When I was first introduced to The College Crusade of Rhode Island and Andrew Bramson, President and CEO, one thing that immediately struck me in meeting Andrew and his team was their passion for betterment—for their students, families and the greater community. The entire team subscribes to the notion of continuous improvement, constant evolution and change management. And, as such, they are able to take great strides forward in their quest toward building a “college-going culture” for students from Rhode Island’s low-income communities.
I have had the chance to get to know Andrew and team more personally over the last few months as The College Crusade and Trilix have partnered on a number of tech initiatives, including the creation of their new membership portal. It was a real honor to have the chance to sit down with Andrew to hear his thoughts on business improvement, social movements and change initiatives. Here’s a look at our conversation…
To begin, can you tell our readers a bit about The College Crusade and your top responsibilities/focus areas as President and CEO.
We are the state’s largest college access program for low-income, first generation, underserved students. Our mission is to increase high school graduation, college and career readiness, and college completion for the youth in Rhode Island’s low-income communities. We help students get to and through college. At any point in time we are helping about 4,500 students.
Since 1989 we have been supporting students as they move through middle school, high school and college. It begins in sixth grade when we enroll students who attend traditional public schools and public charter schools in Providence, Cranston, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket and West Warwick. A key strategy for us is to continue to impact middle-class development in the state. Our belief is that if you care about the middle class, then you care about the college journey for students who are first-generation, children of immigrants or children of parents who never thought they needed to go to college, because there was a time in Rhode Island where you could achieve a middle-class life without ever going to college. But that reality is disappearing for the most part.
Many times we have relationships with students and families that last up to 11 years as we support the student all through middle school, high school and college. In so doing, we help create a community, trust and social connectedness for a lot of our families who are living fiscally fragile lives.
We are about relationships first and foremost—the relationships our advisors have with students, that our staff has with families, and so on. Once you establish those relationships, the sky is the limit. We want to help students come up with a college dream for themselves perhaps before they even see it. If they can’t see it, then part of our job is to dream for them. We talk about the ripple effect a lot. When a family has even just one person who has a college degree, that ripple effect from a social and economic mobility perspective is undeniable. It’s not always uniform and not always consistent from a velocity standpoint, but that ripple effect—at the family and community level—is huge.
It’s amazing to think that we will be celebrating our 30th anniversary next year!
You’ve been at The College Crusade for the past two years… what attracted you to the organization?
My role is to set the strategic direction for the organization, to take stock of where we have been and where we are right now, and to assess where I think we should be going and plot that against certain time increments. My background has always been in the nonprofit sector, and I have spent the past 15 years in Rhode Island doing a lot of work around nonprofit management and government relations.
I always knew The College Crusade and the reputation it had. When the position opened up, though I wasn’t looking to leave, I recognized this was a rare opportunity to lead in the state and I decided it was the right move for me. It has turned out to be a really great fit.
When you first came in, what were the first few areas of the business that caught your eye as both opportunities and challenges?
The College Crusade has always done great work and has had great metrics associated with it, but as I started to sink my teeth in I sensed we could be heading for a success gap. What I saw pretty early on in my tenure was that if we continued to do things exactly the same way, we would find shortly that we wouldn’t have the same results we had before. And that’s simply because of the pace of change in our industry and the fact that what worked in the past may not work in the future. Our students are changing, their parents are changing, how families get information is changing, student expectations are changing. It became evident that we needed to start making some shifts.
Recently, we have had the chance to get to know one another better as Trilix is helping The College Crusade create a new membership portal to better engage students, parents, advisors and employees. Can you talk about this initiative?
Absolutely. The most important thing we can do is communicate well to our students and our families, and we had systems in place that needed to change. There was a point in time that the best way to communicate with families was to call their landlines or mail them a letter. But in 2018, listening to voicemails, picking up the phone and opening your mail do not come close to placing in the top five ways people wish to get information. As an organization, we recognize that.
We also recognized that because we have been in this business for a long time, in the next few years a majority of our parents and students will be digital natives. When we started this organization, there was no such thing as a digital native. But now the parents that we are working with and serving are in fact digital natives. Creating a new membership portal allows us to more meaningfully and effectively communicate with our families. What’s more, it creates a better way for our advisors to communicate with students.
The membership portal will allow us to do a few things. It will allow students and families to learn more about College Crusade program offerings as well as enable them to register directly for programs and events. The portal will also enable students to view the number of participation hours they have had. This is a key number as participation plays a major role in determining a student’s scholarship amount when they enroll in college.
One of the things that most excites me about this project is how it will impact the incredible people who work here. Everyone here knows it’s about developing relationships. That’s what gives them the ability to change the economic and social trajectory of students. That’s what motivates them. This new technology will give them more tools for doing that work. If this new portal allows them to live our mission more authentically, purposefully and deeply, then we have achieved what we set out to do.
We have started a movement here at Trilix, educating on the importance of workplace excellence. How would you define workplace excellence?
From my perspective, workplace excellence is about having the tools and systems to anticipate challenges and problems and being able to come up with the solutions before they actually materialize.
It’s also about becoming a more data-driven organization. We have metrics that we care about (for example, high school graduation, college enrollment, and college persistence), and they are all measurable. The excellence component is how do you focus on metrics but remember that there is a person, human and narrative associated with every data point? That’s what we want to do with our data.
In a different vein, but connected to the topic of excellence, we need to remember that the workplace—for better or worse—is the place you spend most of your time. You often spend more time with your colleagues than your loved ones in a given week. So, you better make sure you like working with them and that you are all moving toward a common mission. When you can do that, you have great potential.
You are working side-by-side with the next generation of leaders—a generation that will be the most technologically savvy yet. But at the same time, we are seeing a shifting business climate that is calling for a balance of both hard and soft skill sets. How are you preparing Crusaders for both?
From an equity standpoint, we advocate that non-technical skills are equally as important as technical skills – if not more important. This is especially true when you consider that the average shelf life of a bachelor’s degree is just about six years, meaning what you learn in college for four years will become irrelevant in six. The shelf life of a college degree is getting shorter and shorter This I believe will lead to a resurgence in liberal arts education, especially as employers keep placing emphasis on creativity, collaboration and the ability to write and communicate. Next-generation employees can be the best programmers and developers in the field, but if they can’t do these things I just listed, businesses will either tolerate them or not keep them.
We say this unapologetically: students that come from privileged households get the opportunity to change majors a couple of times or even take a gap year. They get all these opportunities that our students do not, but we are still trying to get our students to experience the same thing when it comes to skills development. We talk more and more with our students about trying to get into the best school possible and to worry less about choosing a major. Our students should have the liberty and functionality to dream big. That’s what we are trying to focus on – the fact that the future is in transferable skills.
We are trying to close an equity gap here. It can be measured by graduation rates and degree attainment, but that only tells one side of the story. The other side is assessing whether we have alumni in boardrooms in this community, alumni holding elective office, etc. My goal is to have leadership development be a focus of The College Crusade. Moving forward, we want to focus more intentionally on both college readiness and leadership development.
We are ready to stretch to the next frontier. We used to be about college access only and today we are also about college completion. Supporting young adults as they transition into the workforce is our next frontier.
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