As the community-college sector faces declining state funds, heightened expectations for student success, and deep public scrutiny, many of its approximately 1,200 institutions will also go through changes in leadership. About 500 presidents are expected to retire in the next five years, according to an analysis by the American Association of Community Colleges, which is holding its annual meeting here this week. And nearly 200 colleges have new presidents at the helm since the group's meeting last year.
The challenges for community-college leaders today and for the next generation are profound, three long-serving presidents told a crowd on Monday. National attainment goals and the push to graduate more students put pressure on the sector's traditional commitment to open access, they said, just as colleges' financing structures are falling apart.
That day of reckoning is already here, said Kenneth L. Ender, president of Harper College, outside Chicago. "The current business model that we rest upon," he said, "is not sustainable."
The hard facts drew grim nods here on Sunday. Community colleges' total operating revenue is significantly less per full-time-equivalent student than it used to be: Across all colleges, that ratio declined by 29 percent, to $3,094, from 2004-5 to 2010-11, according to an analysis of federal data by Kristin Wilson, chief academic officer at Hopkinsville Community College, in rural Kentucky.
State dollars per student are dropping significantly, Ms. Wilson said, while federal dollars—including stimulus funds and allocations for special projects, excluding federal financial aid—are, on average, rising. Community colleges are growing more reliant on discrete disbursements of federal money, she said. "We're using it to scrape by."
At Northern Virginia Community College, state support has dropped by 20 percent as enrollment has grown by 25 percent, said its president, Robert G. Templin Jr., on the panel. That fiscal climate, which shows no signs of easing, requires strategic, creative thinking to serve students, he said. "How do we have significantly better outcomes for them, and how do we do it at a declining cost per student?"
Delving into institutional data to set priorities is crucial, Mr. Templin said. "Don't look for a best practice at my place and try to import it to yours," he told the group. Rather, leaders should work with their institutional researchers to identify critical points in students' paths and develop programs to promote their progress.
Successful efforts require faculty input, Mr. Templin said, even when such discussion is difficult. Presidents should be prepared to contend with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief, he joked (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). As faculty and staff members try to build consensus, data should be the guide, Mr. Templin said. Evidence-based decision making is an important but rare skill, he said, one the next generation of presidents must possess.
Leaders should also embrace public accountability, said Mr. Ender, of Harper College. They ought to involve the local community in setting bold, transparent goals, he said, and gather stakeholders regularly for progress reports. The president compared the strategy to one for quitting smoking: Tell everybody you know, and let them help you get there.
Mr. Templin stressed the benefit of partnerships, particularly around the difficult issue of remedial education. "How do we prevent the need for remediation?" he asked. "We can't solve this problem inside our institutions." Working with elementary and secondary schools as one public system of education, with the same students at different points in time, holds a lot of promise, he said. He was careful not to blame those schools for the designation of so many students as unprepared for college-level work, saying that colleges often put students in remedial courses who don't belong there.
Finding funds for new projects is a perpetual challenge for community colleges, which must become more entrepreneurial, Mary F.T. Spilde, president of Lane Community College, in Eugene, Ore., said on the panel. Colleges need to focus on bringing in revenue to support student success, she said, describing Lane's effort to raise $53-million to build a new campus. "I didn't think I'd be putting together financial deals," Ms. Spilde said, but she had to.
College leaders must constantly identify potential new sources of revenue, Mr. Ender said in an interview following the panel. Right now, he is pursuing an agreement with a four-year nonprofit institution to share tuition revenue from students who would stay on Harper's main campus while pursuing a bachelor's degree. He is after private capital from corporate partners that will put their name on a curriculum. And he is in talks with a foundation seeking to finance the development of online courses and programs in career and technical education for international distribution.
"By default, you've got to find a way to finance your institution," Mr. Ender said.
Entrepreneurship has been a focus throughout the community-college meeting. On another panel, a representative of Tulsa Community College discussed licensing products and services developed through its Center for Creativity. Though not conceived to generate revenue, Houston Community College District's international programs may hold that potential. The district has worked, for example, with a state-run oil-and-gas company in Brazil that sought help with safety training.
Evolution in Learning
Innovations in technology can also help sustain community colleges, Ms. Spilde said on the presidents' panel. Students are increasingly pursuing self-paced or competency-based learning online, she said, and they may turn to community colleges for a credential. "What happens when they show up at our doors and say, 'I don't want to take a course,'" but they want certification for what they know?, she said. Institutions need a business model for that.
And if the federal government, as announced after President Obama's State of the Union address in February, starts looking into a new form of accreditation, community colleges need to be part of that conversation, Ms. Spilde said.
More reflection on community-college leadership will come in June, with a report by the Aspen Institute, which in recent years began running a competition to recognize excellence in the sector.
To navigate a challenging landscape, community-college presidents must be deliberate, Mr. Templin, of Northern Virginia, told the group. The national agenda stresses completion, but the leaders' goals must be broader, he said. "The outcome is not a degree. It's not transfer. It's to have individuals with portable credentials of market value that are in careers with family-sustaining wages."
Community colleges must commit not to let that mission be displaced, Mr. Templin said. Otherwise, he said, "we're going to find that we've sacrificed access to get our numbers up, and that our degrees don't mean anything."