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Subject:

Ed Central...excellent community colleges ...part 2

From:

Norman Stahl <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 25 Apr 2014 13:16:05 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (41 lines)

By Ben Miller — April 22, 2014
 

Community colleges are a significant portion of the higher education system, enrolling over 10.6 million students each year. Especially for low-income, minority, and first generation students, they provide the initial gateway to higher education. When operating well, these institutions can provide students with access to low-cost programs well-attuned to local labor market needs, build a basis for transferring to a four-year college, or accomplishing a host of other missions.
But as Josh Wyner lays out in his excellent new book, “What Excellent Community Colleges Do,” getting these institutions to the point where they can accomplish all these goals is a product of intentional, dedicated action. Wyner’s book draws on concrete examples from his work administering the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, to talk about the types of hard work, committed culture from leadership down to faculty, good communication with the business sector, and a number of other factors that America’s most successful community colleges possess. Not only does doing so help the reader better understand how complex ideas play out in practice, it also makes the book very lively and engaging to read. This is not a dry tome. It’s an engaging and readable discussion of how specific colleges addressed pressing national challenges with a great mixture of policy and examples. And if you have any interest in community colleges, or really lessons about effective higher education structure and completion, it’s very much worth reading.
Today and tomorrow Ed Central is running excerpt from an e-mail interview with Josh about some of the themes in his book, what it takes to build a successful culture, the all-too-often ignored importance of leadership, and several other interesting issues the book discusses. Some of the Ed Central questions have been edited down.
Ed Central: The book argues that successful community colleges have an established culture that helps them thrive, not just the specific policy interventions they pursue. In looking at the colleges you highlight, when and how did they build these cultures? Is it a matter of turning around an entirely under-performing college or tapping into existing support to do things better?
Josh Wyner: So much of the work in recent years to improve community colleges has focused on replicating particular educational programs or student services models that have been effective elsewhere. While those reforms matter– and indeed comprise a big part of what my book describes–I have yet to see an exceptional community college that was built solely through the adoption of isolated programs, no matter how effective. Establishing an organization that continuously drives toward excellent student outcomes also requires intentional efforts to build a strong culture.


Nowhere is this more apparent than at Valencia College, in Orlando, Florida. Valencia has built a faculty professional development process–including a unique tenure system–entirely around improving student learning in the classroom. Most tenured faculty have come through this system, so there is now a pervasive culture built around professors and staff analyzing and adapting their practice to improve student outcomes.
 
Valencia has also built its culture by developing a series of “Big Ideas.” This is a process by which the entire college decides on an area of focus to advance student success that, in turn, guides a huge amount of the reform effort for several years. When data showed that students failing even one of their first five courses had a much lower chance of graduating, the Big Idea became, “Student failure occurs at the front door.“ This in turn led to many highly effective reforms, including Valencia’s well-known system of student advising (LifeMap) and the policy of prohibiting late registration for courses. College leaders understood that engaging everyone in figuring out a central theory of action will not only lead to a set of strong programs, but a common sense of purpose and focus that will drive all decisions.
 

EC: How much do you think the states matter in encouraging the types of policies you see successful community colleges pursue? Is there a model form of governance or relationships that states should strive to emulate?
 
JW: State policy can set the stage–or hinder efforts–to achieve higher levels of community college student success. Students’ bachelor’s degree aspirations will not be met unless incentives are provided for four-year colleges to take more transfer students and apply all of their community college credits to a major. Community colleges will continue to be frustrated in their attempts to accelerate completion of developmental education and core courses as long as funding and reporting structures are built around old models defined by courses and semesters. Clearly, some state systems are more focused on resolving these things than others.
At the same time, states and systems should also be thinking about how to support the development of stronger cultures within higher education institutions. How can they help community college trustees understand gaps in student success and how to hire presidents who can close them? How can they provide leadership professional development aligned to the actions of today’s excellent presidents? To advance excellence in the sector, we need to continue advancing state policies to remove barriers to innovation and strengthen student pathways, but we need to dramatically accelerate intentional efforts to build a new generation of exceptional leaders.


EC: What  characteristics or traits do these exceptional leaders have in common? And do they suggest any need to rethink the way community colleges currently search for their leaders?
 
JW: In the first year of the Aspen Prize, each of the five top colleges had a really strong president who had been at the college for a decade or more. That got us wondering: How were these presidents different from others? Working with Achieving the Dream (ATD), Aspen researched the qualities of presidents whose community colleges finished in the top five of the Aspen prize process in 2011 and/or whose colleges had achieved the greatest student outcome gains among ATD presidents. We found that exceptional presidents possessed five common qualities above all others: deep commitment to student access and success, willingness to take risks, strong internal change management ability, the vision and capacity to build external partnerships, and strong fundraising ability. Yet we found that boards of trustees hiring new presidents often overlook two of those five characteristics–risk-taking and change management ability. So, yes, boards of trustees need tools that help them take a different focus when hiring, and we also need new professional development models for current and aspiring presidents to develop these key capabilities. Aspen and Achieving the Dream are working to build both of those.
 
EC: What role can the federal government play in these efforts? It seems noticeably absent from a lot of the interventions and ideas discussed.
JW: Federal financial aid programs are worth billions to community colleges every year, but the dollars flow through students, not directly to the institutions. So it’s not clear how that money can be leveraged to impact institutions. Perhaps that’s why so much effort is being devoted at the federal level to providing better information to students and families. While the Department of Education should continue helping students become smarter consumers, it seems unlikely that, in the increasingly complicated and diversified higher education marketplace, moving consumer decisions alone will create enough of an impetus for colleges to improve student outcomes. The Department is also trying to cut off institutional eligibility to receive student financial aid for especially poor-performing institutions, the basic idea behind the gainful employment regulations. But while this approach could force colleges to avoid or curtail the worst practices, it is unclear that it would do much to create incentives for excellent practice.
Perhaps the most important role the federal government can play in advancing community college student success is to design new competitive grant funding programs that create incentives for innovative practice tied to specific goals. Among those worth considering are improving completion among student populations who disproportionately arrive at college underprepared; increasing rates and numbers of low-income community college students who attain a bachelor’s degree; and ensuring that greater numbers of college graduates are employed with strong wages. Community colleges won’t be able to achieve those goals by acting alone. They’ll have to act in concert with other types of institutions—and that’s something to incentivize.
- See more at: http://www.edcentral.org/wyner-excellent-community-colleges/#sthash.4W4xiMQA.dpuf


Norman Stahl
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