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Community Colleges

Coming of Age

Community colleges grow in a time of challenge and opportunity.
University Business, Jan 2006

This month, University Business kicks off this bimonthly column focusing on the realm of community colleges. Like other parts of the magazine, the column will offer advice and comments from college leaders, data, and real-world examples on issues and solutions of interest to any IHE decision-maker.

Two-year colleges have educated millions of students, but they have also suffered from the Rodney Dangerfield treatment (yup, that respect thing). These days, they're garnering real kudos in academic and other circles. "They are being recognized more than ever as economic hubs, where the rubber hits the road," observes Gerardo de los Santos, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Yet along with increased opportunities have come challenges. "Community colleges are under considerable pressure," says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Growing enrollments, degree candidates who drop out, under-prepared students, and stretched-thin budgets comprise just a few of the realities.

With change in the air for community colleges nationwide, it's time to get the conversation started. Here are eight ways community colleges offer fresh responses to their most demanding issues.

The community college movement boomed in the 1960s and '70s, so it's coming up against an intimidating wave of retirements. To help schools fill their gaps, AACC released in April a set of standard competencies for leaders. The competencies--developed with input from hundreds of people through the Leading Forward initiative--lay out details on areas relevant to IHE leaders: organizational strategy, resource management, communication, collaboration, advocacy, and professionalism. The report opens the doors wide by noting that leadership can be learned and leaders can come from all positions on the playing field.

Led by strong and perceptive individuals, community colleges can play a role in keeping certain wavering industries vital. The National Network for Pulp and Paper Technology Training, known as (npt)2, has grown out of Alabama Southern Community College and now includes community colleges, universities, pulp and paper companies, the National Science Foundation, and other organizations. Noted for its workforce preparation and collaboration efforts, the network gives students scholarships and helps them locate internships. Partner businesses also contribute funds, as well as folks to teach courses and mentor students.

(npt)2 enforces industry standards and gives students cutting-edge technology and experience, promoting growth from the bottom up. "Collaboration is absolutely essential," says Randy Parker, principal investigator and director of the network. Up next: a likely new certification for pulp and paper technicians.

What about those students who start with good intentions but wander astray? In the 1980s, Daytona Beach Community College (Fla.) started a database to track students who had completed substantial amounts of credit hours but, for various reasons, dropped out. This fall, DBCC gave people in the database the equivalent of a big hug. The college sent letters to about 3,000 of them, serving up words of encouragement as well as a 25 percent discount on fall tuition.

The effort netted nearly 120 students, according to Glyn Johnston, director of Marketing and Communications. "The fact of the matter is that when you look at the profile for community college students, the majority are working adults," he says. "Some kind of financial incentive can help." While the college originally meant to send the letters just once, it is considering churning out more for fall 2006.

Community colleges are realizing that not everyone is prepared to bridge the daunting gap between secondary and higher education. "I think our obligation is to ensure that we do everything we can to make sure our kids make it through the college pipeline," says Cece Cunningham, director of the Middle College National Consortium at LaGuardia Community College (N.Y.).

Launched through two high schools at LaGuardia, the Early College High School initiative creates schools at which students earn a high school diploma and an associate's degree (or up to two years of credits toward a bachelor's degree) in an abbreviated period of time. Of the 67 Early College High Schools in existence, more than 70 percent have partnered with two-year colleges, notes the initiative's website, And from the pilot classes at LaGuardia's two high schools, more than two-thirds of students will have obtained associate's degrees by June.

El Centro College in downtown Dallas--like many schools--has found the perfect elixir for a student body stretched by jobs, family responsibilities, and long commutes. Just a few years ago, the community college offered a handful of distance learning courses. This spring, El Centro will have 112 distance options on its roster.

"Our issue is, how do we serve more students?" notes Tuck Minnett, director of Distance Education for ECC. El Centro has adopted Blackboard's course management technology as well as Tegrity's distance learning capabilities. The technologies have cranked up student satisfaction: An institutional survey in October found that nearly three-quarters of students believed Tegrity's functionalities contributed to their learning and 60 percent were more motivated.

Now El Centro is constructing a new building outfitted with high-tech tools ideal for distance education. "We're using these technologies to spread what we're doing," says Minnett.

Just about every college wants to grow its offerings, but most also understand limited budgets. Capital Community College (Conn.) has sown seeds for area economic growth while also impacting revenue.

The key has been picking a core function of the college--technology training--and expanding it as a reliable, ongoing resource for business in the state. Through its Information Technology Academic Center of Connecticut, the college offers 10 courses every semester developed with the assistance of business leaders. Financially, the center bolsters all parties. "Business experts have now come and helped design curriculum. If we had to pay for that, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Linda Guzzo, dean of Continuing Education and Economic and Workforce Development. The college also reaps the benefit of additional internship and employment opportunities, and gets added respect. "We are seen as an equal partner," notes Guzzo.

Community colleges are turning outward to build relationships but also inward to understand students. Broward Community College (Fla.) recently began a program to support--and hopefully, graduate--the most under-prepared students entering through its doorways. "Our goal is to bring a much more intensive-care, case-management approach," says Ted Wright, special assistant to the president for Strategic Initiatives.

Broward's work, funded by the Lumina Foundation through the Achieve the Dream initiative, revolves around remedial coursework, intensive guidance, and vigorous data collection and tracking. New students considered most at-risk must enroll in a "Student Success" course that focuses on academic skills and is led by a "success coach," who also meets with each student outside class throughout the semester.

Data remains crucial, as a team at Broward is designing processes to capture the interactions between students and coaches. The ultimate goal is to help all under-prepared students, not just those who are new, obtain degrees.

A new Maryland program offers a solution to a problem that stumps many states: how to accommodate growing numbers of students in the system. Through the Maryland Transfer Advantage Program, students who have a minimum GPA and complete a certain amount of hours at Prince George's Community College or Montgomery College will get guaranteed admission to University of Maryland.

The program gives students tuition discounts and access to U of M advisors and classes after just one year at the community college level. It nudges students toward bachelor's degrees early on and increases the likelihood that they will complete degrees. Says C.D. Mote Jr., president of the U of M: "To students, the program is a bridge to a clear, unbroken path toward a four-year degree."

That path, as well as other ways toward success, remain a focus of community colleges around the country. In the months to come, this column will take a closer look at how the issues are playing out.

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