Keep Doors Open Amid Winds of Change
Community Colleges Deserve New Narrative and Improved Metrics
Regional accreditation began more than 100 years ago in American higher education, with its core mission of quality assurance enduring now and into the future. For those of us who worked in the growth years of community colleges, quality was always a focus in measuring success. It remains imperative to offer the best possible educational experience to the thousands who attend associate-level institutions in order to prepare students for the job market and for some, to transfer to other colleges and universities. How does regional accreditation intersect with the community college sector, and what are the current opportunities and challenges?
Today’s national higher education narrative includes the completion agenda, financial pressures on institutions, governance challenges, the balance of certificates and degrees, the increasing pressures from the federal government for compliance, the need for transformational innovation and the concomitant concern about barriers to innovation. Pundits suggest there should be a shift to differential or risk-managed accreditation, suggesting strong institutions receive less “touch” from accreditors. Others imply institutional types are not the same and should follow different standards. Other issues call attention to scandals in athletics and sexual assault on campuses. The national political agenda now includes unprecedented discussion about both higher education and accreditation.
All of the key trends impact community colleges. Accreditors are interested in these timely issues, with an omnipresent focus on quality assurance.
At the forefront of the narrative is the debate on how to measure student success. The balancing act between an open access institution and the completion agenda is not new, and in the current environment a variety of stakeholders are weighing in on options for holding both accreditors and institutions accountable. The most common vernacular for doing so is through “bright lines,” which implies students only succeed if they are standing on the “correct” side of each line.
Community colleges were built on access and affordability, serving students of all ages in their local region. Some seek certificates, others degrees. Many serve reverse transfer students who simply did not find a successful match at a university, or opt to return for specific credentialing. These varying paths blur the bright lines.
The national narrative looks to judge all types of institutions on very specific metrics, such as graduation rates and student debt. There is value in these metrics. Bright lines may be based on data from IPEDS, College Navigator, the College Scorecard or other sources. Many stakeholders link low graduation rates and high debt as the catabolic force bringing down higher education in this country. The debate is worthy of our collective attention.
Yet in most cases, these discussions do not address the context of the educational experience of a community college, which includes a wide range of influential factors. They include such variables as adult learners, working students, single parents, under-served students, the quality of local high schools, local workforce needs and two-plus-two programs.
If a student chooses to seek certification in information technology, for example, and he or she finds a job after a few courses, the metrics show a non-completer. If a learner with a university degree comes back to a community college to take a few courses to learn content appropriate for a job, that person might also be classified as “not graduating.” The revolving door of those students who stop out for life reasons also exacerbates these student success metrics.
For accreditors, the focus remains on quality assurance.
Regional accreditors are asked to stand in front of legislators and explain accredited institutions with graduation rates less than 20 percent, or student debt that exceeds 40 percent. We explain how early transfer students may leave a community college to attend a university prior to earning an associate degree, but we are seen as defensive, not answering the questions, which often comes across as reactive versus proactive.
We need your help in redrafting the narrative and more importantly, improving the metrics.
Another issue impacting institutions and accreditors is the growing financial crisis at colleges and universities. State disinvestment creates a new mantra for public institutions, formerly referred to as “state-assisted” colleges and universities. The new term is state-located institutions, reflecting the decrease in aid available to colleges and learners. Financial challenges can easily degrade quality at a college, lessening the strength of the educational experience. This issue also can affect completion rates. Students may exit higher education due to a lack of financial resources needed to access community colleges.
Governance is also an increasing challenge. The growing marginalization of shared governance threatens the very foundation of higher education. Institutional governance is also threatened at those colleges where board relations have morphed from collaborative to combative. In all cases, the focus on the learners is lost. Accreditors cannot sit on the sidelines when governance threatens the very mission of a college.
Academic issues that “keep us up at night” include the balancing act between certificates and degrees, workforce development and a liberal arts education, faculty qualifications and full-time versus adjunct instructors. Each of these in its own way can strengthen or weaken the quality of the institution. In all cases, leadership becomes a critical factor in evaluating the ultimate success of a college. First and foremost, the president or chancellor must be in charge of the day-to-day operations, while the governing board focuses on policy. As higher education experiences the turnover of so many presidencies in recent years, we all have to worry about the availability of qualified individuals to move into the CEO position. Fortunately, community college leadership programs offer a great opportunity for creating that bridge to the next generation of leaders.
The Higher Learning Commission’s response to the dynamic world of higher education will be reflected in its upcoming strategic plan, entitled Beyond the Horizon: the 2020 Strategic Directions. The input from membership came from 19 states, but the responses are applicable for the entire country. There are five tenets of the plan (VISTA), including Value to Members, Innovation, Student Success, Thought Leadership and Advocacy. We listened to our members and spent a great deal of time analyzing the current environmental issues addressed in this article.
These are very exciting and challenging times for community colleges. The mission of access and affordability still fuels the passion for serving learners who enter higher education through the open doors of this sector. Leaders need to assure those doors never slam shut when the winds of change bring a force so strong that keeping them open seems nearly impossible. Strong leadership, good governance, excellent teaching and learning, innovation and advocacy are the best doorstops for the future of America’s community colleges.
Barbara Gellman-Danley is president of the Higher Learning Commission. She served twice as a college and university president as well as holding vice chancellor positions for the states of Ohio and Oklahoma. She consulted at more than 30 colleges on strategic planning, technology and organizational development and recently became a Certified Professional Coach (CPC). This is a continuation of a series authored by principals involved in the Roueche Graduate Center, National American University, 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 the Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org or, call 512-813-2300.