‘Future Proofing’ Institutions, Listening to Students, and New Priorities for 2019

Days 3 & 4

October 29, 2018

During the third day of the 2018 ACCT Leadership Congress, community college leaders were urged to “future-proof” their institutions in the face of evolving needs from students and employers.

Outlining shifting trends in how companies are recruiting and training their workforces, keynote speaker Kevin Mulcahy urged community college leaders to focus on disruptive practices such as massive online learning courses (MOOCs) across companies and sectors, stackable credentials, and ongoing learning experiences including badging and skills registries being adopted by leading employers in a variety of sectors.

“This is the intersection you have to figure out,” said Mulcahy, co-author of The Future Workplace Experience and partner at Future Workplace. “If you don’t meet companies where they are going, your students are not going to be as valuable to them as they could have been.”

Meeting Student Needs

At the same time, community college leaders also must focus on attending the basic needs of the growing numbers of low-income and minority students for whom academic success is imperiled by a wide range of out-of-school factors, including hunger, homelessness, and child care issues.

About half of all community college students face food or housing insecurity, and between 12 and 14 percent have experienced homelessness in the past year, according to Sara Goldrick-Rab of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice and a professor at Temple University.  “We’ve moved beyond the numbers,” she told Congress attendees. “The conversation today is about action.”

Leaders from three Texas community colleges described their institutions’ efforts to support students’ nonacademic needs, including connecting students to resources such as emergency financial support and food pantries. At Amarillo College, leaders discovered that the top 10 things students identified as barriers to success “had nothing to do with the classroom,” said President Russell Lowery Hart. “We had a robust and profound student success agenda that has taken hold in the community college, but we were ignoring the one big reason” students dropped out or stopped out. 

Adjusting systems involved creating new supports — and retooling existing ones to meet students’ real-world needs.  “We had resources to deal with the electricity being cut off. We didn’t have good systems,” said Joe May, president of the Dallas Community College District. “It takes a week to cut a check — in a week, they’ve missed classes.”

Another key factor involves helping students rethink what it means to accept support, said William Serrata, president of  El Paso Community College. “You’re not asking for help, you’re ensuring that you’re taking advantage of what you paid for,” he said. 

Like rethinking delivery systems to meet employer needs, addressing students’ needs involves radical rethinking, Congress speakers said.

“The world we live in in higher ed is not going to improve by polishing systems that aren’t working,” said Hart. “We have to be disruptive and reimagine the fabric, and sacrifice things that might be working on a small scale for things that might work on a bigger scale.”

The Final Word

To that end, the 2018 Congress came to a close Saturday morning by giving community college students the final word, by discussing ways that institutions and their leaders could better serve them. 

Michael Aguilar, a former Lone Star College student now at Washington University in Missouri, pointed to his Phi Theta Kappa sponsor, who connected him and others to scholarships and encouraged service projects, including one which led to the creation of a food pantry.  “Each one of you plays a huge role in continuing to help students grow,” he told Congress attendees. “What’s really important is for community colleges to focus on helping those people committed to student success. They’re going to push more than one student through the door, but whole generations of people through the door.”

Elda Pere, international president of Phi Theta Kappa and a student at Bergen Community College, discussed her challenges navigating financial aid, registration, and transportation as an international student from Albania. “It’s important to let students know what they don’t know and allow them to ask even the silliest questions,” she said.  “We [also] need more individuals focused on opportunities for students instead of just helping with processes like registration and financial aid — people who think of the whole spectrum.”

Alicia Moreno, a former student trustee at Alamo Colleges in Texas and a member of ACCT’s newly formed student trustee advisory board, shared her experience as a military veteran returning to earn her degree. “My college had a veterans office, which helped me navigate” financial aid, Moreno said, pointing to the large number of active duty members of the military in Texas. “It’s an opportunity to not only serve them, but their families,” she said.

New Priorities—and a Second Chance

Taking the gavel during the final session, 2018-19 ACCT Chair Connie Hornbeck pledged to continue 2017-18 Chair Emily Yim’s emphasis on partnerships and introduced two priorities of her own for the upcoming year. Hornbeck, a trustee at Iowa Western Community College, stressed the importance of improving ACCT’s engagement with member boards and urged trustees to support efforts to provide  educational opportunities to the 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, the vast majority of whom have no postsecondary education.

“It’s an issue worthy and uniquely related to the mission and value of community colleges as transformative and life-changing,” said Hornbeck.  

Since a 2016 U.S. Department of Education pilot of Second Chance Pell allowed 39 community colleges to offer postsecondary programs inside correctional facilities, 701 certificates and 230 associate degrees have been awarded to incarcerated individuals, Hornbeck said.  “Amid growing evidence of positive impact…. there’s truly an opportunity” to reinstate Pell funding for incarcerated students through the Higher Ed Act reauthorization or other federal programs, she said.  “We can serve as the shining light for those who need a second chance to what access to education can bring."