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2015 November 17 - 03:41 pm

Federal Failures, Veterans’ Needs, and The Role of the Community College

The Mission for President Obama’s New Community College Model is Ripe for Community Colleges’ Executive-Level Leadership


Join us in celebrating Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2015, armed with a new purpose and mission for America’s greatest educational investment its community colleges.

In the past few years, the media have rightly criticized the Department of Veterans Affairs for failure to meet the needs of America’s veterans as they relate to educational needs and disabilities. Meanwhile, thousands of veterans and their families must find a way to get good jobs, feed and clothe their families, and seek paths to the opportunity embodied in the Montgomery or the GI Bill. The average six-year investment of time to receive a four-year degree, stated on the VA website, would seem like a lifetime to these warriors who have experienced danger first-hand for our country.

No effective bridge exists to systematically contact each veteran, even though the VA operates a website necessary to complete that process. Another option for veterans is to visit a college or university of choice, or go online. Once enrolled, however, most often veterans will not find the kind of active duty, competency-based learning system from which they mastered required competencies in their military specialties. In their military experience, they were socialized into a world of high technology, practiced in a team-oriented and highly-structured environment. Is this not what Achieving the Dream has advocated for its members?

President Obama’s veterans summit in 2011, involving the VA and other interested parties, was motivated by the fact that his leadership had not resulted in an effective and productive program to salute and accommodate America’s veterans. The president said, “The contributions that our service men and women make to this nation do not end when they take off the uniform. We owe a debt to all who serve and when we repay that debt to those bravest Americans among us, then we are investing in their future, but also the future of our own country.” Recently the President has pushed for second chances of prisoners serving long terms. We wonder about the results were we to determine the large number of veterans and their spouses seeking higher education, and now requiring a second chance in a more supportive environment.

At that same summit a half decade ago, Second Lady Jill Biden, spoke briefly concerning her perspective about the strategic goals for community colleges in the next five years. She noted the president’s goal: To build the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by the end of this decade. She followed with the statement that across America, families are struggling to build a better life. Biden pointed out that community colleges are uniquely American places where anyone who walks through the open door is one step closer to realizing the American Dream. Further, she introduced the idea that community colleges are flexible and innovative; are forming partnerships with businesses in the community; and, have missions to provide the education and training that will link graduates to the jobs of the 21st century.

In recent months, the Obama administration called upon the nation to plan and support a program that will result in free tuition for students seeking a community college education. Obviously, between this clarion call and the operation of this most important community college option, are years of disagreement in Congress (where federal funding is managed), as to who is eligible and how the country will fund free tuition in America’s community colleges. With free tuition in mind, of particular concern is meeting the needs of our nation’s veterans. Over 120,000 of those who are eligible for the Montgomery GI Bill are suffering from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury from their combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many community colleges operate Veterans Centers. However, a reconstructed concept will be required that is capable of operating full service to veterans and their spouses. What we have discovered in Achieving the Dream and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Completion by Design initiatives is that, typically, colleges commit to various initiatives on a pilot basis. However, many are unable to undertake and/or expand these initiatives through policy governance as a sustainable course of action. In both community colleges and the outreach arms of the VA, focusing on processes as opposed to outcomes, leaves both agencies inefficient and unproductive in generating the individual outcome competencies that link directly or indirectly to a job. In a new strategic White House, the president could direct funding through the Department of Defense for these essential centers, and reshape the strategic executive planning, along with its several departments and partners.

A new executive-level task would be an effectively developed data system, similar to those of Achieving the Dream and the Gates’ Completion by Design initiative, in combination with a for-credit student success course offered in the first semester, which would provide a window for feedback and a positive course of action, leading to more successful outcomes for our veterans and other students.

In a macro sense, increased partnerships among community colleges with state and local labor departments, as well as work-related training programs with industry, would be the logical course of action. Community colleges, with their multiple missions and broad-based programs, must be the branch of higher education most ready and organized to serve the majority of American fighting men and women. For those veterans and their spouses who are seeking a short route to employment, a technical certificate requires typically two semesters to completion with the option, and GI Bill funds, to continue towards the associates degree and beyond.

The long-term problem for both the VA and America’s open door colleges is accountability to its clients. In particular, this includes the American fighting men and women (active, retired, and/or wounded of body and mind while in action), as the one percent of Americans and their spouses who have, in the past three decades, fought three wars protecting America. As of the late 2015, this debt is unpaid.

Over ten years of Achieving the Dream, data indicate that community colleges have often fallen short of achieving the selfassessed goals of committed leadership, use of evidence to improve policies, programs and services, broad engagement of internal and external stakeholders, systemic institutional improvements, and — perhaps most important in our democracy — real efforts toward equity.

The mission for President Obama’s new community college model is ripe for community colleges’ executive-level leadership, and Executive Branch priority. As President Obama has declared: “We owe a debt to all who have served, and when we repay that debt, we are investing in the future of our country.” Many community colleges include a veteran’s officer. However, few of our nation’s community colleges offer expanded and linked centers that are tasked to provide dedicated teams who are trained to deliver quality decision making; or, a place to visit, learn and succeed for veterans with unresolved medical and psychological issues.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that the story of successful people focuses on intelligence and ambition. American veterans have survived and flourished in a teambuilding structure that only can be dreamed about in our private and public organizations. When society takes them out of harm’s way, they often suffer from a loss of their compass. These warriors, whose achievements lie outside the normal experience, require a leadership model that they understand, and in the context of their experience. In my view it is the American community college can and must find an educational and cultural home in a dedicated center, where the student success can accommodate these American heroes. A systems approach in design and function resulting in a Veteran’s Center to meet their unique needs is the next challenge for higher education’s workhorse: its community colleges.

George A. Baker, III, is a 21 year combat veteran of the US Marine Corps, and a 40 year Professor of Community College Leadership. He currently is completing his 12th year with Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count as a leadership coach, and proudly serves on the advisory board for the National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center.

This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center, and other national experts identified by the Center. Drs. 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 512-813-2300.

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