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Community Colleges

Leading the Charge for Change

Community college leaders speak out
University Business, Nov 2011

Leaders from 16 community colleges around the country gathered at the White House in September to participate in a roundtable discussion on the role community colleges play in America. The discussion was part of the Obama administration’s Champions of Change program, a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping to meet the many challenges of the 21st century. Education Gateways recently spoke to four of the Champions of Change honorees about the challenges and opportunities they face as presidents of their institutions. They are: Charlene Dukes, Prince George’s Community College (Md.); Liang Chee Wee, Northeast Iowa Community College; Dick Shaink, Mott Community College (Mich.); and Robert Templin, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). An excerpt of that conversation follows.

What does it mean to you and your institution to be named a Champion of Change by the White House?

Dukes: I believe, not just for the 16 community colleges that were named, but for the 1,200 community colleges around the country, that it’s another indication of the role that President Obama and his administration believe community colleges can play as we look at increasing the number of citizens with some sort of academic credential beyond high school.

‘We monitor and solicit feedback from faculty and students for quality, consistency, and improvement’s sake.’ —Liang Chee Wee, Northeast Iowa Community College

Wee: Our selection as a Champion of Change is an honor for Northeast Iowa Community College, and it affirms that we are truly providing accessible, affordable, quality education to meet the needs of the communities we serve. We are dedicated to providing educational opportunities to people from all walks of life and supporting employers of all sizes by offering credit and noncredit programs in innovative ways that meet industry needs.

Shaink: It’s great to have the White House and such a prestigious organization as the Aspen Group verify the fact that we are doing what we say we are doing for student success. The pride within the college and the community is incredible. Particularly for an area like Flint, Mich., it is very gratifying and very positive.

An alarming number of young people are graduating high school ill-prepared for college studies. What programs do you have in place to help these students succeed?

Templin: The fastest growing part of our student population is recent high school grads, and more than half of them are entering NOVA not prepared to do college-level work. Over the past six years, NOVA has been working with the region’s school divisions on a program called Pathway to the Baccalaureate. The college taps first-generation students who are likely not prepared while they are still sophomores or juniors to participate in a program designed to accelerate their readiness for college. This year, we will have more than 40 high schools and some 6,500 students involved in this program, and the results we’ve seen so far are pretty spectacular. They are entering NOVA usually with college credit because they begin their college experience when they are still high school students, and they are graduating at twice the rate of our other students.

Dukes: About 70 percent of the people who apply to attend for the first time have a need for developmental courses. Not every student has a need to take every subject. By far, the subject most students have to take is math. We offer two-week math review courses. If students sign up for those courses, they will often jump one or two levels in terms of their math background, so it reduces the time they have to spend in those classes, and they can move on to taking the courses that apply to the degrees they are pursuing.

But shouldn’t these things be done earlier, that is, in high school?

Dukes: Clearly that should be done in high school, but I think we have to explain that. Most high school students are finished with their math requirements no later than their junior year. So if they finish early, the vast majority are not engaging in any kind of math work in their senior year. Most of us don’t walk away from high school dealing with quadratic equations. We add, subtract, divide, and multiply. These students need to be reintroduced to the things they have forgotten.

Technology—particularly online learning—is touted as a way to make education more accessible to more people. What role does it play in the success of your institution?

Templin: It is the fastest growing part of our enrollment, up 12 percent to 15 percent each year. This year, we’ll have more than 20,000 students engaged in distance learning, and we’ll offer our distance learning platform to other colleges in the Virginia community college system. Through a shared-services format, we can make distance education available to rural and remote locations where they may not have the capacity or the kinds of offerings that we can make available. We have a proprietary structure, in partnership with a few private providers, where we’ve woven together 24/7 online learning, as well as around-the-clock tech support and tutoring services.

Industry ‘advisory committees help us identify needs and develop a workforce that can meet those needs.’ —Dick Shaink, Mott Community College

Wee: We have a strong online program. It provides another option for students who might not be able to come to our college in person. More than 25 percent of our enrollment is online. All our faculty that teach online must go through our training program, and students must complete an online tutorial before registering for their first online class. We monitor and solicit feedback from faculty and students for quality, consistency, and improvement’s sake. Our retention and completion are strong for online students. 

Dukes: There are many things you can do online, but there are some things we have to commit to delivering in person, where a student can come in and sit and engage in a dialogue about their goals and aspirations, and how the institution can help them get there. I think we are sometimes naive that everything can happen for students online. There are definitely times when you need to come onsite to be successful.

What kind of relationship does your institution have with local and regional industry? Do you actively collaborate on programs to prepare your students for the needs of business?

Shaink: Our numbers might be different from the others. Michigan has lost over 100,000 jobs in recent years from the auto industry decline. We have advisory committees from various industries that help us identify needs and develop a workforce that can meet those needs. For example, very early on we got word from our automotive advisory committee that one of the things that would set our automotive graduates apart from others was training in the new hybrid vehicles that were about to come out. We sent our faculty to get training in hybrid technology and we opened up hybrid classes. Another industry is health care. There’s a pharmaceutical company in the area that anticipates hiring about a thousand people. What is significant about that is that they will operate a call center staffed with qualified people who are very knowledgeable in pharmaceuticals to help people with questions about cancer drugs and equipment, and so on. Those are high-end jobs and we’re very excited about it.

‘The community college is that lynchpin without which our country won’t be able to rise to the occasion.’ —Robert Templin, Northern Virginia Community College

Wee: NICC’s credit programs, as well as Continuing Education and Economic Development, rely on labor market data and Iowa Workforce Development reports, as well as information from local business surveys, business roundtables, alumni surveys, and advisory boards to develop programming that is responsive to workforce need. These efforts have led to a slate of new green energy, IT, and advanced manufacturing credit and noncredit programming, as well as a noncredit leadership certificate program for soft skills training and a business consortium that allows small businesses to pool resources together to offer joint trainings.

With President Obama’s call to increase college graduates, many look to community colleges to lead the way. Yet, funding continues to dwindle. How do you close that gap?

Shaink: That’s a tough one. We’ve had a 35 percent enrollment increase in five years, yet we’ve had only a 5 percent increase in state aid. In our area, we also have a loss of property tax because of the housing market, so it’s a challenge. We have a seven-year budget that makes us very conscious in how we spend every dollar, and I have to say that everyone has been very cooperative in looking at ways to control expenses. One thing we did seven years ago is that we spent the money from a capital improvement bond on internal controls for lighting and energy reduction. We were spending about 8 percent of our budget on energy and now it’s down to about 2 percent.

Dukes: The State of Maryland has stayed relatively flat in terms of funding to community colleges, but when you have flat funding and the number of students continues to grow, there is still a cut because you aren’t receiving the resources you could receive. We look at our budget in terms of education being our real work, so we look at other things the college does to determine whether we will continue that. There are all kinds of projects that faculty, staff, and administrators are engaged in that are nice to do, but they don’t help us get to the real work of the institution. We have reduced our number of employees and slowed the hiring process. That doesn’t mean we won’t hire, but we have the opportunity to save dollars at the end of a fiscal year rather than at the beginning. Raising tuition and fees is a last resort for us. We haven’t raised
tuition in the past three years, and we’ve raised fees just once. Will we have to make some difficult recommendations this year? It’s likely that we will, but we are working behind the scenes with our government leaders as to what kind of cuts we’re looking at and how that impacts our ability to deliver services.

Wee: We’re most concerned about Pell Grant funding. More than 70 percent of our students are first-generation students, and more than 45 percent work 20-plus hours a week. They don’t have a lot of means to pursue higher education. Our state funding has also declined to about 27 percent of our total funding this year. We cannot put more burden on our students through tuition and fees because they already account for roughly 50 percent of our funding. So, we are doubling our efforts to provide scholarships to our students and seeking state and federal grants to support our programs. 

‘Raising tuition and fees is a last resort for us. We haven’t raised tuition in the past three years, and we’ve raised fees just once.’ —Charlene Dukes, Prince George’s Community College

How do you get that support?

Wee: We’ve successfully collaborated with our community partners on many projects over the last two years that have resulted in being awarded more than $22 million in outside funding from local organizations, state agencies, and federal departments such as the Department of Education, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Commerce. In 2007, taxpayers in our district approved a $35 million bond levy to support infrastructure investments in our campuses and centers. Right now, we are pursuing the feasibility study of our first capital campaign where growing our endowment is a priority. Telling our stories to our legislators continues to be a priority.

Templin: Yes, the success of America’s community colleges is important, not just for the people they serve but for the country, if we are going to grow the middle class and have a competitive economy. The community college is that lynchpin without which our country won’t be able to rise to the occasion.

Shaink: I think the states have got to take on more of a responsibility. They’ve really backed off on their priority for education. Yes, they have it tough, but it comes down to ‘pay me now or pay me later.’ If you don’t have an avenue for the individuals in your community to get trained, we’re not going to have a globally competitive workforce and we’re going to have a lot of individuals who aren’t prepared to take on jobs that the business industry needs.