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A Q&A With the Author of ‘Re-Visioning Community Colleges’

I was excited to discover, last year, that my institution’s president, Debbie L. Sydow, co-wrote a book—Re-Visioning Community Colleges: Positioning for Innovation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), part of the American Council on Education Series on Community Colleges. Sydow had just started as the president of Richard Bland College, and I wanted to learn more about her views on higher education. There was also the thought, way back in my mind, that I could get some brownie points.

I did finally finish the book and, I have to say, it’s kind of amazing. The first section gives a brief history of community colleges. Then the book shows some examples of institutions that are practicing innovative ideas. Finally, the book presents some insights into where the two-year college may be heading and maybe should head given our evolved society.

President Sydow graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the book, community colleges, and about higher education:

What prompted you to write this book?
I believe that passing along the knowledge and insights that accrue over the course of a career is a fundamental responsibility of senior professionals in every field. Therefore, when Richard Alfred, editor of the ACE Series on Community Colleges, and my co-author, urged me to write a book for the series, I gladly took up the challenge. In essence, contributing to the body of literature about community colleges for the benefit of new generations of practitioners and leaders was my primary driver.

Why do we need to “re-vision” community colleges?
Higher education is at a historic crossroads. Increasing mandates for accountability, coupled with a steady decline in public funding, is forcing all of us to explore more effective methods and means for delivering upon our mission-specific promise. If current trends hold, only a select few colleges and universities will have the luxury of maintaining current operating models in decades to come, and even those elite institutions will likely be transformed by nascent demographic, social, and economic trends. Historically underresourced, two-year colleges are simply among the first wave of colleges facing the perils of inertia. Being intentional about readying our institutions for what has been called the “new normal” just makes good sense.

The first part of the book focuses on the history of community colleges. Why was including this history so important?
Throughout their history, two-year colleges have proven to be relatively adept at improvisation and innovation in response to changing environmental conditions. Highlighting the significant ways in which social, political, and economic forces have historically shaped community colleges underscores the point that current environmental conditions will continue to compel change. However, by thinking and acting strategically, there is the opportunity to meaningfully influence our destiny.

Can you briefly describe how you think community colleges and other two-year institutions will look in five, 10, even 20 years?
In the near term of five to 10 years, I believe existing trends will continue as the “success agenda” displaces the “access agenda.” Community colleges will welcome an increasingly diverse population of students, reflecting rapidly changing demographics in the U.S. For sundry reasons, the proportion of academically underprepared students will increase, forcing more institutions to adopt alternative curricular solutions with more promising outcomes than traditional developmental education has delivered.

In the long term—20-plus years hence—the major shift in emphasis from student access (college entry) to student success (college completion) will have dramatically transformed the colleges that remain in operation. There will be fewer brick-and-mortar campuses, fewer “sage on the stage” classrooms, and fewer distinctions between sectors of higher education because to achieve high completion rates without pricing students out of an education, we’ll have to figure out the right blend of human and technology resources needed to provide students a customized learning experience that aligns with clearly established learning outcomes and leads to marketable credentials. Institutions now rigidly divided by Carnegie classifications will become networked in ways that best accommodate public demands for higher education, and public-private partnerships will become the norm to accommodate industry demands for higher education.

The book mentions, and I’ve heard you talk about, a college’s commitment to the “whole student.” What do you mean by this?
Schools in the U.S. were designed for the industrial age. Much has been written on this topic, but in essence, students are treated as empty vessels whose minds are to be filled with prescribed knowledge, much like widgets on a manufacturing assembly line. Despite vast evidence that this model is effective for a relatively small percentage of students, the model has persisted because a sufficient number of jobs for unskilled labor has enabled its continuation.

The economy has since shifted in response to the digital revolution, and there are fewer and fewer jobs for those who fall through the cracks of the educational system. In the information age, schools and educators at all levels are challenged to engage students in learning experiences that (1) build upon their unique strengths and talents; (2) promote creativity, problem solving, and innovation; and (3) build clear and seamless pathways from PK-16 for successful outcomes, e.g., a good life and meaningful employment. Educating the “whole student” is about all of us in the field of education taking responsibility not just for teaching concepts within a discipline or a particular skill at a particular level; it’s about identifying individual talent and contributing to the optimal development and self-actualization of human beings.

The subtitle of the book is “Positioning for Innovation.” Some seem to think innovation stops at technology—online courses, MOOCs, etc.—but the book presents technology itself as only one aspect of innovation. Can you delve a little further into how you see “innovation”?
Change exists along a continuum with incremental change and disruptive change at opposite ends. Innovation is somewhere in the middle, and unlike change of the sort that is constantly under way in all organizations, there is an intentionality about innovation. In the book, Richard Alfred and I explore community colleges as a sector of higher education that, arguably, was born of innovation, and we review the ways in which this sector has since practiced innovation.

Ultimately we conclude that community colleges have been remarkably successful at adopting and advancing—not initiating—innovation, for example, online education. Our research suggests that innovation currently under way in community colleges is seldom the result of carefully planned and executed research and development focused on achieving mission-specific outcomes. Despite inherent resource limitations, however, I remain optimistic that innovative initiatives currently under way (some funded by the Lumina, Gates, and other foundations) will lead to scalable and sustainable innovation that results in real, measurable gains in student success.

Richard Bland College, where you and I currently work, is not a community college. Can you explain the difference and also tell how the book may apply to other types of two-year institutions? And how do four-year institutions fit into the mix?
Although the book is focused on the two-year or community college, the concepts certainly apply to all sectors of higher education. Colleges and universities are in the midst of a revolution, so Carnegie classifications will become increasingly blurred in an era when the measure of our worth will be determined by the success of our students.

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