Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Wearing a New Hat

July 28, 2009- Community colleges have worn many hats since they proliferated the education space in the 1960s and 70s. We think of community colleges as a place for adult learners to test the waters of higher education and gain credentials for the workforce. That’s still a large segment of their market. Yet, community colleges have been so much more.

Executives with master’s degrees have enrolled to pick up a skill they could use for work- like how to master Excel. Visiting undergrads have stepped on campus to redeem themselves after falling short first semester freshman year at a state university. Even for people in the community who never stepped into a classroom, they may have played in a high school basketball tournament or won a state semifinal in baseball on campus. Community Colleges have always been woven into the fabric of our communities.

This month, the federal government is shining a spotlight on community colleges with another hat to wear, specifically a re-visited role to help displaced workers transition into new positions in the workforce. The New York Times recently pointed out that, “Even before the announcement Tuesday, the Obama administration had put unprecedented emphasis on two-year institutions. Martha J. Kanter, the former chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College district in California, was tapped for the second-highest job in the Education Department. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chose a Miami community college for his first official visit to an institution of higher education, and last month Mr. Duncan announced a $7 million grant program for community colleges to train laid-off auto workers and other displaced workers. And it has not hurt that Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife, teaches at a community college.” Those of us who follow higher education, can’t help but notice this shift.

While the story may read as simple as a celebration that twelve billion dollars is going to the nation’s community college network – take a closer look at what that means for our higher education system. Think about all time high enrollments and all time high budget cuts and what that means for the retention of students – students with diverse socio-economic as well as academic backgrounds. Now add to the formula, the additional 5 million students who the new administration is hoping to channel into the community college system for job training and workforce development. It feels like it could be a bit overwhelming to the system – unless community colleges are proactive in their preparation.

This summer at the Council of North Central Two Year Colleges (CNCTYC) president’s retreat, it was clear that progressive community college leaders are rethinking their business as usual. They realize that making small changes can add up to big results when it comes to servicing students and improving the student experience – whether they are enrolling for an accelerated certificate or a longer-term degree program. This means innovation, such as investigating online delivery options as well as new technology-based student service models to guide retention and completion efforts.

We’ve been working with CNCTYC’s member schools to demonstrate the value of providing technology to students to identify a career goal, manage their curriculum and map out their degree path, especially at a time when the link between education and employment is so imperative. The more resources, information, and practical tools we can provide to learners – the more empowered they become as students. We’ll continue to work with community colleges to meet the needs of the growing number of community college students as the federal plan unfolds.

Hats off to those recognizing the value of community colleges and their role in the recovery of our economy.

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