The Future of Community Colleges

When people talk about higher education, they often limit their discussion to four-year institutions and traditional 18- to 22-year-old college students. But that focus ignores a large part of the story: the expansive and crucial role played by community colleges, especially in educating nontraditional students. To give some sense of their reach, there are more than 1,000 community colleges around the country, and together they enroll more than 40 percent of all undergraduates. Many of those students are ones who are often not as well served by four-year institutions, including adult learners, those from low-income families, single parents, first-generation students, and veterans.

To dive deeper into the specific challenges facing these institutions, how they can evolve to best serve the needs of students and their communities, and the ideal characteristics of those at the helm, The Chronicle recently held a virtual forum with several community-college leaders. The conversation, led by Liz McMillen, executive editor at The Chronicle, included Keith Curry, president and chief executive of Compton College; Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College; Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College; and Karen Stout, president and chief executive of Achieving the Dream and former president of Montgomery County Community College, in Pennsylvania. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Liz McMillen: When you think about the future of community colleges, what do you see as the most pressing issues the sector needs to address?

Russell Lowery-Hart: There are two big issues that are going to affect us long term if we can’t solve them now. One is housing and food insecurity, which is keeping students from completing the degrees they’re seeking or skills they’re building. The other is that we have to completely reimagine the way we structure ourselves to build workplace skills that lead to a family-sustaining wage. That means moving away from a century’s developed academic model and partnering with our work force to reimagine where learning happens, how it happens, and who it’s happening with.

Pam Eddinger: There’s great urgency now, particularly in our communities of color and communities of poverty in getting folks back to work. And not just to get them back to the jobs that they used to have, but into better jobs that are sustainable and will sustain our communities. That takes more thinking in terms of what we offer as programs and how those programs can stack into a continuing-education path that will give families and our students a way forward and not just create another class of low-wage and second-class workers.

Karen Stout: We are challenged as a sector to really step up and address what are deepening divides in our communities around access and success. We are facing an equity crisis, and we need to be thinking differently in this next post-pandemic arc of our work about the way we measure our success as colleges. We’ve been through this completion movement. Looking at completion is important, but we have not really opened up our gaze to think about return on investment for our students. But also community return on investment. Can we take the lessons we’re learning in our college-transformation work and move that into our community-transformation work, with us as activists? Not as passive participants in this ecosystem, but as catalysts, really helping to build equitable, prosperous communities.

McMillen: Pam, you’ve talked about the need for a new social contract for this generation that’s akin to what we saw after World War II. What does the new model look like for a community college? What does it do differently?

Eddinger: The new community college to me is a hub where we welcome not only our students but all the support systems that come with them. So whether it’s education nonprofits, basic-needs providers, or community-activist organizations that provide identity and support for students, we need to open our doors and house them all. We can’t do everything ourselves. The community-college president then becomes the person who will open the door and make those alliances. The new social contract is really about a new alliance and an alignment of values and mission. The idea of an activist president and activist scholar is very much at the heart of that. Education is nothing if you can’t get health care, transportation, child care, and basic needs all woven together to support that student.

McMillen: Can we know the jobs of the future? How well positioned do you think community colleges are for that?

Lowery-Hart: Community colleges are maybe the strongest point of responsiveness to our existing work-force needs, and we are going to have to position ourselves as leaders in our local communities in helping even existing businesses adapt. Just in my local community we spend so much time adapting to our work-force needs, and during the pandemic, we have seen opportunities for truly transformational skill building in technology and robotics and artificial intelligence. We are going to be providing skills that our local employers don’t even know they need yet. I think we have a unique opportunity to come together to solve problems for big companies like Amazon, who right now need 10,000 cloud-computing architects, while we help our existing local economies and work-force partners to reimagine their own processes.

Keith Curry: We have to make sure that we’re creating an organization that’s structured and funded to meet the needs of our students. When I think about work-force development, or the humanities, or the liberal studies, the question is, How do we structure the organization so that students are able to recognize that they are our No. 1 priority and that we want to help them meet their educational or career goals? This is where the heavy lifting comes in. The heavy lifting is a lot about structural work. We want what we’re doing now to be long term. We can’t say tomorrow that we don’t focus on work-force development.

Eddinger: Sometimes we talk about the future of work as if everything is a monolith, and we talk about work-force development as if all of our students are alike. To be effective, we have got to realize that the students that we’re preparing now have different levels of understanding or are in different stages of life. The traditional 17- and 18-year-olds do not have the same basis of knowledge as our adult students who are 20, 30, and 40. So I’m always worried when folks talk about work-force development as if it’s all one thing. English-language learning and adult basic education are huge in my part of the world because of gateway cities and immigrants coming in. And a huge number of my students don’t need to learn how to work, they’re already in the work force, and therefore the traditional thinking that we’ll put them in an unpaid internship to learn how to work, that’s not for them. Community colleges are not four-year colleges. We have to handle 10 different things at the same time and bring everybody into the work force. We’re a very different kind of educational institution, and I don’t think we’ve been given the credit that we’re due.

McMillen: I want to get your perspectives on the role of faculty development and training. What needs to be done there to create a curriculum that responds to what is most needed and less on what faculty and administrators already know how to do?

Stout: In the student-success movement we’ve done a lot of work and have moved the needle a little bit by working around the edges of the classroom. We had a collective blind spot as leaders when we started this work of redesign, and we thought we could do it without touching the faculty. We’re past that. We are now deep into understanding that the faculty are critical co-creators of both the pedagogical work inside the classroom and also the design of the curriculum and the connection of course to course to course to form a degree or credential that will help students get a living wage.

Curry: Data is critical. We need to make sure that the faculty have data in real time in regards to success and retention of their students, and that the institutional-effectiveness office is providing that data to them in a timely manner so they’re able to look at it and make changes in their teaching. We also need to provide them with support for what they can do differently to make those changes. We must acknowledge that we have to put more resources into teaching and learning and rely on the faculty to provide some advice on how we can better support them to work with our students.

McMillen: Keith, you’ve talked about the president being an advocate and activist. Some people wonder whether that’s the right kind of role for a community-college president. What do you think the community-college leader of the future looks like?

Curry: We have multiple roles. If I’m not going to advocate for my students, who else will? If I know my students are dealing with racism, am I supposed to sit back and say nothing? If my students are dealing with housing or food insecurity, I need to advocate for resources for them. So I have to be an activist, I have to be an advocate, I have to be an educator. As a Black male who’s from Compton, that adds another level of responsibility. As I look to the future, we have to have equity-minded leaders who are able to adapt quickly to what’s happening to our students.

Eddinger: I want to talk about longevity. If you look at the average number of years that CEOs at community colleges are serving now, you wonder how they get anything done. It takes time to plant seeds and to do the kind of change leading that we’ve all been talking about. You can’t do that in three years. There’s a cycle of growth, and before you come back down from the peak, you have to think about the next cycle of growth in order to keep the institution moving. For me, it takes at least two years to plant seeds and know the college, and a couple more years to grow programs to the point where they can be independent and scaled. If you’re putting in less than four or five years into a position, are you really growing and leading a college?

Lowery-Hart: Our country needs higher education more profoundly today than at any point in our history, but it doesn’t need the history of higher education. We have to produce leaders who don’t care about titles, they just care about students and communities. That means everyone in my college is a leader who’s challenged to love our students to success with the structures that we put in place. The moment that we’re all in needs us.

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