Community College Blog

Lessons in student success from a formerly "fat" city

by Melinda Salaman

In 2007, Oklahoma City’s mayor brought national attention to the Midwestern capital with the announcement that the city would go on a collective diet and lose 1 million pounds. Under Mayor Mick Cornett’s leadership, Oklahoma City accomplished its headline-grabbing weight loss goal in five years. The city continues to invest in urban redesign, community programming, and cross-industry partnerships to improve public health.

Our research team has always been inspired by exemplars outside of higher education, and looks for creative ways of translating these lessons learned to member campuses. A few years ago, we profiled a practice from the University of Michigan in which a physics professor adapted digital coaching techniques from the public health sector to scale personalized guidance for students in his Physics 101 course, which suffered from high DFW rates. Oklahoma City’s health movement provides an even broader example for institutional transformation. With the recent resurgence of media attention on this case study, we asked: What can Oklahoma City’s 1 million-pound weight loss movement teach higher education leaders about achieving student success at scale?

Personalize the problem

Every story about Oklahoma City’s health revitalization movement begins the same way—with the story of Mayor Cornett, who in 2006 admitted that he met the standard definition of “obese.” Cornett is so often the center of Oklahoma City’s story because he intentionally made himself the headline. He was open about his own struggle with weight loss, and thus personalized the obesity problem in the city; this wasn’t fat-shaming, this was a collective struggle the mayor himself understood and wanted to overcome alongside his constituents.

How can college leaders similarly personalize the student success challenge?
Every administrator we’ve interviewed can rattle off reasons students don’t complete a credential: competing priorities, difficulty setting goals, time mismanagement, etc. Our SSC–Navigate team knows these challenges all too well. What’s more, we understand them because many of us have dealt with similar struggles in our own education and work. When we share this during interviews with community college students, they become more open to advice—“How do you deal with it? What worked for you?”

There’s an opportunity for college executives and staff to do something similar on their campuses. Think of moments when you’ve struggled to balance competing responsibilities in your life (e.g., completing a doctoral program while raising a family), had difficulty setting a goal (e.g., choosing a thesis topic), or mismanaged your time (e.g., arrived late or missed important family events). Students should know these are universal challenges that all people—even campus leaders—experience. Then the conversation about how to overcome them can begin in earnest. This requires both strong leadership and humility to resonate with students and lead the collective charge towards improved student success.

Don’t demand perfection, but encourage persistence

One of the strengths of the Oklahoma City movement was its recognition that massive weight loss wouldn’t (and couldn’t) happen overnight. Weight loss is all about making different, healthier decisions. Residents needed to make these decisions on their own, and realistically they wouldn’t make the healthy choice all the time. In Weight Watchers-style support groups, coaches warned members not to be too hard on themselves if they indulged in unhealthy foods or skipped exercise once in a while. Instead, they were lauded for trying, and reminded they could always recommit to the weight loss challenge and try again. This approach gave Oklahoma City residents some leeway in their own individual weight loss efforts, and allowed them to participate in the city-wide challenge even if they encountered setbacks.

How do we encourage students to persist in their goals without discouraging them if they stray off-path?
In the effort to encourage higher retention and graduation rates, we need to remember that not every student will fulfill these high standards at first. There’s an opportunity to make students feel part of the campus community, even after they’ve failed a course, reduced their course load, or dropped out of the institution altogether. This connection could encourage dropouts to eventually return to campus, knowing that a previous failure does not prevent them from future success. Part of the mission of community colleges is to provide that second chance and welcome those who may have failed to reach their educational goals in the past.

Stay tuned

In our next post, we’ll continue to explore the lessons that community colleges can learn from Oklahoma City’s fight against obesity, highlighting the value of cross-industry partnerships and how initiatives can become sustainable over the long term.


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