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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 September 7 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Forging Ahead

Shortly after the Brookings Institution and DC Appleseed issued a widely-noted report last year recommending that the nation’s capitol establish a community college, a star-studded roster of higher education thinkers was assembled to do a follow-up.

The second study would explore areas untouched by the first, including demand, feasibility and potential cost. A three-person panel would guide JBL Associates, Inc. and MDC Inc. in conducting the study: College Board Vice President Ronald Williams; Christine McPhail, founding professor of the Community College Doctoral Program at Morgan State University; and Gordon Davies, former executive director of the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia.

An advisory panel included Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University; George Boggs, chief executive officer of the American Association of Community Colleges; Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement; and Byron McClenney of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas Austin.

The study was scheduled to be thorough, deliberate and released in the fall.

Then, along came Allen L. Sessoms.

Named president of the University of the District of Columbia last September, Sessoms, formerly president of Delaware State University, didn’t wait for the follow-up. Just five months into his tenure, Sessoms forged ahead with his own plans to set up a community college under the umbrella of UDC. The university essentially was broken into two parts: a flagship university and a community college.

Undisputed Need

The Community College of the University of the District of Columbia welcomed its first students last month. On the first day of registration, more than 1,000 students showed up. Enrollment totaled nearly 1,600 students.

But while the need for a community college is widely recognized — among the nation’s 50 largest cities, the nation’s capital is the only one without one — Sessoms’ decision to move ahead with his plans has raised concerns about whether haste will make waste.

The 2008 report argued that DC needs a free-standing two-year community college, separate and distinct from the four-year university. It questioned whether a community college could ever thrive under UDC, which for decades has been beset with management problems and financial woes.

While the university long has offered a limited number of associate degree programs, the study declared there is an inherent tension between a four-year university with its emphasis on higher learning and research and a two-year institution focused on workforce development, remediation, basic skills and college transfer.

“Though UDC has been tasked with this responsibility since its inception, it is extremely problematic to expect a single institution to carry out these multiple, and often conflicting, responsibilities,” the report said. “Even a stable, adequately funded, and well-managed institution would struggle to merge the different academic cultures and priorities of a community college and a university.”

“Data on program offerings and degrees granted suggest that UDC has an institutional bias towards its four-year programs, which is not surprising given that the academic community generally regards universities as more prestigious than community colleges.”

Answering the Call

Sessoms’ defends his decision to race ahead with a community college rather than starting one from scratch. At the time he was hired, the UDC Board of Trustees signaled it wanted a leader who would waste no time in establishing a community college. Sessoms has answered that call.

“We have had a community college embedded in the university, but it just was not working very well,” he said. “It was schizophrenic relationship between the two. We needed to separate them.”

“I understand the concern,” he added. “But what we want to do is to dramatically increase access, and we think there are savings to be realized by eliminating overhead and not duplicating a lot of the backroom operations.”

At least one leading District official believes Sessoms is doing the right thing by going ahead with his plans. The recommendations in the follow-up study can still be helpful as the college develops over the next few years, said Barbara Lang, president of the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

“We study things to death in this city,” Lang said. “There will be some missteps, yes, but there will be a community college.”

But Lang also said Sessoms has a narrow window to complete the nitty-gritty of community college work – hiring adjunct faculty, forging ties with the business community, developing workforce development programs, building strong student support services, forging ties with high schools and devising articulation agreements with four-year institutions.

In a city that thrives on bare-knuckle politics, Sessoms must answer to many masters, Lang said, including the DC City Council and mayor, the Board of Trustees and the business community.

“I think people want to give him some breathing room,” she said. “He’ll have a year or two to carry out his vision. We needed someone who would break some toes and break some glass, and he is willing to do that.”

The need for a community college in DC is undisputed. The 2008 report stated the need plainly:

“While 47 percent of district residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree, the city also has an illiteracy rate of 37 percent. At 20 percent, the district’s poverty rate is at the highest rate in a decade. With about 688,000 jobs, the city has more jobs than it does residents. Yet only about one-third of those who work in the District live there, eroding the city’s tax base since the city can’t tax the salaries of non-residents. Without a stronger educational system, the city will be hard-pressed to increase residents’ employment rates, skills and earnings.”

Different Entities

Sessoms said he recognizes that the university and community colleges are different animals. He described 2009-10 as a transition year, during which the community college will only offer the existing programs that have traditionally been offered at UDC and will share all student services with UDC.

Over the next five years, he said, the community college plans to expand programmatic offerings and separate all of its services from UDC. He wants the college to have its own campus, as well as satellite locations throughout the city.

“We are trying to take advantage of the incredible intellectual capital in this area,” he said.

Jonathan Gueverra, who most recently served as provost of the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community, was named as chief executive officer of the new community college. He took over Aug. 1. He said he sees the community college as an integral part of the city’s educational system, which has been undergoing an aggressive restructuring under Mayor Adrian Fenty.

“I think we have a unique opportunity to build a top-notch educational system, and to make it seamless,” he said. Still, Gueverra, recognizes that his task of building a community college is a daunting challenge.

“I did not come here with a vision of grandeur,” he said. “I fully expect that this will be marked by challenges and problems. But I think people in the city want this to work. Our challenge is going to be to listen to the people and to respond to the marketplace.”

The scope of the challenge is huge. The new community college currently offers just 23 associate degree programs; by comparison, three suburban community colleges – Prince George’s Community College, Montgomery College and Northern Virginia Community College – each offer more than 100 programs of study linked to a diversity of occupations and academic fields, the 2008 report said.

And while those suburban schools all partner with governmental workforce development agencies to develop industry-specific training programs, UDC does not have strong relationships with employers or a strategic analysis of in-demand occupation and high-growth industries.

To that end, Gueverra has been hopscotching around the city, meeting with education and business officials to build the bridges the college will need to succeed.

“It’s really about reaching out to our community,” he said. “But we will ramp up very quickly. There are several new programs we are proposing, including a liberal arts/general studies track. What we need to do is help our students, and help those students who are underserved. That is at the heart of what we’re trying to do.”

Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, said that history shows community colleges are often overshadowed if operated by a university.

“I think they have a very significant challenge ahead of them,” she said. “I understand that the local politics dictated that UDC would have a role. But there are very few examples of community colleges thriving under a university. When resources are allocated, they sometimes end up taking a back seat.”

JBL Associates President John B. Lee said he is confident that UDC will consider the findings of the second study, set to be released in mid-September, as the community college grows over the next few years.

“I think our role is to provide a sense of what’s possible,” he said. “We are not competing with them. We are more of a critical friend. We’ve been working closely with the university. We just want to assure that student success is at the center of their community college mission.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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