What Are CANs?

Types of College Access/Success Networks
Since the start of the 
21st century, state and regions have developed several different models of college access and success networks. Researchers on collaboration often articulate three types of network models that nonprofits, or other entities operating in the social sector, might adopt when choosing to work together towards a goal. It can be described as cooperating, coordinating, or collaborating, depending on the depth of their interactivity. Additionally, many networks now embrace the Collective Impact model of network building.

Cooperating Network
A cooperating network is characterized by relatively informal relationships among organizations that may exist without any joint mission, structure or planning. There is relatively little risk to network members.

Members of a cooperating network may:

  • Create social environments that improve relationships.
  • Experiment with trust-based forms of engagement.
  • Model and explain best practices to one another.
  • Share information and work jointly to research conditions and document problems. 
  • Jointly test ideas and learn about different approaches to one another’s work.
  • Convene problem-solving or issue discussion sessions.
  • Develop network “relational” agreements and membership rules.

Coordinating Network
In a coordinating network, members bear slightly more risk and enjoy a more formal relationship and understanding of each other’s missions. There might be some more extensive planning and division of responsibility for network operations and communication. Members of coordinating networks may:

  • Carefully identify and pursue service or advocacy priorities.
  • Negotiate time, resource and energy commitments with one another.
  • Push their boundaries and commit to greater mutual interdependence.
  • Strengthen relationships by engaging in activities that require greater mutual reliance.
  • Surface differences and employ conflict or dispute resolution strategies.

Collaborating Network
In a collaborating network, members join together to form a new structure with full commitment to a common mission while each maintains their identity as a separate organization. This generally involves much more planning and communication wherein members may:

  • Pursue systems creation or reform and major policy initiatives. 
  • Self-enforce in accomplishment of tasks and activities.
  • Achieve and maintain a new or reformed system. 
  • Give up old ways, think freshly about a system and work differently.
  • Advocate for fundamental resource reallocation they may have resisted or protected.
  • Agree on how to permanently and radically alter ways of operating.
  • Re-think how they play their various roles within a larger system and how they relate to one another.
  • Develop detailed relational agreements and robust problem-solving, negotiating and conflict resolution methods.

Collective Impact 
Collective impact as a term entered the college access and success field when John Kania and Mark Kramer
described it in the Winter 2011 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, as a “disciplined effort to bring together dozens or even hundreds of organizations in a city (or field) to establish a common vision, adopt a shared set of measurable goals and pursue evidence-based actions that reinforce one another’s work and further those goals.” 

Since the description of the concept, and several additional articles and the launch of the Collective Impact Forum, many college access and success networks have used the collective impact elements to guide their network building. Kania and Kramer articulate five elements necessary in order to implement the vision of collective impact. They include:

  • Common Agenda: all participants must have a shared vision for change that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.
  • Shared Measurements: wherein all participating organizations agree on a short list of indicators to ensure that all efforts remain aligned and enabling participants to hold each other accountable and learn from each other’s successes and failures.
  • Mutually Reinforcing Activities: each partner undertakes the specific set of activities at which it excels in a way that supports and is coordinated with the actions of others.
  • Continuous Communication: in an effort to build up enough experience and trust among partners to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts.
  • Backbone Organizations: the expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails. The backbone organization requires a dedicated staff separate from the participating organizations who can plan, manage, and support the initiative through ongoing facilitation, technology and communications support, data collection and reporting, and handling the myriad logistical and administrative details needed for the initiative to function smoothly.

History of Networks
In Ohio, the directors of several independent college access programs were already calling on one another for advice, debating the effectiveness of various interventions, and advocating for state support for first-generation students. Joining together to form the Ohio College Access Network (OCAN) in 1999 was the natural next step. OCAN’s original mission was to both support its charter members and help start new college access programs throughout the state. OCAN paid special attention to helping in communities where students did not have adequate access to information about education beyond high school. Over the years, OCAN has gathered data that supports its claim that the creating of a statewide network greatly expands college access and success for high school students. Using this model, NCAN began supporting network development through its membership, and foundations such as Lumina and Kresge began funding networks nationwide. There are now more than 20 states with statewide college access networks.

NCAN Network Experience
NCAN’s board and staff watched with interest the success of OCAN and soon expanded their own work to encourage and support the development of additional statewide networks. Initially, the new networks were based on the OCAN model which included starting new locally-based college access programs. Since then, there have been many variations on the original theme. These organizations now range from one-person operations to those with a staff of eight or nine and have budgets ranging from $0 to more than two million dollars. Their funding comes from a variety of sources including grants from foundations to line items in the state budget to conference registration fees. Their mission statements vary but their common purpose is to increase both the numbers and percentage of the state’s population that enrolls and succeeds in postsecondary education.

NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook states, “Access and success networks are a key strategy for coordinating student services within states and regions and organizing cross-sector efforts to increase college attainment. With more than 40 networks around the country, there has been an explosion of effective practices.” As the home to most of these college access and success networks, NCAN is committed to learning more about their operations and successes and provide technical assistance to help them be more successful. Ultimately, NCAN’s interest in this work is to ensure that these networks and their member programs have the capacity to help more low income, first generation students can achieve their dreams of a postsecondary degree.


Network Guidebooks
Overall, NCAN's Creating and Operating a Statewide or Regional College Access and Success Guidebook can be used to create a network following any of the above mentioned formats. In additional to NCAN’s Guidebook, our Network Guidebook page references similar resources.

Statewide College Access Network Directory
There are 20 states with statewide college access networks and over 100 communities with college access collaborations in some format including those following the collective impact framework and those with local college access networks.