King shares what the Sacramento K-16 Collaborative means for adult learners and ProjectAttain!’s role as the collaborative’s backbone organization

In May 2022, the Office of the Governor announced that the Capital Region would receive 18.1 million as part of the K-16 Education Collaboratives Grant Program, a ground-breaking program that will provide new pathways to career opportunities for students in their local communities, addressing long-standing equity challenges in higher education, and workforce participation.

Dr. Brian King addressing an audience.

Photo Credit: Bruce Clarke @ Sacramento State

ProjectAttain! is set to be the hub for the Sacramento K-16 Collaborative with the Los Rios Community College district serving as the fiscal agent. Allison Shaw sat down with Dr. Brian King to chat about what the collaborative means for adult learners and ProjectAttain!’s role.

Shaw: What was your education pathway? Are you a comebacker yourself, or did you have a straight through trajectory?

King: My path was pretty straight. I graduated from high school, went straight to college, got a four-year degree, went to law school, and passed the bar at 24. That’s pretty much the definition of the straight path.

Shaw: How did your career take shape from starting out with that vision to where you ended up?

King: Being a decade-long chancellor for a community college district certainly wasn’t the plan. I went to work for a big law firm, and it was not a good fit for me. There are a lot of teachers in my family, and I thought I would do that for a year and figure out what I wanted to do. That one-year detour turned out to be a career.

Shaw: What is your favorite thing about being the chancellor?

King: I think my favorite thing is that there’s no one thing, that the variety is endless, so boredom and tedium is never a problem. Every week there is a new, interesting issue, particularly in the last few years, and in the pandemic a lot of things that we thought would take years we found out we could do more quickly.

Shaw: Can you share an example?

King: The big one would be the pivot to remote instruction and services. Where we had previously had a lot of resistance to that, or we can’t do it, and students all want a warm hand off and a personal interaction, and I think we’ve seen definitively that for better or worse many times students prefer an electronic transaction, particularly for transactional services.

Shaw: When you think about the four community colleges under your leadership, where do you see them making great strides at excelling and serving the non-traditional or adult student community?

King: Community colleges have always had a focus on non-traditional students and recognizing those students as a significant pool of students who need our services will refocus some of those efforts. At the same time, the K-16 grant will also help with removing barriers for traditional high school students.

We serve the whole community at every point of their life cycle, and I think, coming out of the pandemic and focusing on enrollment management, there will be a renewed emphasis on adult learners and what an important group of students that is for our colleges.

Shaw: Do you have any specific thoughts to how schools might pursue those students that are different from how they might have done so in the past?

King: I think we’ll use more data to recognize them. One thing that we found is there are better sources of information to target students who have some services now that can identify students who have started college so that the marketing materials don’t have to be a shotgun approach and can be more direct. I think some of the technological improvements will really help us pinpoint who those students are and have a specific focus for them as opposed to just a broad message.

Shaw: How would you define what collaboration between higher education and workforce should look like?

King: We have a similar audience, but different approaches. I think most students overwhelmingly consider their education as advancing their workforce goals and their economic goals and as a region we need to recognize that. We need to be lowering some of those barriers and blowing up some of the silos between our academic programs and our workforce programs. I think if we can better align with being responsive to our employers in the region throughout the ecosystem of education that’s a real opportunity for our K-16 Collaborative.

Shaw: I think both sides look at it and say, “Well, obviously we should work together right?” and yet it’s not something that we succeed at on a regional level. What do you think are the barriers that keep education and workforce on different tracks?

King: I think at a high level, our region is very large. In the K-16 Collaborative we’re far and away the largest region that was funded. To align with workforce, we need to get better aligned on the educational side.  From a student standpoint we need to make it seamless and really clear how to get the credential they need for the workforce. Then, if we can get aligned on the educational side, we have a lot better opportunity to sit down with employers and say, “Here’s the inventory of services, we have. Is this meeting your needs and if not, how do we adjust?” One reason that I think our region was funded is that the different segments of higher education have worked together well.

Shaw: When you see regional collaboration going well, what does that look like to you?

King: I think effective regional collaboration has to cut through some of the structures. As we’re rolling out the K-16 Collaborative who’s on which committee and which committee decides what in a region so large, it’s very easy to get pulled into those decisions. I think good regional collaboration happens when you get the resources and you push them out to the field, have some parameters, and let people get to work.

With really effective regional collaboration you don’t have a lot of executive community meetings with people sitting around talking about governance. It’s not that governance isn’t important, but I think really skinny governance is the way to go and you have a small group of goals that everyone agrees on. If you have 60 goals, you’re going to accomplish nothing. If you have two or three, your chance of success is much greater.

Good regional collaboration is really focused. You have measurable goals where you’re able to count the number of students who are impacted and you’re relying on the people on the ground to use the resources well with some clear parameters. We’re now at the point where we’re really going to be able to leverage the relationships of trust that have been built to live with that ambiguity and get the money to the people.

Shaw: I’m sensing a theme.

King: I’m not subtle. I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my life. Some of them are productive and in some of them—I’m sort of at a point where, if I think that that meetings are serving political purposes and not helping students, we can have fewer of them.

Shaw: When you look back on K-16 Collaborative in five years, or maybe even 10 years, what do you want to be able to point to and say, “We did that!”?

King: We don’t do dual role enrollment particularly well in our CERF region and I’m pointing at my district when I say that. Los Rios is the largest community college provider in the area, and we haven’t made the headway in dual enrollment that I had hoped we would have when the state passed legislation several years ago.

If we could create a more seamless infrastructure between Los Rios and Sacramento State; we’ve struggled for years to do reverse transfer for a lot of complicated political reasons that we need to just power through so that students who have completed the units at Sacramento State would qualify for our degree at Los Rios. We need to figure out how to get those degrees to our students by removing some of the friction that exists in California.

And then, in terms of adult students and our comebackers, there’s a lot of data out there about the students who have some college, but no degree. There are clear metrics for success in that. So that would be another area in five years, where we should be able to look back and say, “We vastly improved the number of adults who earned a certificate or a degree in the five years of the K-16 Collaborative.”

The hope would be that we will then have created a sustainable partnership that will last for a long time and implemented systems change so that those are just the ways we do business. This is just how it works now so come on and jump on board.

Shaw: Do you see other portions of the K-16 work where support for adults would really be key?

King: In addition to reverse transfer, having a very focused marketing campaign for adult learners will be important. And I think online is really going to be crucial. Our inventory of online course content is going to be vastly larger than it was before the pandemic. Figuring out a way to provide opportunities for adult learners to earn associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees remotely is an important strategy, because of the complexity of adult learners’ lives when they have families and jobs. Even if we think it would be better for them to come on campus, the reality is going to be that many just aren’t able to.

Shaw: How do you see ProjectAttain!, positioned to be the backbone organization for the regional K-16 Collaborative, working in collaboration with the other partners on the K-16 grant?

King: Overnight the role of ProjectAttain! grew quite a bit to include the K-16 Collaborative, which was far beyond the original mission of ProjectAttain! when we pivoted from Align Capital Region. I think ProjectAttain! is the right organization for figuring out how to have all the leaders feel like they have a seat at the table. It is always an interesting dynamic.

ProjectAttain!’s role will be operationalizing the grant. And then how do we get some of the CEO types back in our role of high-level macro leadership and figure out how what staffing level we need in that backbone organization.

 Clearly the adult learner goals are within the wheelhouse of ProjectAttain! long term. And we need one organization that is the keeper of all the metrics.

Shaw: You are part of ProjectAttain! serving on the ProjectAttain! board and supporting the K-16 Collaborative. Why do you personally, or as the chancellor of Los Rios as a district, choose to back and believe in ProjectAttain!?

King: I’ve always been a big believer in finding a way to better align the region. We want to engage the whole region and figure out how we can really have an impact on students in a way that’s measurable and then create an infrastructure that will live on when the grant funding is gone.

I think refocusing on a very narrow goal was appealing after we had tried to do more than we possibly could [with Align Capitol Region]. The appeal was, we went from solving everything to a narrow focus, and I think the fact that we had made that transition allows us to pivot our focus. ProjectAttain! was refocused on students and educational goals, and even though the K-16 grant opens up other territories and other priorities, it’s still very focused on the ecosystem of cradle-to-grave and cradle-to-career education. That’s where I feel most comfortable at this point in life.