality? How are its employees positively impacting the greater Cleveland community?
Research shows that people with varying levels of postsecondary attainment make more money during their lifetime [than those without postsecondary education]. What we know is that Northeast Ohio is woefully under–attained. There are many open jobs and many people who are either unemployed and/or undereducated for those open jobs. And so, there are other communities that do a better job of it for whatever reason. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. [Cleveland] was a blue–collar manufacturing community, and that takes generations to change sometimes. Ohio is the 7th largest state, but we’re 36th in educational attainment and that is not a great recipe for long-term economic health. And so, to the extent that we can work with the students, communities, and adults we serve and get them on a postsecondary track, it not only helps them personally and changes the trajectory of their own life and their family life, but it changes the collective economic picture.
What is your vision for College Now in the next 5 to 10 years?
A lot of it is just continuing to grow and refine the work. Say Yes to Education is a six-year ramp up and we’re in year one. I don’t think that changes everything but that’s a good amount of runway to start changing the hope for young people in CMSD to be able to go to postsecondary or get on a solid career path. The implementation of Say Yes Cleveland is a piece of it.
I also think the expanding work we’re doing with adults is a very big piece of it. I think Julie Szeltner [Senior Director of Adult Programs and Services] has done a great job of trying to grow that piece of our business. There‘s roughly 500,000 people in Cuyahoga County that either have some college and no degree or a high school diploma and nothing else. There’s a big opportunity there. You almost can’t solve the workforce gap on the backs of 18–year old‘s, you almost have to go to the adults.
I think the other big piece is us refining our ability to lead kids from education to career. If you’re going to stop at the end of high school and go do something, let’s get better about helping you think through those options, with the hope that most everybody takes some kind of postsecondary option. If we can get better at showing you what all your options are, you might be able to make a better choice as you maneuver through and understand what the consequences will be, like, “How much postsecondary education will I need? How much income can I expect to make? What‘s the demand in this region for that job?” That’s another really important piece of the work that we’ll be doing with partners.
*This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length*
College Now Interns on the Issues: Part 2
In our last blog post, we shared the college-going experiences of three College Now summer interns enrolled at three different colleges in the Midwest. Each college student chose their postsecondary institution based on cost, found ways to carefully balance, work, academics and extracurriculars, and expressed frustration with the financial aid process.
As these students begin the second half of their undergraduate experience, they are still optimistic about their futures and the benefit their postsecondary education will have on their career opportunities.
On their student-loan debt:
Brianna wants to be an athletic trainer for the USA Women’s Track & Field team, which will require graduate education. She currently feels confident in paying for college, completing the FAFSA and paying off her loans. However, Brianna acknowledges the burden of student debt on many of her peers. “There are thousands of horror stories about [students] taking out several loans and drowning in debt,” Brianna said. “However, I was fortune enough to have people in my life teach me about college debt and different options when paying for college. I learned about outside scholarships and grants. College Now Greater Cleveland and Upward Bound connected me with a scholarship database. Upward Bound also walked me through my financial aid award letter explaining each scholarship and each loan, then explaining the loan repayment process.”
Steph would also like to continue to graduate school and become a lawyer. She has worked diligently to avoid loans her freshman and sophomore year, and while she lost her Pell Grant eligibility this past spring, she is committed to graduating from college student loan debt free. She is especially grateful for the support she has received from College Now and the Jimmy Malone Scholarship. She is confident that if she graduates from undergrad without loans, she’ll be able to afford law school.
Rachel is still figuring out her postgraduate plans, so she is not entirely sure how that will affect her ability to pay off her loans. “I’m hoping that I enter a career where I don’t have too much difficulty paying off loans while affording to live on my own, but I am a bit nervous about what will happen,” Rachel said.
On the need for increase postsecondary attainment in Ohio:
These young women understand why postsecondary education is so important for their own economic successes and the future of Ohio. Steph acknowledges that “the more educated you are, the more opportunities and options you have regarding career choices.”
Brianna referenced Ohio’s skills gap and the growing demanded for skilled employees. “Ohio has a shortage of working-age adults,” she said. “If new jobs require postsecondary education, then college/university graduation rates must increase. However, Ohio is ranked dead last in enrollment growth. I was shocked to learn this! Then I thought, I do not attend a university in Ohio. I am enrolled in a university in Pennsylvania due to receiving more financial aid from that university. Ohio is ranked 45th out of 50 states in college affordability, meaning paying for your education is expensive and an investment.”
On the need for affordable postsecondary options:
Brianna believes that that the government should invest more in college, saying that “postsecondary education is literally an investment. Getting a degree is almost essential when job searching.” This caused Brianna to raise a question: “Why is college so expensive if getting a postsecondary degree is almost necessary? Some ask, shouldn’t college be free? I personally do not feel college should be free. I do, however, believe the cost of education is extremely expensive in America, and tuition should be reduced. College tuition increases each year, while financial aid simultaneously decreases.”
In addition to increasing government aid, Brianna continues, “being educated on college debt is important. Understanding each loan, grant and scholarship offered to you is important. More college readiness programs should be offered teaching students about college debt and providing alternative ways to pay for college other than loans.”
Steph agrees that “college shouldn’t be free, but it should be affordable.” Specifically, she said, “expecting students to pay off whatever amount is owed during the first week of school is ridiculous, and while we’re waiting for scholarship checks to come in, we’re charged for interest? The small fees that we’re required to pay add up.” Steph also questions why colleges continue to increase tuition. “Every year, tuition rises another thousand dollars – but why? Because the school rebuilt apartments on campus and requires all students to pay – even though you’re a commuter? I don’t have a solution to this question, but nothing in life comes free – and if it does, it’s because you have worked hard to get where you are.”
On simplifying college access:
In addition to keeping tuition and fees flat and increasing state and federal support for higher education, Steph recommends changes to current financial aid policy that would recognize the diversity of family circumstances. Steph firmly believes that “parental financial information should not be included during the FAFSA process” or at the very least, “there should be an option that allows you to check ‘yes’ or ‘no’ regarding parental financial support through college. In my case, my parents do not provide any financial support in my life whatsoever, and that’s how it has been since I was 16. The government does not take into consideration that there are different circumstances in every person’s life which can limit their ability to afford college.”
Finally, to further close the talent gap and promote equity, Brianna believes that measures must be taken to “educate our children as early as possible, exposing them to colleges, universities, and trades to make the ‘life after high school’ decision less confusing. Getting students interested in postsecondary education will help them qualify for advanced jobs in the future. Ohio is creating the jobs opportunities, and now Ohio must produce more college and university graduates.”
College Now was fortunate to have these bright, hardworking and ambitious young women as part of the team this summer. We are grateful that they were willing to share their personal stories.
Focusing on Adult Learners to Meet Workforce Needs
At College Now, we have long been known for working with traditional students on their paths to postsecondary attainment. However, we have also developed a robust program to help another population that needs our services – adult learners.
An adult learner, according to College Now, is anyone 19 or older who has had their education interrupted for one year or more. And, in northeast Ohio, these are the individuals who can help change our community by taking the next step in their postsecondary journeys.
Currently, northeast Ohio employers have openings for skilled workers – but not enough people are obtaining the degrees or credentials to meet employers’ needs. Beyond the immediate needs, of course, is the fact that, by 2020, over 60% of jobs will require some kind of postsecondary credential.
The 440,000 adults in Cuyahoga County ages 25 and over whose highest level of educational attainment is a high school credential or “some college, no degree,” are a critical piece to the educational attainment puzzle and probably have 440,000 different situations that have kept them from pursuing that continued education. These adults are parents, or children of elderly parents. They have houses to maintain and bills to pay. Some may even have student loan or other debt from previous attempts to complete a degree.
Most of these adults are employed, though many may not be earning a living wage (which, in Northeast Ohio, is $21/hour to support one adult and one child [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Living Wage Calculator, 2016]). As you can see in the graphic below, an employee cannot reach that living wage without a bachelor’s degree.
Of course, it isn’t always easy to reach that living wage threshold if you’ve been out of the postsecondary game for a while. The idea of going back to school may be daunting, and many adults may not relish the idea of being in a program with older teenagers. However, what you might think of as the “average” college student isn’t so average anymore, and adults returning to school are becoming more and more common in recent years. In 2011, The Atlantic reported that thirty-eight percent of undergraduates were over the age of 25 and one-fourth were over the age of 30. Further, the number of students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another twenty-three percent by 2019.
At College Now, we know that assimilating into higher education can be challenging for adults. That’s why we have advisors who are uniquely trained to help adult learners find the school and program that is the right fit for them individually. We work with adults to determine what sort of degree or credential they need to obtain a job in the field they desire. We understand that there is not a “one-size fits all” model for our work with adults, and we are prepared to understand what exactly they need to take the next step toward educational attainment.
We also understand that funding is often a concern for adults going back to school – whether it’s how to make school fit into a current budget, or how to work student loans into a future financial plan. Our Adult Learner Scholarship has a rolling application and is open to adults 19 and over who have discontinued their education for more than one year and are residents of the following Northeast Ohio Counties: Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Mahoning, Medina, Portage, Stark, Summit or Trumbull. More information can be found on our website.
Additionally, College Now helps adults get their finances in order after graduation with student loan counseling. Our advisors help students decide which repayment plan best fits their budget, and can help lower monthly payments to make loan debt affordable.
Increasing educational attainment among adults is not just a “nice” thing to do. It is imperative to our local economy that more residents obtain degrees that will qualify them to fill the present and future jobs. The positive effects that increased educational attainment can have on a community are numerous. Cuyahoga County’s economic health depends on educational attainment being a top priority for the community’s working adults.
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