Community College Blog

(More) lessons in student success from a formerly 'fat' city

by Melinda Salaman

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

In our last post, we asked “What can Oklahoma City’s 1 million-pound weight loss movement teach higher education leaders about achieving student success at scale?” We examined the personal nature of the campaign as well as the way it encouraged persistence even when participants slipped. Below, we continue to unpack Oklahoma City’s fight against obesity and the lessons it contains for institutional transformation.

Keep your "enemies" close

In the fight against obesity, you might expect fast food chains to be Public Enemy Number One. However, the mayor chose to involve local chains as part of the solution by offering lower-calorie menu items. Chefs in restaurants competed to offer healthy meals and Taco Bell’s “Fresco” menu, featuring nine items with less than nine grams of fat, became the official menu of the city’s diet challenge. In interviews, Cornett explained this controversial decision by referring to his own struggle with weight loss. “Even when I lost weight I would go to a fast food place, although I might have a bean burrito without sour cream,” he said. “I could not stop people going to them, but I could try to make them more discerning with their orders. You can’t totally change people’s habits.”

In an era where employers often draw potential community college students away from higher education and into the labor market, what opportunities are there for community colleges to collaborate, rather than compete?

My colleague Lisa Qing and her team have researched this question over the past year, and found several examples of community colleges who have positioned themselves as the bridge between employers facing talent shortages for open positions and the millions of unemployed Americans searching for work. These institutions leverage their local employer connections and high-demand training programs to increase enrollments and serve the community at large.

One example from our research comes from a two-year college in Texas who partnered with Samsung to create a semiconductor technician apprenticeship program for local residents. As long as they maintain a 3.0 GPA in a relevant associate degree program, students can work part-time at Samsung. In exchange for early access to these high-performing students, Samsung agrees to sponsor their continued enrollment at the college while they’re employed. The partnership is a win-win for both organizations, and, most importantly, hugely beneficial for the students who participate.

Members of the Community College Executive Forum can learn more about best-in-class employer partnerships by signing up for an upcoming webconference.

Put a sustainable plan in place

After reading dozens of articles about Oklahoma City’s impressive 1 million-pound weight loss accomplishment, we realized that the story is by all measures old news. The mayor made the pledge in 2007, and the city reached its goal in 2012. Why has the story resurged in the last month? Part of the reason is that Oklahoma City continues to reinvent itself; city leaders have poured millions of dollars into public works projects with the aim of making the city more walkable and bike-friendly. These investments came out of an urban planning conundrum Mayor Cornett identified: “I came to the conclusion that we’d built an incredible quality of life if you happened to be a car….But if you happened to be a person, you were combating the car seemingly at every turn. We weren’t designing the streets for pedestrians; we were designing them to see how fast we could get cars through the area.” Thus, Cornett set out to remake the city by building it around the people who live there.

How can we rebuild our colleges around students to make our investments in student success sustainable?

Our student success research at EAB spans institutions of every type—public and private, urban and rural, two-year and four-year, and everything in between. When my colleagues and I in the community college space compare notes with researchers working with our university partners, several important similarities arise. The most striking finding is that every single institution that has moved the dial on student success long-term has done so through transformational change—redesigning their institution to suit students and optimize their academic experiences. For institutions committed to implementing a sustainable student success initiative, our aim at EAB is to support you at every step of the way. Our approach is informed by best practices across higher education, health care, private industry, and even from a formerly ”fat” Midwestern city.


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