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Help wanted: Risk-taking community college presidents

In a new study, researchers defined the top five traits shared by community college presidents whose institutions have high student success numbers.
University Business, August 2013

A “willingness to take significant risks to advance student success” is a quality often overlooked by hiring boards in the search for community college leaders, says Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence program.

The Aspen Institute and Achieving the Dream, Inc. (a nonprofit that pushes higher ed reform) recently released “Crisis and Opportunity: Aligning the Community College Presidency with Student Success.” As part of the study, researchers defined the top five traits shared by community college presidents whose institutions have high student success numbers.

“Trustees and other hiring authorities are typically risk-averse when they look to hire a new president because they do not want a president who will take a vote of no confidence,” Wyner says.

While careless risk taking is clearly undesired, hiring boards would do well to look beyond seeking great communicators and fundraisers and instead hire a president who is willing to take the risks necessary to take on the upcoming crisis facing community colleges, Wyner says. According to the report, due to demographic shifts and the need for a more educated population, soon community colleges will need to produce higher quality degrees to a larger than ever, more diverse population.

Stephen VanAusdle, president of Walla Walla Community College (Wash.), says one of the other traits, “allocating resources in ways aligned to student success,” is also key. For example, at Walla Walla, money was set aside to hire “completion coaches.” These are vital advisors who assist with course planning and encourage students to persist, he says. Enrollment is only the first step toward success; completion coaches help students finish what they started.

Bill Trueheart, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, says “a deep commitment to student access and success” drives an influential president to create sustainable change in student success rates. “This commitment usually leads to ensuring you have transparent data and a board that is well-informed and well-educated on your goals for the institution,” he says. “These factors need to be in place to make change happen.”

Trueheart says he believes the number of presidents who embody these traits is on the rise. “I think the leadership in the community college world has not been well recognized. There is a special passion that draws one to a community college and work with an intensity to instill change.”

The full study can be found at

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