On College Success: Five questions with Austin Buchan, College Forward

This is a blog series focused on how the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation approaches college success work. You will hear from our partners who work each day to help students improve academically, complete rigorous curricula, and cross financial hurdles. In this blog post, we share thoughts from Austin Buchan, CEO of College Forward. This organization provides college access and college completion supports, with a collective impact approach that aims to increase the use and effectiveness of existing student support services. As they say, they “help with the hard stuff.” You can read the whole series here.

How did you get involved in education?

I’m a native Texan, raised in a socially and politically active family.  I knew I wanted to work for social justice my entire life. I got the education bug after moving to Nicaragua. I created an education bridge program for high school students on a rural island. It was transformative to watch my students paddle from island-to-island to go to class for 10 hours a day, then watch them get accepted to college, graduate, and get jobs. I think education is the closest thing to a silver bullet we have for solving a lot of social inequities.

What drives your passion for education?

Our students. My role requires that I work on so many things. When I’m feeling least motivated, I always think of our students to recharge.

Tell us about your organization, College Forward.

The essence of who we are and what we do stems from our belief in the power of near-peer coaching for students. College Forward pairs first generation, low-income students with a near-peer coach, someone who recently completed a two-year or four-year degree. The coaches build relationships with students to ensure they’re accomplishing major milestones on their way to a degree. Recently, we’ve evolved to support students even more with additional college completion programs. But, if we do nothing else for our students, we make sure they know we believe in them – so they’ll believe in themselves.

What are some of the biggest challenges colleges and universities face?

Money is a problem across the board.  State funding for most public institutions has been spiraling downward for the past few decades. They’re expected to deliver more results with less funding. The way colleges are financed doesn’t align with producing better persistence in graduation rates, especially for low-income students.

A second problem is the culture at public institutions. They were not designed for the 21st century student, so many legacy processes need re-examination. A lot of the new leaders are inheriting challenging situations and they’re trying to make significant changes and realign to be more student-centric.

What’s your vision for education over the next 10 years?

I have different visions for non-profits and educational institutions. I hope more education non-profit organizations focus on college completion. Our sector emphasizes college access, but we have a leaky pipeline between college access and completion. We’re not producing the outcomes we need with individual programs. I hope over the next 10 years we stay involved in college access, while fixing the problems with college persistence and completion.  We have to fix the end of the pipeline, because we’re sending more students through it.

I also want to see our industry focus less on replication and more on scale.  With nine million students dropping out of college every year, no single nonprofit can grow quickly enough to meet the demand.  Yet, if we look to small, nimble innovators to pilot new programs that can scale, we can ignite systemic change at institutions that will benefit millions of students each year.