What We’re Reading…

HEI staff members share what we’re reading this month. We welcome your recommendations for next month!

books in black wooden book shelf
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Tait Kellogg, PhD, Director of Research & Strategic Services
“Place Matters: A Closer Look at Education Deserts” by Nick Hillman, PhD, with Third Way
KEY TAKEAWAY: “I appreciate Third Way’s approach to make complex issues around higher education accessible. I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on around rural higher education. Dr. Hillman’s outline of the concept of education deserts highlights this issue in a unique way.”

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
KEY TAKEAWAY: “This book of short stories from Mississippi author Aimee Nezhukumatathil is truly a gem. It reminds me to find joy in approaching nature and each other with inquisitiveness and wonder.”

Kelly Rifelj, Research Assistant
“Why Aren’t Progressives Focused on Earn-While-You-Learn Models?” By Ryan Craig on Inside Higher Ed
KEY TAKEAWAY: “As much of my work has been on the Free College/promise program movement, I like to keep current of alternative proposals or complementary ideas. In this piece, the author proposes reforming the Federal Work Study program to be more robust and include private employers to support a more equitable higher education system. This is significant because other methods besides, or in addition to, Free College can work to create more equitable outcomes (e.g., doubling the Pell Grant)—and that could be powerful steps to progress.”


Client Spotlight: Clarkson University STEM LEAF

This month, we’re proud to shine the spotlight on our client, Clarkson University, for whom we serve as evaluator for its National Science Foundation (NSF) “ADVANCE: Organizational Change for Gender Equity in STEM Academic Professions” grant.

Upon receiving the grant in 2019, Clarkson University established STEM Leadership, Equity and Advancement of Faculty (STEM LEAF), a project designed to transform “the campus culture to further foster innovation through inclusion and belonging” with the following core goals:

  1. To significantly reduce implicit or unintentional bias associated with gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and country of origin,
  2. To support inclusive leadership development of current and future University Leadership and professional development of STEM women faculty, and
  3. To promote the sustainability of these systemic efforts through university-wide structural changes. 

This important work is highlighted as the NSF celebrates the 20th anniversary of ADVANCE with a series of panels and seminars throughout the month of March.

Do you have an ADVANCE project you need to evaluate? Or perhaps one you’d like to develop? We’d love to speak with you! Feel free to schedule a consult here.


Do you care about college access? Then it’s time to get to know more about ATCs (Area Technical Centers)…

Most of us working in higher ed don’t really understand CTE (that’s Career Technical Education)—and at one time this included me. Through the years, however, I’ve come to learn that it’s the heart and soul of the pathway to opportunity for those who most need postsecondary education for a better future.

We can all agree on the need for credentials that have value—and that lead to meaningful employment and wages for graduates. We all know that college attainment leads to better outcomes in many ways across a person’s life. I know, I’m preaching to the choir here. Yet, despite knowing this and how many millions of working-age adults lack a sufficient credential, we see a persistent chasm between much of higher education and the workforce development system that is a common stop on the road for many learners.

So, what is an ATC and why does it matter?

ATCs, according to the organization, Advance CTE, are “CTE-focused institutions that serve learners from across multiple geographies, such as school districts, education services areas, and workforce development areas or regions…they offer secondary and sub-baccalaureate-level education and training…or both.” A recent report from Advance CTE found that:

  • There are 1,300 ATCs in the US, across 39 states and territories.
  • ATCs vary tremendously in their history, governance, and funding structures (which is why they are tricky to understand).
  • ATCs make a significant contribution to state attainment goals through largely less-than-associate-degree-level credentials, although most ATCs are primarily secondary-school serving.
  • Many ATCs that have articulation agreements in place have them locally (not through statewide agreements), and they work closely with two-year colleges or local technical colleges.
  • ATCS’ structures are determined locally, and the federal government no longer acknowledges ATCs or requires reporting from them in the most recent CTE legislation.
  • ATCs vary widely in how they are governed and funded, but most are through the secondary schools or local education area that sends learners to the ATC (see figure below). The most significant fiscal resources come from districts, schools, and Perkins funds.

Unlike their four-year-college cousin, ATCs and CTE programs have the ability to change quickly in response to industry needs and demands. However, much like with their four-year-college cousin, the sector lacks a real awareness of the impact of ATCs and CTE programs on their clear intended outcomes. (Stay tuned for a discussion on outcomes evaluation in higher ed in our next newsletter).

Nonetheless, ATCs are a very important piece of the college opportunity puzzle. Some learners, whether they are in secondary school or recent high school graduates, will never attend a four-year college without some exposure. ATCs and CTE programs create a small path towards a bigger future—but only if state and local policy leaders understand how it can work.

In 2020, the HEI team was involved in two Comprehensive Local Needs Assessments (CLNAs) with community college partners in Maryland. These CLNAs are a requirement of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V), which is the federal policy related to CTE today (that began in the 1950s and 60s with the National Defense Act and the Vocational Act of 1963). This experience radically changed our views about the significance of CTE in the college attainment story. Clear best practices are emerging that are critical for the expansion of college opportunity and are highlighted in Advance CTE’s report:

  • Integrate ATCs and CTE programs, generally, into any state education and workforce planning and policies.
  • Support the articulation agreements between ATCs and postsecondary institutions, so that short-term, industry-recognized credentials count toward associate and baccalaureate degrees.
  • Develop meaningful data dashboards on postsecondary and CTE outcomes.
  • Support ATCs in achieving full accreditation so they qualify for federal and state postsecondary funding.
  • Ensure that CTE outcome measures consider diversity and equity goals to identify major barriers to opportunity for marginalized populations in different fields.

Are you interested in talking through the impact and opportunity of ATCs vis-à-vis your organization? We’re ready thought partners and guides. Feel free to book a consult here, or contact us here.


Planning Retreat: American Youth Policy Forum

An organization’s future is brightest when planned strategically and with collective wisdom. To that end, Higher Ed Insight (HEI) recently facilitated a highly successful year-end virtual planning retreat for the youth-focused organization American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF). The goal: bring together an ensemble of thought leaders and impassioned change makers for an afternoon of collaborative discussion to inform future initiatives and planning action steps for the AYPF as its board leadership looks ahead to the next five years. 

Zoom Planning Retreat

On a Friday afternoon in mid-December, the Board of Directors of AYPF gathered around the “table,” which took the form of a six-by-six grid of faces via Zoom, in true 2020 fashion. Joining the Board of Directors at the digital table were members of the AYPF staff, facilitators from HEI, and more than a dozen invited guests, each of whom brought their unique perspective on policies and practices to create opportunity for America’s underserved and underrepresented young people. 

Participants in the visioning exercise included public policy leaders with expertise ranging from early childhood development to adult career technical education, child welfare to corrections reform, learning to legislation, and socioeconomics to science. Each attendee was invested in the growth, opportunity, and success of young people, making them ideal influencers for an organization whose very essence is grounded in work that builds success for youth, particularly those in the margins.

Mission and Vision at the Core

Taking inspiration from AYPF’s vision and mission, HEI facilitators crafted questions designed to allow a broad and open exploration of the myriad of ways AYPF could advocate and influence opportunities for young people across the nation. Additionally, the facilitators intentionally configured breakout sessions to provide both structure to the work and to deliberately tailor smaller group conversations to ensure that every voice in the digital room had a chance to be heard during the discussion. 

Conversation and Collaboration

The Higher Ed Insight team moderated the synergistic discussion. In the breakout sessions, the participants considered questions relating to the creative engagement of stakeholders, cross-sector collaboration, the surfacing and amplification of youth voices, and the facilitation of equitable opportunities. As each question was explored, ideas were expanded, stretched, and optimized. The unique perspectives of the panelists combined to enhance each suggestion, ultimately making the ideas stronger and more viable.  

The breakout sessions provided AYPF staff with collaborative input resulting in a solid list of promising ideas to inform the future direction of AYPF initiatives and projects. 

Next Step: Strategic Plan

HEI’s facilitation of AYPF’s end-of-year planning retreat has equipped AYPF with stakeholder ideas and renewed energy for their work as they move forward, impacting policies, practices, and opportunities for youth for years to come. These suggestions build upon a clear sense of AYPF’s mission and vision and provide an expansive view of what is possible in the next five years.

Interested in learning more about how we approach virtual planning? Please email us or schedule a consultation.


What We’re Reading – January 2021

HEI staff members share what we’re reading this month. We welcome your recommendations for next month!

books in black wooden book shelf
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Patricia Steele, PhD: Educated by Tara Westover

Key Takeaway: Yes, I’m two years behind everyone reading this incredible memoir. I’m captivated by the reality that educational opportunity can afford transformational change, for individuals and for generations. A reminder for why we do the things we do.

Tashera Bolds, PhD: “Culturally Responsive Evaluation: Theory, Practice, and Future Implications”

This article was published by the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment (CREA) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.  

Key Takeaway: Cultural considerations of the populations and contexts impacted by our evaluation practice is critical–and substantially so when serving diverse, historically marginalized communities. This article, and the work of the Center for Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Assessment (CREA) more broadly, explores the application of culturally responsive evaluation from both theoretical and practical lenses. Revisiting these resources was a timely reminder of the importance of actively and consistently reflecting on one’s own approach to evaluation and ensuring that it is culturally grounded.

Donte McGuire, MEd: Black Teacher Griot blog project 

Andrea (she/her/hers) is a self-described “teacher, learner, curriculum designer, and lover of Black folks” whose site provides space for Black teachers to share their experiences as educators. I specifically appreciated the post, “Dreaming my way free…” 

Key Takeaway: This particular blog post, “Dreaming my way free… “, is a great example of what I enjoy most about Andrea’s work and the Black Teacher Griot website. They both provide me with visions that exist beyond, but not disconnected from, the current inequitable and oppressive educational systems–visions that are always rooted in love and community.

In my work, a lot can be gained by immersing myself in the data. Yet, this quote from Andrea reminds me that there is also much to gain from intentionally setting the data aside to imagine possibilities I never thought was possible: “Some dreams are not simply about creating new realms, some are connecting us to the past, showing what is already inside our communities and ourselves.” 

Tait Kellogg, PhD: Rural Matters” podcast

I’ve been listening to the “Rural Matters” podcast, a reflection of my interest in rural higher education. Especially great was the recent episode with our partner at Education Design Labs, Leslie Daugherty, when we spoke about challenges and opportunities for community colleges in rural areas.

Key Takeaway: Rural areas are resilient and rural community colleges in particular are often instrumental institutions for their communities.


Staff Spotlight: Tait Kellogg, PhD – Director of Research & Strategic Services

HEI invites you to get to know our fantastic staff members. Each month, we will highlight a different colleague. This month, learn about Dr. Tait Kellogg’s background and what drives her professionally.

Tait Kellogg, PhD

Tait Kellogg brings to HEI both content knowledge in higher education as well as a broad set of methodological skills. Prior to her work as an external evaluator, she worked internally doing research and evaluation at Tulane University’s Center for Public Service. Tait’s aim is to provide useful, asset-based evaluation and facilitations. In a previous role as the data analyst at a college access nonprofit, she learned firsthand the challenge of understanding an organization’s impact internally. Tait is passionate about helping universities, nonprofits, and foundations conduct research and gain strategic tools that help them work towards their mission. Tait earned her BA from Millsaps College, her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University in Higher and Postsecondary Education and her PhD from Tulane University in the interdisciplinary program City, Culture and Community – Sociology.

What first drew you to work in higher education?

My passion for access and interest in expanding postsecondary opportunities is rooted in my personal experience. I was the first in my family to get my bachelor’s degree and I struggled to pay my way through my education. After getting my master’s, I worked in different areas of higher education like international education and career services in NYC, but I eventually moved to rural Mississippi, where I worked for the Woodward Hines Education Foundation with students who aspired to go to college but lacked easy access to quality information on applying to and paying for college. I saw myself in those students, and now ten years later, I see myself in many of the students supported by HEI’s research support work. I’m also now inspired by my colleagues working to help organizations identify how to connect students to meaningful work and meaningful life paths.

What is your favorite part of working at HEI and with HEI’s clients?

My favorite part is the staff–the team we have built. Our people have a wide variety of lived experiences, and they all authentically come together around the shared values of having high-level skills and wanting to bring them to people on-the-ground who are making a real impact in higher ed.

I also love the work we do! We get to explore questions in the world that are directly impacting  people. We work quickly; we put out high quality products. We also try to be flexible with our clients, adapting to their needs as they evolve. For example, during COVID-19, we pivoted our research and strategic services work quickly to hear from learners and community partners to understand how higher education was unfolding during this unprecedented time, and offer immediately applicable recommendations to clients. If a philanthropic foundation wants to learn and strategize based on their own data, or a department wants to hire a firm to conduct high-quality custom research, HEI can support them in a way that is responsive to their inevitably changing needs.

What gives you hope in the work you do?

I have great hope for the power of education to transform individuals’ lives. I also have great hope for the power of learning for organizations–and that’s what we do at HEI. We help organizations become learning organizations so that they can be more effective in realizing their missions. Recently, we were doing a “data party,” which is where we help organizations make sense of their data–often massive amounts of data–and connect it to their work on the ground, and then grow from the learnings. We filter through that data and create slides, and then bring staff together to reflect on what has actually unfolded on the ground in the last year. Experiences like these are powerful for reducing fear around data and allowing staff members to feel more connected to aspects of the work that can feel abstract. In supporting organizations around learning and being strategic about how to become better, I find hope.


Client Spotlight – 55,000 Degrees: Achieving a More Educated City

In December, HEI had the privilege of writing the final report and hosting a virtual summit for 55,000 Degrees—a nonprofit that started in 2010 with a goal of increasing the number of adults in Louisville with college degrees to 50% by the end of 2020. The resulting report tells the story of a meaningful public-private partnership around postsecondary education. What began as an aspiration to drive economic growth via postsecondary degree attainment evolved into a more comprehensive roadmap for prosperity and opportunity via equitable P-16 educational pathways and workforce preparation. Because of the achievements and pathways built by 55,000 Degrees, Louisville is better positioned to expand educational opportunities, reduce systemic barriers, and prepare a 21st-century workforce—all for a more equitable and competitive city.

To learn more, check out the report.


Is your organization a learning organization?

Many organizations want to have a learning posture towards their work and mission, yet many don’t take the time to build their own capacity to become dynamic learning organizations.

  • Does your organization or program have formal structures in place to consistently ask questions about your effectiveness?
  • Do you gather the right data to measure the impact of your work and initiatives?
  • Do you have systematic processes or periods for analyzing and discussing data and its meaning?
  • Is there cyclical decision-making around resources, staffing, partnerships, and investments based on a formal learning cycle?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then most likely your organization could use some internal capacity building around becoming a robust learning organization.

True learning organizations cannot rely only on outside evaluators but must have learning woven into the fabric of the organization so that reflection and growth are institutionalized (Coffman & Beer, 2011). Also, to assess effectiveness, there are questions that an organization must consider beyond the specific outcomes of individual programs (Preskill & Mack, 2013). As Moss, Coffman, and Beer (2020) emphasize, learning and decision-making are often organizationally siloed, with responsibility for evaluation and strategic decision-making assigned to different teams. Our goal at HEI is to support our clients in building the internal structure and capacity to reflect on their goals and make decisions organization wide based on data.

At HEI, our team has developed the Insight Learning Framework, an approach for helping entities build the structure needed to become learning organizations. The Insight Learning Framework goes beyond evaluation to support organizations as they strategically increase their own capacity for using data for crucial decision-making. After all, without a learning culture where curiosity, flexibility, and a willingness to discuss failure are valued, even well-planned evaluations won’t have any long-term impact on organizational decision-making (Taylor & Liadsky, 2018). 

The Insight Learning Framework includes five stages: (1) Develop Your Learning Agenda, (2) Create a System for Learning, (3) Implement Your Learning System, (4) Reflect on Lessons Learned, and (5) Take Action and Plan for the Future. At each stage in this framework, different tools might be appropriate depending on the organization. You can find more information on the Framework here.


Coffman, J. & Beer, T. (2001). Evaluation to support strategic learning: Principles and practices. Center for Evaluation Innovation.

Moss, I.D., Coffman, J., & Beer, T. (2002). Smart decision-making. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Organizational Research Services (ORS). (2013). Getting more from measurement: Five insights for social innovators. Seattle, WA.

Preskill, K., & Mack, K.(2013). Building a strategic learning and evaluation system for your organization. FSG. Taylor, A. & Liadsky, B. (2018). Achieving greater impact by starting with learning: How grantmakers can enable learning relationships at the grant application stage. Taylor Newberry Consulting and Ontario Nonprofit Network.


What does Afrofuturism have to do with Evaluation?

By Donté McGuire, Research Analyst

The title question is not rhetorical. Neither does this post attempt to fully answer this question. Instead, it is a topic I have reflected on since attending AEA’s Eval20 Reimagine virtual conference. Specifically, I was challenged by the session, “Illuminating the future context through an equity lens: Why systems evaluators need to use foresight and futures thinking without imposing Western cultural values”  led by Jewla Lynn of Policy Solve and Jen Heeg of Humanity United. When the presenters shared a picture of Janelle Monae’s Archandroid album cover, describing it as a “shining example of Afrofuturism in popular US culture,” they held my attention. To understand why I was surprised to hear the term Afrofuturism in a session about evaluation, I can simply return to last month’s HEI FYI.

In the What We’re Reading… section of October’s newsletter, I highlighted N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky along with this comment: “While this book does not have an explicit relevancy to HEI’s work, it does shape my worldview and approach to my work.” Just a month after not seeing the connection between the Afrofuturist books I read and the evaluation work I do, I found myself in a session that contradicted that perspective.

As a relative newcomer to the term, I understand “Afrofuturism,” at its basic level, to refer to the ways Black people see themselves in the future—a perspective informed by the past and present but separate from racist and White supremacist stereotypes. Clearly with or without this term, there have always been Black folk who have imagined themselves in a future radically different from the one White supremacy was creating and predicting for them.

As a relative newcomer to the field of evaluation, I wonder what it means for me, as a Black evaluator, to use, reference, and be inspired by Afrofuturist ideas in my work?

Here are some of my initial thoughts:

  1. Be explicit about Black futures. One thing Afrofuturism highlights is the dearth of racial diversity in science fiction and fantasy productions in U.S. popular culture. In other words, the disregard and neglect for Black life in the present is mirrored by the absence of Black people in the future imaginations of popular, White U.S. culture.

    Here’s the connection: Almost every evaluation project I have worked on has some forward-looking component, whether it’s organizational strategic planning or recommendations for future actions. I’ve noticed that the lack of explicit language regarding marginalized groups in this future planning (e.g., “Black people in higher education”) usually aligns with perpetual, inadequate strategies to address the needs of those communities. This correlation speaks to the failure of generic language related to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

  2. Black people have good ideas about more than just “Black” issues. Although I have worked in areas of education ranging from residential life to international education to college access and am pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education, White people and non-Black People of Color engage my ideas around the aforementioned topics in one way while engaging my ideas about the topic of race/ethnicity in another way. Whereas I am never outright dismissed, I cannot help but notice the listener’s curiosity that comes from trusting the speaker’s point of view when I’m talking about issues related to Black people or race that it absent when discussing other topics.

    To be clear, I am not talking about being in conversation with White and non-Black People of Color who don’t “get it”; I am talking about the ones that do. We all need to consciously acknowledge that Black people, including black authors, have much to say on all kinds of topics. Reading The Stone Sky and the other books in Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy (where a full and diverse Black future is normalized) has made me think more about issues such as my relationship to the environment, grief and mourning, concept of time, community, and leadership than it has about race and ethnicity.

    So even when evaluating organizations where Black people’s experience can be improved, I should look to them for insight on issues beyond the employment experience of their demographic group. For example, what thoughts do they have about the organization’s governance or leadership or strategic priorities? These questions represent an opportunity to learn from those Patricia Hills Collins refers to as the “outsider within.”

  3. Getting to new futures requires new tools. As I learn more about the field of evaluation, I realize that many “standard” tools and practices of evaluation are limited in their ability to allow for a genuine engagement with Black futures. For example, the AEA presenters discussed the ways Western values can be standard in systems thinking. I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s popular quote: “the master’s tools will not destroy the master’s house.” 

    The presenters provided a link to specific tools and resources that evaluators can use, which not only reference Afrofuturism, but also Indigenous Futurism: Decolonizing Our Future.

Work-Based Learning Framework

This is the final post in a brief series on work-based learning opportunities in a virtual environment. HEI’s report on digital tech WBL in the capital region can be found here. For more information, please reach out to us—we’d love to hear from you.

You’ve already established your initial strategies for a virtual WBL offering, and you’ve determined how you’ll ensure the quality of your offering. Now you need a preliminary WBL framework to structure a well-balanced continuum of WBL to provide a path of growth for participants well beyond your initial offering. Again, you can think of WBL as any educational activity comprised of meaningful workplace experiences that facilitate academic, technical, and employability skill development to support entry into or advancement along a career pathway. Individuals of all experience levels seeking to gain authentic career-aligned work experience can benefit from WBL opportunities, including K-12 students, postsecondary learners, young adults, adult jobseekers, and incumbent workers. WBL encompasses a wealth of program models that exist along a continuum that transitions across phases from foundational awareness, to early exposure, to preparatory engagement, and finally to immersive experience. As you move across the WBL spectrum, the length of participation within an activity increases, interactions with employers are more abundant, and the nature of involvement at worksites is deepened; thus time, exposure, and engagement are core differentiating factors of WBL models. The chart below depicts a WBL framework organized along a four-phased continuum, with each phase comprised of models of various types.

  • WBL opportunities within the Awareness Phase are foundational, serving as an introduction to a specific career domain. Though activities of this type do not take place on a worksite, information acquired during these events can spark initial career-related interests within learners and influence decisions to pursue additional opportunities for further career exploration.
  • WBL activities within the Exposure Phase often afford learners opportunities to become acquainted with a career through first-hand experiences in the workplace. These short-term, introductory encounters provide insights relating to an industry or business, including environmental conditions, real-world application of concepts, and professional culture. Exposure activities also provide information about job roles and responsibilities associated with an occupation, thereby aiding in the identification of knowledge and skills required to pursue that career pathway.
  • WBL activities within the Engagement Phase comprise extensive, structured opportunities that allow participants to authentically perform responsibilities required within the workplace. Learners benefit from increased technical knowledge and employability skills development, as well as enriched interactions with industry professionals.
  • WBL models within the Immersion Phase are most comprehensive, where learners participate in long-term work opportunities in an industry or occupation. These learn-while-you-earn positions embed a formal instructional component within the work experience, where learners receive customized hands-on training that often supports attainment of an industry-recognized credential.

Undoubtedly, outcomes attributed to an individual WBL model are strongest across the later phases of the continuum given the depth of the learning experiences; however, overall impacts are most extensive when cumulatively acquired to support early and sustained developmental continuity. While widely applicable across stakeholder groups, this effect is of greatest significance when advancing priorities centering broadened participation and equitable access of opportunities to populations historically underrepresented within the industry’s workforce.