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College leaders discuss the road ahead for community colleges

Stories & Case Studies
September 15, 2021

At the end of August, Achieving the Dream President and CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “The Road Ahead for Community Colleges.” Dr. Stout, alongside three presidents of ATD Network colleges, weighed in on the profound impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on higher education and shared her vision for the community college of the future.

The panel discussion featured:

  • Dr. Keith Curry, president and CEO of Compton College
  • Dr. Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College
  • Dr. Russell D. Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College
  • Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream

What challenges are community college leaders addressing now?

Achieving the Dream recognizes that community colleges are hubs of social equity and economic mobility for the students they serve, as well as the communities connected to them. Dr. Stout cited the challenge of equity as the most pressing issue that colleges and universities are currently addressing, particularly after COVID-19 has exacerbated longstanding gaps in access to and success in higher education. The community college’s challenge is to transform not just the classroom but the community at large. “The question we’re asking,” Dr. Stout said, “is can we take the lessons we’re learning from our whole-college transformation work and move that into our community transformation work?”

Liz McMillen, executive editor of Chronicle Intelligence at the Chronicle and the host of the August 31 discussion, asked  panelists about the biggest issues community colleges will have to address as the education landscape continues to evolve post-COVID.

Dr. Pam Eddinger cited the urgency many communities are feeling to help get people back to work. Community colleges, she said, should approach this challenge through an equity lens and “help develop better jobs… that will sustain our communities.”

Across the country, people are facing basic job insecurity as well as basic needs insecurity, from housing to food to childcare. Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart discussed how such life barriers are keeping students from seeking a degree, which may have long-term impacts on their economic well-being and mobility. To help build career opportunities with a family sustaining wage, “we have to completely reimagine the way we structure ourselves,” Dr. Lowery-Hart said.

“Can we take the lessons we’re learning from our whole-college transformation work and move that into our community transformation work?”

Community college presidents and chancellors are not just leaders, they also have roles as activists, said Dr. Keith Curry. He said that to overcome the largest hurdles facing higher education, “we have to develop unapologetic leaders within our system” to address urgent equity issues and build stronger communities.

Dr. Curry also discussed how Compton College’s ability to provide professional development (or professional learning) throughout the institution has been critical to ensuring the college continues to support its students and deliver results throughout the pandemic. He said that working with Achieving the Dream has helped the college create more opportunities to support staff and faculty, particularly since they already had remote and virtual professional learning systems in place prior to the pandemic.

What should the community college of the future look like?

Each panelist addressed ways in which community colleges are connected to their students’ communities. Policies and practices such as forming more partnerships, developing work-based learning models, and placing a greater focus on teaching and learning will all play a role in shaping the future of community colleges.

Dr. Stout, discussing the potential for work-based learning models to play a greater role in higher education, again recalled the importance of approaching these changes through an equity lens. “Can we assure learners that they will be on a path to economic and social mobility, that they’ll be able to earn a living wage?” she asked. She stressed that students’ academic experiences in work-based programs should not occur as a transaction, but rather mark the beginning of a continuing relationship between student and institution.

She also discussed the importance of centering teaching and learning in equity efforts, a topic that has come into greater focus throughout the ATD Network and which was a core theme of the organization’s 2021 convening, DREAM. College faculty and teaching staff have enormous potential to shape an experience for their students that creates a sense of belonging and leads to success. “Faculty are our scalers,” Dr. Stout said. “They touch every single student.”

The panelists talked about behaviors and priorities college leaders may model in the future. Dr. Eddinger, citing the importance of community partnerships in building a more effective institution, reminded attendees that college presidents “can’t do everything ourselves.” She said that the new community college president “is someone who will open doors and make alliances.”

Dr. Lowery-Hart considered the holistic experience students will have while moving through their academic journeys at community colleges. “It’s not just the services” that colleges will need to provide, he said. More than having access to services, students “need to have people who are going to love them through those services.” Ongoing holistic support is critical to advancing equitable success on campus.

But regardless of their college’s needs or their community’s systems, Dr. Stout said it’s important for all college leaders to have humility. Particularly when it comes to trying to predict challenges and opportunities for the future, college presidents are called to be honest and humble, “to say we don’t know when we don’t know.”

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