The Now and Later of Community Colleges

Moderated by Charles Sosnik, Editor in Chief at Southeast Education Network

Following is a round table discussion with board members of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE).

Included are Dr. Ron Thomas, a retired community college president from Minnesota and former Chair of NACCE, Dr. Angeline Godwin, President of Patrick Henry Community College in Virginia and current NACCE Board member and Dr. Larry Ferguson, President of Bevill State Community College in Alabama, a current NACCE Board member and new college president.

Charles: Let’s talk about the current and future of community colleges.

Angeline: I will be glad to jump on that. In the past, community colleges were somewhat of a convenience store model. We were convenient in the community. We could lower costs and thresholds because we’re open door institutions. We could be proving grounds, if you will, for the students that may have messed up in high school, a place where students could get a second chance. However, in the last five to 10 years, community colleges have become part of the national dialogue. They are not just about getting an education but are really about serving the entire economic structure of the United States. We really have an opportunity now to educate and train and be the education and training provider through which all economic community and workforce develop pivots. I think that we’ve really become a centerpiece for driving economic and community development in a way that is unprecedented in my lifetime.

Charles: Why are community colleges so far ahead of the game in terms of working with industry and being responsive to communities? What do community colleges know that four-year institutions and K-12 schools don’t?

Angeline: Well, we know a couple things. One is that an academic credit may or may not best serve industry’s immediate needs. So the fact that we have workforce training that works under the purview of our accrediting and works under the purview of an education, it has lots of flexibility. When we meet with industry we walk in the door with a blank sheet of paper. We talk about the skills and the competencies and the ideal employee for that institution and where they want to see their employees in five and 10 years. We’re creating a pipeline for them. We don’t walk in and hand them a catalogue or brochure that tells them the programs we have and what we do. I think this is a major difference.

The second thing is we understand how you take credentials that are industry recognized. The industry may or may not care about our description of an A, or B, or D, but they do care about that credential that has been validated by an objective third party and says to the industry this person has the skills and competencies that they want. We have been smart in embedding those credentials into workforce and academic programs.

I’ll add a third. We understand how, regardless of where a person enters our institution, whether they are here for one course or here for an associate’s degree in science, that we have created a variety of career pathways. We have a saying here at Patrick Henry, “There’s no wrong door.” We believe that wherever you start, what you do here has value. It has value in the workplace. It has value in an academic setting. It leads you to somewhere else that is better. Those are some things that we know how to do. We’re doing them for business and industry and we’re turning them on a dime. I’m been a university administrator, it’s not something that has been in the wheelhouse of most four year institutions.

Ron: I think in our early beginning community colleges and two-year colleges suffered what I would call a “prestige deficit.” That has changed. We are really the catalyst for economic development in our communities. It is so true that we are part of the national dialogue. Even with all the changes that are being contemplated in various states, the key thing we still don’t talk about much is leadership at community colleges. With all the retirements and new presidents moving in, it is more critical than ever to have creative, innovative college presidents to meet these challenging needs in the future. To me that is extremely high priority. If you’re going to compete with limited funding and more demands for success rates, unless you have that special kind of creative, innovative thinking at the top, we’re going to be in for more challenges.

Charles: Let me do a follow up to Larry as a newer college president. What do you see as the role of the college president and what are some of the innovations and creative thinking that you think is needed?

Larry: I agree with both comments from Dr. Godwin and Ron, with where we are today. I go back five years to the 21st report that AACC put out. At that time they were calling for us in the community colleges to redesign, reinvent and reset the system. In other words, they were calling on us to start leading like entrepreneurs. I think that ideology, being able to think in that way is something that has evolved over the past several years and I will be quite frank, I think one of the reasons why I have the opportunity to be a president is my background in workforce and economic development. Although I do have a traditional academic background as well, I think those things were more important to the selection committee looking at the environment we are in today.

We’ve already talked about a lot of things such as industry certification. One of the things we did not mention specifically was competency-based education. Basically the demands on community college leaders are much different than they were before. It is no longer a matter of being an administrator. I don’t even like that word any more because it is way beyond that. I think the others on this call are good examples of folks that have thought like entrepreneurs. The expectations have drastically changed and we have to be more innovative. I am just in my sixth month here at Bevill State Community College. We’re working through our new strategic plans so we employed design thinking. We’re looking at things through different lenses to meet all these external requirements, but focus more on innovation and efficiency. That’s the key to being successful and maintaining prominence with business and industry. Our position with business and industry was a natural one because we are the largest feeder for those, particularly in career tech education. We do have those relationships much more than the universities do. It is a much better fit. I think with the evolution of baby boomers exiting the workforce, the economy is now on the rebound. There is such a demand for those workers and we are the natural partners to provide them.

Angeline: Larry, I couldn’t agree more. In my first presidency I had worked economic development projects in Tennessee but I was really very much the token educator in that scenario. I remember going to hear Tony Zeiss talk about the president as a chief economic development officer and nobody was talking about that then. I became a professional economic developer at the state and regional level and an entrepreneur running six of my own companies. When I came into this presidency 12 years later, Zeiss’s ideas are the mainstream. You use innovation and design thinking to translate efficiency into entrepreneurial thinking. You create your future. You’re not dependent. One of my goals is to build a base so if we get state funding its fine and if we don’t its fine because it is too fluid. It would be like having one big customer that you deal with. That is a huge shift that I have seen in my career.

Charles: The product of community colleges is a ready workforce and that has a tremendous value to industry. But you get all of your funding from the other side. You get your funding from the students. You get your funding from the federal government, the state government and the community, but not industry. The product is freely given to industry and industry is the stakeholder — aside from perhaps the students themselves — that derives the greatest benefit from the product. Why not have a revenue model where industry pays for the product?

Larry: It is a good idea. I just came from Kentucky, which is where I spent the majority of my career. At Ashland Community and Technical College, they have a program called The Advanced Manufacturing Technician’s Program. We partnered with the manufacturers throughout the state. They paid $26,000 per year to support us during that two-year program. After students came out, they were employed in different sections of manufacturing from 3M to Toyota. Because the manufacturers were supporting them, the students came out with no student loan debt and no burden on any sort of alternative funding to support them while they were in college. They would go to class three days a week and work two days a week. When I left there at the end of December, we had 150 companies that were doing that. I think that model is doable and probably one that is going to have to happen as we continue to combat student loan debt, student loan default, all those things that go along with that.

Angeline: Today we are part of a similar program with Eastman Chemical Corporation, which was designed for their operations here in Martinsville. What we found was that 80 percent of that program they helped fund through scholarships; they pay the last mile – whatever financial aid and other scholarships don’t pay, they pick up. We found that we are delivering 80 percent that would apply to any industry. All the industries are benefiting. About 20 percent is Eastman specific. There is a 93 percent hire rate, and those people are out there with a job and absolutely no debt.

Ron: Charles, your point is a good one. We had a partnership with General Motors; we trained technicians in a four state area. We had major partnerships with heavy equipment operators and placed students all over the country. We had a railroad program with Union Pacific where we would train railroad conductors. We even had a new program we launched which was a nuclear technical program. We had support from that industry. But you are absolutely right. If we don’t reach out and make that a partnership, those industries may say they should do it themselves. There is some discussion going on now in certain areas across the country that maybe industry can do it better than we can. I think that would be a mistake. We need to have partnerships and do some of the great things these other two presidents have done.

Charles: Community colleges traditionally have educated people within 15, 20, 30 or 40 miles of their schools. How do we break through those barriers? How do community colleges become global institutions?

Larry: In Alabama is we’re merging community colleges and taking a regional approach. The actual college I am at covers 4,600 square miles. So, you take Delaware and Rhode Island and add it together and that’s my service area. I think more and more you’re going to see states doing that from an efficiency perspective. Traditionally, you had one in almost every community. It was pretty common to have them 50 miles apart in the early days of community colleges. Online education has changed a lot of that. I know in Kentucky I saw some schools that bounced out with programs that were very successful. One of them had a really strong two-year IT program with a transfer agreement to Western Kentucky University. They were pulling students literally from everywhere because they had a premier program that at the time was a first. I think that it is changing very quickly.

Ron: I agree 100 percent. Look at traditional companies as we think of them. For example, the 7-11 stores are owned by a group out of Japan and Trader Joe’s, which is a grocery store, has an organizational base in Germany. The traditional companies that we think of as being US owned, foreign countries own many of them now. At the same time we are seeing an increase of international students coming to the United States, we’re seeing an increase in the number of U.S. students wanting to study overseas. When you put all of this together, should global education or training be part of where community colleges are going? Absolutely. I think we would be remiss if we didn’t take a look at how we could put value into that proposition to put educational programs in place online throughout the world.

Charles: If you look at learners today, they are already global. We talk about trying to help students become global, but they are already there. The only thing that we will do is put restrictions on them. They already have a global mindset. We talk about the fact that this generation needs to be entrepreneurial, but it is not anything that we have to convince them to do. They are by nature very entrepreneurial. That presents a real opportunity in this country. If you look at rural areas, the globalization of the world and particularly the globalization of education are completely democratizing their opportunities. For so long their opportunities were only in their back yards. Now with global education and global industry their opportunities are exactly the same as everyone else.

Larry: There is a statistic out there from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that says about 65 million Americans will be freelancers and independent contractors, about 25 percent of the workforce by 2020.

Charles: What about the changing role of students, who are our customers? How can we better serve where they are already headed?

Angeline: I talk a lot about how we are in the talent development business. We are not really in the education training business. We’re seeing people with a bachelor’s degree that still have no job, or it was not what they thought it was going to be. They are transitioning and retooling themselves back on our campuses. We see students who five or 10 years ago would have gone a very traditional path. They are doing different things now. I think we might be in the middle of a global reality check that tests all the things that we just expected as a given.

Ron: Just a couple of quick comments about the entrepreneurial mindset today that I think the data will support. There are 500,000 new startups every month in the United States. That’s an unbelievable amount of startups every month. Too often we think of our regional or local markets, but we need to look at a worldwide market. There are significant opportunities so we need to be able to work with those new entrepreneurs as they launch their companies and to help them get into the international market.

Charles: Very good point, particularly for the security and wellbeing of our nation. If you have money coming this way instead of going out the other way, that can only be good for us. We used to say it is all about competing in the global economy. I believe that is 100 percent wrong. It is all about collaborating in the global economy. Our learners already know that and I think that learning institutions are slow to catch up on that point.

Angeline: A very good observation. And true entrepreneurs compete collaboratively. Those two things blend because you just can’t survive without it. It goes back to that conceptual thinking of creating your own future.

Charles: What thoughts do you have about community colleges working with K-12 and becoming one system? Is that a good or bad idea?

Larry: I am not sold on the idea of becoming one system. But I do think the emphasis or importance of collaboration between K12 and community colleges is becoming more and more paramount. We are growing in enrollment but our growth can be attributed to dual enrollment. We’re getting students engaged even younger and faster in attaining that credential. No longer can you work in separate silos. It’s not possible to meet the demands of the workforce and our students and what their education aspirations are. I think it is about synergy and collaboration. I’m not sure about the two of them (K-12 and community colleges) becoming one however. Maybe the other presidents have a different view on that. I’m just not convinced that is the answer at this point.

Ron: I agree with you 100 percent. I would hate for the community colleges to make a move to come under the umbrella of K-12. I think our missions and our roles are very clear. We must continue to expand with more global education and expand with more entrepreneurial things and continue to work both. Doing this means we need to be able to move very quickly. K-12 is a very complex system. If we were to merge those two entities together it would be so complex and so confusing. I don’t know whether K12 or even community colleges would be able to have an entrepreneurial program to take us where we need to go.

Larry: In Alabama we’ve gone a different direction. Just a year ago they moved the community colleges out from under the department of education and created a separate board of trustees for that reason. We’ve become more nimble, faster and quicker to respond because we were being tied down to some degree by the constraints of K12.

Angeline: I agree that the merger is not positive. I also don’t think it is necessary. But I do think that a seamless pathway for K12 and our institutions is absolutely critical and those of us that figure that out the best will be the most successful. For us, dual enrollment is about one third of our enrollment. Three years ago we configured our funding structure so that the school and the college absorb dual enrollment so it is at no cost to the families in our community. I think there will be more and more weaving of threads. If we say this is a true college experience then we must make sure that it is in fact an identical college experience. It certainly has to be as tightly woven as it possibly can be. I don’t think merger would be the answer, but I do think that a seamless pathway is absolutely critical to make sure that students are college ready and career ready.

Charles: If I can turn that around, I would almost prefer “career ready and college ready” as a phrase.

Ron: Life ready would work pretty well up here.


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