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Community Colleges

Needed: Urgency, Innovation, Collaboration

Why community colleges must lead the way in reshaping higher education in America
University Business, Feb 2012
Tom Snyder

In the 1970s, I began what was three decades in the automotive industry. It was a good place to be. U.S. automakers had enjoyed decades of growth and profitability, and it seemed like history would continue to repeat itself. Well, we all know what happened next. U.S. automakers grew somewhat complacent, seeming to take their good fortune for granted. As concepts like competition, market share and customer service received little attention, innovation stalled.

Today, as president of Ivy Tech Community College (Ind.), I see higher education confronted with some of these same challenges. After decades of success, it’s tempting to continue down the same path. But if we simply rely on past practices to move us forward, we’ll likely end up with struggles that the U.S. auto industry was confronted with in the 1980s.

That prospect, of course, is unthinkable. As critical as the auto industry is to the U.S. economy, higher education plays an even more important role. It’s clear that we can no longer risk our future because we’re too indebted to the past.

This was my perspective on December 5 as I joined President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and a small group of higher education leaders at the White House for a roundtable on affordability and productivity in America’s colleges and universities. I was honored to be the sole community college president to attend, and humbled to represent Ivy Tech’s world-class faculty and staff. And I was thrilled to be part of a conversation that is so critical to this country’s future.

During the discussion, I was reminded that while institutions of every kind will need to be involved in reshaping higher education in America, community colleges must lead the way. Our unique position with regard to affordability—the most critical area that needs to be addressed—combined with our collective impact—given that we serve 44 percent of all U.S. undergraduates—means we have a special responsibility to the nation. Community colleges are a launching point for first-time students and a place adult students return to get new skills, providing millions of Americans with an on ramp to the middle class. And if America fails in this same mission, community colleges will bear much of the responsibility.

Productivity With Quality

One of the first things we must do is focus on productivity. Community colleges must eliminate waste, cut costs, find new revenue, and increase the donor base. These priorities are articulated in Ivy Tech’s strategic plan, “Accelerating Greatness.” As a result, we’ve minimized the burden placed upon our students and carved out an unmatched competitive edge when it comes to affordability.

We realize, however, that productivity also means improved outcomes. Community college leaders must insist that quality does not suffer as we strive to better manage our budgets. At Ivy Tech, we’ve made student success our first priority. Our ability to lead is contingent on our ability to perform. Even the most uncertain, conservative spending environment is no excuse. We must insist that our students thrive for our work to have any meaning.

Community colleges as a whole also need to get better at telling our stories. At the roundtable, President Obama mentioned the letters he receives from families who simply cannot pay off the college loan debts they have incurred. This can’t continue—and it shouldn’t if more people know that community colleges provide a high-quality more affordable alternative even for those who intend to pursue a four-year degree. We can no longer be reticent about ensuring that America knows who we are and what we do. The traditional four-year residential collegiate experience is moving out of reach for many people. More than 31 million families are on free and reduced lunch programs and they are often the same families borrowing as much as $50,000 for that traditional college experience.

Community colleges also must accept, even embrace, the reality that we can’t do it alone. We need support from leaders in government, who must understand that higher education has to be a priority when it comes to funding. The $500 million grants given to community colleges by the U.S. Department of Labor last September was a powerful step in the right direction. We need to collaborate with employers to better understand their needs and respond with career-relevant programs that allow them to remain globally competitive. We must work with four-year institutions to provide a higher education continuum that anticipates market conditions and responds accordingly. And we must listen to our students, understanding that they are the best source of innovation and inspiration we have.

Most importantly, community colleges need each other. Throughout the nation, great things are happening that deserve to be celebrated and championed as best practices. We must be unselfish in sharing what has worked, and equally as eager to adopt ideas most likely to move us forward. This must be done generously, with respect on all sides but with less concern for what’s proprietary than what is possible. Whatever the source, the best ideas the community college has to offer absolutely must come to light.

This is a critical time. I’ve seen what can happen when an industry ignores the need for innovation and reform from within, and it’s certain that higher education is headed down the same path if we do not respond. Now is the time for us to work together, in collaboration with our communities and with each other, to ensure the success we’ve enjoyed in the past is a precursor to what we’re capable of, instead of a fond memory of what could have been.

Thomas J. Snyder is president of Ivy Tech Community College (Ind.).