In a recent piece, we argued that colleges need to do more to support adult learners and nontraditional students. As a variety of studies have pointed out, the needs of college students aren’t always purely academic; they often include basic needs like food, shelter, childcare, and healthcare. Many schools take the perspective that these needs are outside the purview of their institutions—but the result is that students are far less likely to succeed in college if they are homeless or hungry. In the long run, if schools ignore these circumstances, both students and colleges lose.

Innovation theory can help shed light on how colleges can be successful by integrating around student needs. Jobs Theory states that people don’t simply buy products or services; they pull them into their lives to make progress against a particular set of circumstances. We call this progress the “Job” they are trying to get done, and understanding this opens a world of innovation possibilities. Innovating against a Job, rather than against a particular product category, enables organizations to develop products, services, and experiences that align with what customers are already trying to accomplish. Schools that are serious about integrating around students’ Jobs to be Done are better positioned to help students be successful—and to build successful business models themselves.

job levels

Luckily, some colleges are making strides in this direction. We sat down with President Dan Phelan of Jackson College, a community college in Michigan with 7,000 students, which has recently undertaken a series of innovative steps to tackle the needs of its students.

Alana: Jackson College has recently taken a number of steps to more holistically meet the needs of students. What kinds of changes have you made, and what new services are you providing?

President Phelan: Our approach follows significant work around cultural change at Jackson College. After substantial research, benchmarking, etc., we adopted Total Commitment to Student Success (TCS2) as our ‘north star.’ What followed from this were a variety of activities that included new hiring and onboarding processes, new union contracts, new performance evaluation methodologies, customer-centric focus, new compensation metrics, and the creation of institutional beliefs. We have been working to translate TCS2 into actionable activities to prototype, study, modify, and scale. Much of our current effort has been focusing on the ‘whole student.’

Practically speaking, the ‘whole student’ encompasses not only who they are on campus, but also the life they bring with them and the many challenges and barriers that preclude their ability to be successful. We believe that, to the degree that we can work to either ameliorate or at least blunt some of those barriers, then the possibility for a student to enroll and succeed at Jackson College is heightened. To that end, we have added a Medical Clinic on campus, in partnership with our local hospital. This arrangement has the dual benefit of also serving as a clinical site for our nursing and allied health students. We also partnered with a local mental health organization in town when we constructed the Oasis Center, in response to documented need. Interestingly, we have found the Center to be used equally by our employees. We have also brought a barber on campus for students. These services are provided at low or no cost to the student.

This fall semester, we opened a Dental Hygiene Lab and degree program. We are working to provide opportunities for students to receive free oral care. Additionally, we have added increasing transportation options for students through bus service paid for by the College. We are also piloting Jet Packs for students (sack meals) who are hungry, again at no cost (this is in addition to our free food pantry on campus). We are also discussing how we might be able to address housing security. Finally, we are considering how we might also better address child care, single parent housing, and ocular health for our students.

Why did the leadership at Jackson College come to believe that these changes were necessary?

We have observed declining social services available for students in our various communities. Additionally, we have found, through conversations with students, that they may not know where or how to access those services, if they even do exist. Our research has also revealed that students have a sense of pride that often precludes them from accessing services, even when they are sorely needed. Much of the research from Sara Goldrick-Rab indicates that the food and housing insecurity of our students is escalating.

Yes, we are an institution of higher education. But if our students are fully occupied with other personal, mental or physical concerns, they will either choose to pass on education or likely be unsuccessful in their pursuit of it.

Was there resistance to focusing on services that are not traditionally part of the college offering?

Actually, our culture has evolved in such a way that it seemed only logical (under TCS2) that we should be doing this. Where we can, we are partnering with others, other organizations, and our foundation to find the resources to bring to bear. Our work with Saul Kaplan and AFIT, as well as our research and professional development reading in texts such as Clayton Christensen’s Competing Against Luck and W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne Blue Ocean Strategy have been marvelous tools to incorporate on our journey toward innovative and new business model development.

What new partnerships did this lead to in the community?

We now have partnerships with our dental community, our mental health community providers, and hospitals. On top of these, we have incorporated community advisory groups to help guide our thinking and planning. We have also engaged leaders of minority groups and church leaders to assist in our work. We have partnered with middle schools and have provided full funding for Challenge Day on campus for a week, as a way to address bullying and student interpersonal issues.

For schools that are interested in taking a similar approach, what advice do you have for them? What makes programs like this possible?

All of this work begins with addressing organizational culture. Without addressing culture full-on, in a deep and abiding way, your efforts will not be hard-wired and permanent, thereby allowing the college to slip back into its old ways. To address culture, you have to be crystal clear on the type of culture you want to create. You must be patient and realize it will take 7-10 years to change the culture. You must have the board and organizational leadership committed to the work that will be required. Know that there will be lots of stress and angst along the way, but you must address it. To attend to advancing the culture you want, you must begin with the people you have now, what they are committed to, or willing to commit to. You must hire, train, hold to account, and evaluate by the culture. You must be hyper-vigilant to ensure that you and your organization be laser-focused on its achievement.

How are these new programs affecting student outcomes, and how are they affecting Jackson College?

There has been a palpable change in our ethos and culture. Our employees are working together like never before in my 18 years of tenure here. They are creative, innovative, and realizing that their work in the service of others is life changing. The creation of our beliefs has helped to clarify what matters. The student performance metric data are moving in the right direction. We are oftentimes finding potential employees and students are seeking us out. The perception of the College in the community is different. Our Board (Policy Governance structured), gives the bulk of their attention at each meeting on student success reporting (called ENDs). It’s a privilege to serve here.


  • Alana Dunagan
    Alana Dunagan