The future of community colleges

When people talk about higher education, they often limit their discussion to four-year institutions and traditional university students aged 18 to 22. But that focus ignores much of the story: the expansive and crucial role community colleges played, especially in educating non-traditional students. To give an idea of ​​their reach, there are over 1,000 community colleges across the country and together they enroll over 40 percent of all undergraduate students. Many of these students are often less well served by four-year institutions, including adult learners, those from low-income families, single parents, first-generation students and veterans.

To delve deeper into the specific challenges these institutions face, how they can evolve to better meet the needs of students and their communities, and the ideal characteristics of those who run them, The Chronicle recently hosted a virtual forum with several community college leaders. The conversation, chaired by Liz McMillen, Editor-in-Chief of The Chronicle, included Keith Curry, President and CEO of Compton College; Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College; Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College; and Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream and past president of Montgomery County Community College, Pennsylvania. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Liz McMillen: When you think about the future of community colleges, what do you think are the most pressing issues the sector needs to address?

Russell Lowery-Hart: There are two big issues that are going to affect us in the long run if we can’t fix them now. One is housing and food insecurity, which prevents students from obtaining the degrees they seek or the skills they develop. The other is that we need to completely reinvent the way we structure ourselves to acquire workplace skills that lead to a living wage for the family. It means moving away from an academic model developed over a century and partnering with our workforce to reimagine where learning happens, how it happens and with whom it happens.

Pam Eddinger: There is a great urgency now, especially in our communities of color and our communities of poverty, to get people back to work. And not just to put them back in the jobs they used to have, but in better jobs that are sustainable and will support our communities. It takes more thinking about what we offer as programs and how these programs can fit into a lifelong learning path that will give families and our students one path forward and not just create another. second-class, low-wage class of workers.

Karen Stout: We are challenged, as a sector, to really step up and bridge the growing gaps in our communities around access and success. We are facing an equity crisis and we need to think differently in this next post-pandemic arc of our work on how we measure our success as colleges. We have gone through this movement of completion. Focusing on completion is important, but we haven’t really opened our eyes to thinking about ROI for our students. But also return on community investment. Can we take the lessons we learn from our university transformation work and incorporate them into our community transformation work, with us as activists? Not as passive participants in this ecosystem, but as catalysts, truly helping to build equitable and prosperous communities.

McMillen: Pam, you talked about the need for a new social contract for this generation that looks like what we saw after WWII. What does the new model look like for a community college? What is he doing differently?

Eddinger: The new community college is for me a hub where we welcome not only our students, but all the support systems that go with them. So whether it’s education nonprofits, basic service providers, or community activist organizations that provide identity and support to students, we need to open up our doors and host them all. We cannot do it all on our own. The community college president then becomes the person to open the door and make these covenants. The new social contract is really about a new alliance and an alignment of values ​​and mission. The idea of ​​an activist president and an activist scholar is at the heart of it all. Education is nothing if you cannot get the health care, transportation, child care, and basic needs all woven together to support that student.

McMillen: Can we know the jobs of tomorrow? How well do you think community colleges are for this?

Lowery-Hart: Community colleges are perhaps the strongest point of response to our existing workforce needs, and we’re going to have to position ourselves as leaders in our local communities to help even existing businesses adapt. In my local community alone, we spend so much time adapting to the needs of our workforce, and during the pandemic we have seen opportunities to build truly transformational skills in technology, robotics and artificial intelligence. . We’re going to provide skills that our local employers don’t even know they need yet. I think we have a unique opportunity to come together to solve the problems of large companies like Amazon, who currently need 10,000 cloud architects, while helping our existing local economies and workforce partners to reinvent their own processes.

Keith Curry: We need to make sure we create a structured and funded organization to meet the needs of our students. When I think of workforce development, or humanities, or liberal studies, the question is, how do we structure the organization so that students can recognize that they are our # 1 priority and that we want to help them achieve their educational or career goals? This is where heavy lifting comes in. The lifting of heavy loads concerns a lot of structural work. We want what we are doing now to be long term. We cannot say tomorrow that we are not focusing on workforce development.

Eddinger: Sometimes we talk about the future of work as if everything is a monolith, and we talk about workforce development as if all of our students are alike. To be effective we must realize that the students we are preparing now have different levels of understanding or are at different stages of life. The traditional 17 and 18 year olds do not have the same knowledge base as our adult students who are 20, 30 and 40 years old. So I’m always worried when people talk about workforce development as if it’s all one. thing. English learning and adult basic education are huge in my part of the world because of the gateway cities and the immigrants arriving. And a lot of my students don’t need to learn to work, they’re already in the job market, and so the traditional thought that we’re going to put them on unpaid internships to learn how to work, it doesn’t. is not for them. Community colleges are not four-year colleges. We have to deal with 10 different things at the same time and get everyone into the job market. We’re a very different type of educational institution, and I don’t think we’ve received the credit that is due to us.

McMillen: I want to know your take on the role of faculty development and training. What does it take to create a curriculum that meets what is most needed and less what faculty and administrators already know how to do?

Beer: In the student success movement, we did a lot of work and shifted the needle a bit as we worked around the edges of the classroom. We had a collective blind spot as leaders when we started this redesign work, and we believed we could do it without hitting the faculty. We have gone beyond that. We now deeply understand that faculty are essential co-creators of both classroom instructional work and also curriculum design and course-to-course connection to form a degree or diploma that will help students achieve. A degree. living wage.

Curry: Data is critical. We need to make sure faculty have real-time data on their students’ success and retention, and that the Institutional Effectiveness Office provides them with this data in a timely manner so that they can review and make changes. to their teaching. We also need to provide them with support for what they can do differently to make those changes. We need to recognize that we need to devote more resources to teaching and learning and rely on faculty to provide advice on how we can best help them work with our students.

McMillen: Keith, you said the president was a lawyer and an activist. Some people wonder if this is the right kind of role for a community college president. What do you think the leader of the community colleges of the future looks like?

Curry: We have several roles. If I don’t stand up for my students, who else will? If I know my students face racism, am I supposed to sit down and say nothing? If my students are facing housing or food insecurity, I must advocate for resources for them. So I have to be an activist, I have to be an advocate, I have to be an educator. As a black man from Compton, that adds another level of responsibility. As I look to the future, we must have equity-minded leaders who are able to adapt quickly to what is happening to our students.

Eddinger: I am talking about longevity. If you look at the average number of years that community college CEOs currently serve, you wonder how they do anything. It takes time to sow seeds and to lead the kind of change we’ve all been talking about. You can’t do this in three years. There is a cycle of growth, and before you come down from the top, you have to think about the next cycle of growth in order to keep the institution moving. For me, it takes at least two years to plant seeds and get to know college, and a few more years to develop the programs to the point where they can be independent and large-scale. If you spend less than four or five years in a position, are you really growing up and running a college?

Lowery-Hart: Our country needs higher education more deeply today than at any time in our history, but it does not need the history of higher education. We need to produce leaders who don’t care about titles, they just care about students and communities. This means that everyone in my college is a leader who is challenged to love our students to be successful with the structures we put in place. The moment we are all needs us.

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