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2012 December 24 - 12:00 am

POV: Best Still Ahead for Colleges After Challenging 2012

In a year defined by political and fiscal uncertainty, I am encouraged to report the continued and substantial progress of the nation’s community colleges. Despite our own “fiscal cliff” of being asked to do more with less amid a proliferating range of demands and needs, our colleges are stepping up — and in many cases taking the lead. However, we would be naïve or even derelict to deny that unprecedented change will be our constant companion in the days ahead.

Looking at the forces at play from the national perspective, we can identify four major issues that will frame our work and determine our success for the foreseeable future. As we prepare for a new year and assess the past, it may be helpful to view these issues in the context of challenges and opportunities.

Mission Creep or Gallop?

The fundamental question in analyzing the ever-evolving mission of the community college is, “where do we draw the line?” Prepare students for transfer? Check. Deliver a skilled workforce? Check. Provide lifelong learning and community service? Count on the community’s college. Now some states are making our colleges the linchpin in plans to deliver more baccalaureate completers — the $10,000 proposition that governors in Texas and Florida are making political hay by promoting.

But does that mission need to be redefined? A central issue in the work of the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of the Community College, a blue-ribbon group which the American Association of Community Colleges convened in 2011, was how to contain a mission that many believe no longer serves the central enterprise of our colleges — helping students succeed. In the report issued by this 38-member group of thought leaders last April (www.aacc.nche.edu/AboutCC/21stcenturyreport/index.html ), one of the seven key recommendations addresses the need to “refocus the community college mission and redefine institutional roles to meet 21st-century education and employment needs.” In sum, the commissioners stressed the need to add the word “no,” as in “no longer,” to the community college vocabulary and to put energies and resources into only those activities that will reinvent the learning experience.

Wallking the Talk

A thoughtfully reasoned, well written, and artfully designed report has value. In fact, more than 100 community colleges have already integrated the commission’s recommendations into strategic planning, professional development, convocation presentations and other high-profile activities. A major technology corporation has committed to aligning products and operations to assist institutional clients in achieving the recommendations. Close to a dozen leading university professors have adapted the report as part of their ongoing syllabi on the community college model.

These steps are significant, but they are not enough.

With support from the Kresge Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, AACC is moving quickly from theory to action on a national basis. Nine implementation teams comprising more than 100 community college leaders, faculty, and organizational representatives have begun to examine the individual commission recommendations in an effort to identify practical, actionable and scalable solutions to achieve them. Over a two-year period, their work will inform the development of a new 21st-Century Center, which AACC will establish at its Washington, D.C., headquarters to coordinate implementation, serve as a clearinghouse for research and institutional strategies, act as a repository for promising practices, and promote development of community college leaders for the future.

No College Is an Island

As fabric gains strength from the integration of individual fibers, so, too, is significant leverage to be gained from greater coordination of community colleges as a national force. Community colleges are the largest sector of higher education, and yet they remain the least resourced for the enormous job they are asked to do.

The establishment of a holistic plan of action that the 21st-Century Report provides, complemented by bold but realistic implementation strategies determined by the AACC implementation teams, provides a framework being attempted by no other sector in higher education today. This work is further reinforced by AACC’s Voluntary Framework of Accountability that lends transparency and credibility to the way community colleges are measured.

These three elements — a national framework, strategies to implement it, and a commitment to be accountable for performance and outcomes — are tremendous assets in generating new resources and gaining new advantage. Add intentioned collaboration with the Association of Community College Trustees, the League for Innovation in the Community College and others and AACC has a cohesive plan that makes a broader, more forceful advocacy agenda not only a priority, but also a policy mandate.

Prior advocacy efforts have momentum. The first Obama administration made greater reliance on community colleges a central facet of its completion agenda. With re-election, the White House gains reinforced emphasis that will keep community colleges in the vanguard of higher ed policy making. This is important positioning as we face reauthorization of critical legislation including the Higher Education Act and the Workforce Investment Act, as well as protection of Pell Grants and preservation of the American Opportunity Tax Credit. AACC will “double down” on its advocacy efforts, strengthened by the voices and leadership of its national network of leaders.

The Leadership Continuum

In the end, it all comes down to dedicated and effective leadership, and it is here that community colleges face perhaps the biggest challenge and the greatest opportunity of all. Within the next decade, recent AACC research indicates that close to 75 percent of sitting community college CEOs indicate they plan to retire. Within the next five years, that number is 43 percent. Similar turnover will be experienced among senior administrators and faculty on our campuses.

Identifying and preparing that number of highly skilled professionals to replace retirees will be daunting. But it also offers an unprecedented opportunity to infuse new competencies and fresh thinking into the way our colleges do business. For its part, AACC is expanding its “leadership suite” of services through regional Future Leaders Institutes and Future Presidents Institutes. In cooperation with ACCT, we are developing new delivery channels to engage, support, and serve both current and future leaders.

When I took office as president and CEO of AACC two years ago, I described the situation we find ourselves in as a “new day” for community colleges. I still believe the best is yet to come. But we will have to work hard — and smart — to earn it.

The author is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the leading national organization representing the nation’s nearly 1,200 two-year colleges. This article is another is a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@national.edu or call 512-651-4781.

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