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2012 May 14 - 12:00 am

POV: 21st Century Commission Report Tells Colleges They Must Remake Themselves

ORLANDO, Fla. – The 92nd convention of the American Association of Community Colleges unfolded at Marriott’s Orlando World Center and Resort, a hotel and convention center sprawling over 200 acres and featuring a nine-story atrium, more than 2,000 rooms and the largest pillar-free ballroom in the country.

To get from one of those well-appointed guestrooms to the Crystal Ballroom, where college presidents, chancellors and other college bigwigs were rubbing elbows didn’t quite require a GPS, though it was easy to get lost and wander aimlessly about the cavernous building.

Those long hikes from Point A to Point B served as a reminder of just how far community colleges have traveled in recent years – and how much more ground they must cover if they are to fulfill the responsibility that seemingly has been thrust upon them: nothing less than saving the world, or at least pulling America back from the brink of economic calamity.

In meeting rooms and in private conversations, in a major report from the AACC and in speeches, college leaders seemed to be coming to a troubling new consensus – that their institutions, as now constituted, are not up to the job. Devotion to “completion agenda,” the coin of the realm when discussing community colleges these days, has yielded to a larger, uncomfortable truth: Unless colleges change course, they are in danger of becoming another once-useful relic of the 1960s and 1970s, like electric typewriters or disco.

Consider these words from the report of the AACC 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, a document which served as the centerpiece for the convention: “No matter how significant the contributions of community colleges in the past, the ground beneath their feet has shifted so dramatically in recent years that they need to rethink their role and mission. Just as a century ago the United States underwent a transition from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy, it is today emerging from a similar shift from manufacturing to services in a knowledge-based economy. No matter how diligently community colleges perform their traditional role, they cannot effectively meet the needs of students and communities without responding to the transformation in the larger economic and societal environment.”

“Millions….need what community colleges have to offer, but as they currently function, community colleges are not up to the task before them.”

College leaders agreed that they must embrace fundamental change. Tinkering at the margins won’t cut it.

“The community college of the 60s and 70s no longer meets the needs of our economy, our workplaces, and most of all, the 13.1 million students we serve,” said Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the AACC.

Said Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement and a member of the commission: “We are not talking about tinkering. We are talking about asking community colleges to fundamentally redesign the student experience.”

What colleges don’t need, McClenney and others said, was new technology to develop old models more efficiently. A wholly new approach is needed.

As if to demonstrate their seriousness, the commission and the AACC stepped onto ground it before has steadfastly avoided. The report implicitly endorsed performance-based funding — the notion that colleges should be funded based on outcomes such as graduation rates — if only in tortured, bureaucratic terms.

“Target public and private investments strategically to create new incentives for all institutions of education and their students and to support community college efforts to reclaim the American Dream,” read recommendation number 6.

Jerry Sue Thornton, a commission member and president of Cuyahoga Community College, explained the performance-based funding endorsement. It acknowledges that performance-based funding is gaining political traction around the country. It also represents an effort by colleges to seize control of the performance-based funding agenda, lest one be imposed upon them.

“If we take the lead to chart this course, we are going to like the outcome a lot better,” she said.

The sense that colleges must spearhead change or have it thrust upon them was palpable among college leaders. Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College, has been a leader in advancing the completion agenda. Earlier this year, his college won a prize from the Aspen Institute as the best community college in the country.

“We need to reclaim our voice on this,” he said during one early-morning session, “We need to be in the driver’s seat on the completion agenda.”

But he said colleges must walk a fine line and resist the temptation to advance the completion agenda for completion’s sake. Better graduation rates will impress policy makers and boards of trustees. But the goal must be larger. The most important metric is how students fare after they leave college for jobs or further education, he said. It’s about learning.

“My concern about the completion agenda is that students are left out,” he said. “Learning should start the conversation, not completion.”

“This is not fast work. It’s slow work. You start slow to go fast later.”

Timothy J. Nelson, president of Northwestern Michigan Community College, believes that colleges have precious little time to waste. Entities are poised to fill whatever education voids colleges are leaving behind, he said at a convention session.

Take a look at the health care system, he said. A few years ago, rehab centers and surgical centers didn’t exist. Today they are ubiquitous. They developed in response to shortfalls in traditional hospitals. Colleges today face a similar scenario.

“Colleges must prepare students to create social and economic wealth during their lifetime journey,” he said.

“If all we are doing is focusing on providing a pathway to a degree, then we aren’t doing our job,” he said.

Getting the job done will be a long and perilous journey. Community colleges are taking the first steps of their own accord. Bumphus and others vow that the commission report won’t be gathering dust on some shelf, but will serve as the underpinning for an action plan. By seizing the initiative, community college leaders ultimately will like the outcome a lot better.

It’s YOUR TURN:  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  Will the 21st Century Commission report lead to an action agenda or be just another report gathering dust on a shelf?
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