I recently had an opportunity to talk shop with a dozen community college presidents from around the country. The similarities – personal and professional – were fascinating. We are all focused, somewhat intense people, and we all have a passion for all things academic. We are, in a sense, higher education nerds. Being in the group was comforting, too. It is rare to share a story about the power of programming students in cohorts and see enthusiastic nodding heads. It is also an excellent forum to learn.
After reviewing where each of our colleges are and where we need to go, what struck me is that we all face like challenges and have prioritized in mostly the same ways. In fact, the degree of overlap is high enough that I took notes so that I could make it public here. There is definitely a shared agenda.
What is on the mind of many community college presidents today? Our common issues include:
Pathways – how best to organize courses into structures. Smorgasbords of courses do not lead to student completion. Students need curriculum to be organized. In fact, when given the chance, students ask for it. Colleges are wrestling with the best way to build pathways, recruit students into them, and support students on their paths to completion.
Everyone is keen on better advising in support of these pathways and completion. One-on-one discussions are recognized as helpful and necessary, but not necessarily enough. Colleges have to engineer environments that include intrusive advising, structured support, and a host of student support services to facilitate student success.
Developmental Education is the greatest barrier to student success in community colleges. It is where we have the highest levels of failure. Figuring out how to meet the students where they are and how to help them get to college level work quickly, efficiently, and effectively is a shared priority. Without gains in developmental education, far too many students will never obtain a degree or certificate. This is essential work.
Early College is a strategy that many colleges use to circumvent the swamp of developmental education. While often demanding in terms of logistics and management, early college can also help with enrollment and reputation. It gives many students a strong sense that they belong in college. Everyone I spoke with is expanding or experimenting with their early college efforts. Another way of thinking about early college: it is a means to integrate vertically within our larger educational ecosystem.
A different sort of integration is necessary when it comes to pathways to careers and jobs. These are consistently difficult to come by and an essential measure of student success. All community college presidents I spoke with referenced greater connection with industry partners, more robust partnerships, and the need to beef up internships and placement. It is not enough to have industry review a course or curriculum. We all want business to invest in our students. We have to be confident that our career-focused students earn an education and credentials that get them into the workplace and give them tools for advancement.
Everyone talked about the need for current and relevant curriculum. We discussed how curriculum reform entails more than supporting faculty work and gathering information from industry and four-year institutions. It is about a creating and bolstering a college culture that expects ongoing curricular review. It also means different relationships with faculty.
We all face uncertain funding that we expect will make for increasingly tight budgets. Accompanying constraints on our resources will be heightened expectations. No one anticipates a significant inflow of resources. The phrase we all mouthed: it essential to do more with less.
Whether we call it data analytics, or some variation of advanced metrics, everyone was increasingly dependent upon their systems and analytic expertise. We love data and talk data. It is the only way one can do more with less. Everyone had stories and anecdotes about this data or that study, or how a particular report pulled work in an unexpected direction. All of us, by necessity, have become social scientists.
All of the college presidents I talked with are looking at IT curricula in one form or another. We do not know if any particular IT certificate or degree will necessarily lead to a job. It is a rapidly changing field and keeping up with innovation is well-neigh impossible. All of us, though, regularly hear that the absence of IT skills or credentials is a significant anchor on our students’ professional options and development. The answer? More IT skills, programs, degrees, and opportunities woven throughout the two-year college world.
Finally, we all agreed that managing change is a massive part of our responsibilities. It is a critical part of navigating a career in twenty-first century higher education. Nothing remains fixed today. Being able to think through change, help people handle change, and turning the ubiquitous lemons into lemonade is simply vital to institutional success and peace of mind.
Missing or rarely mentioned were several topics that are frequently touted in the higher education media: free community colleges, accreditation reform, and the value of a college degree. They did not have traction with us. Perhaps we are too pragmatic for these issues.
I found it reassuring that woven throughout our discussion was one consistent and recurring goal: a focus on student success.