The State of Community College Governance
Complexity, uniqueness characterize our nation’s state system governing boards
by Norma Goldstein
In most states, each community college has its own independently operating governing board. In nearly a dozen states, however, a statewide system governs all community and technical colleges. These systems, which are found in 11 states nationwide, offer varying combinations of local and statewide governance, but their leaders say they allow the alignment of statewide priorities and local needs.
“States with independently operating community colleges don’t have the scale and scope that we have,” says Dr. Sue Ellspermann, president of Ivy Tech, Indiana’s statewide system. “It works well for Indiana and for Ivy Tech.”
Understanding Statewide Systems
Community college governance through statewide systems is highly complex and highly differentiated across the country. While there is greater unity, focus, and familiarity among state board members, state systems are also highly dissimilar from each other. Bound by location, population size and mix, history and culture, and by state statutes, statewide governing boards, commissions and councils embody different layers of governance and oversight to their campuses. Each state system has a distinct history and a different lexicon; each is unique in how it operates and varies in the scope of its governance.
Prompted by a grant from the Strada Education Network, ACCT has explored and worked with several community college governing state systems via the Governance Institute for Student Success (GISS) institutes. This article is the first describing the nation’s statewide community college governing systems. While there are approximately 11 states with statewide governing boards, featured here are just a few to sample the complexity.
Unique Lexicons, Common Missions
Most statewide governing bodies are called Boards of Trustees. The titles and number of members of these statewide systems and their leaders indicate their variety:
- Rhode Island’s eight-member Council on Postsecondary Education has a commissioner who runs the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner.
- Washington state’s 34 pubic community and technical colleges have local governing boards but are co-governed by the nine-member Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC), which is headed by an Executive Director.
- The Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), which was formed by combining the 14 community colleges of the University of Kentucky and the 15 technical institutes in the Kentucky Workforce Development cabinet, is headed by a system president and governed by a 14-member Board of Regents.
Scope of Authority
Statewide systems have wide ranges of oversight. Names for these statewide governing boards, commissions, or councils often vary based on their scope of authority. Some state boards’ authority involves governing (or coordinating) all postsecondary educational institutions within a state, including universities, community and technical colleges, and even K-12 schools. One example is Colorado’s State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education (SCCCOE), which governs both secondary and postsecondary career education and community colleges.
A small number of states have a university system of governance. Minnesota’s 30 community colleges, along with seven state universities, are governed by the 15-member Minnesota State Colleges and University Board of Trustees. Georgia has 25 technical colleges and two two-year campuses under the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, as well as a 22-member Technical College System State Board responsible for standards, policies, and regulations for each of the technical colleges. New Mexico’s 19 community colleges operate under three separate university systems: four under the University of New Mexico Board of Regents, two under the Eastern New Mexico University Board of Regents and four under New Mexico State University Board of Regents. The other nine colleges are governed by two boards of regents and seven locally elected governing boards, respectively. Other varieties of governing oversight of community and technical colleges by universities exist to different extents.
State and Local Boards
Some statewide systems have local campus boards; some do not. Indiana’s statewide system, for example, has the governing Ivy Tech Board of Trustees and a college president who oversees 19 district chancellors across the state. Each district, however, has a Campus Board which helps focus on specific local issues. The result is programming that is consistent across Indiana while being responsive to the unique opportunities to serve in each of the communities where colleges operate
Examples of different statewide models follow.
Indiana’s Ivy Tech State System
According to Dr. Andy Bowne, Ivy Tech’s Chief of Staff, the effectiveness of Indiana’s system has to do with alignment with state policy and policymakers, as well as the efforts of statewide organizations (like the Indiana Chamber, Indiana Manufacturing Association, and Indiana Healthcare Association) to develop statewide programs which address their workforce concerns. “Because of our scale, we are able to bring four-year partners like IU and Purdue to the table, which is difficult for smaller community colleges,” says Bowne. “For instance, we were able to develop a robust reverse transfer [program] because of our size.”
Ellspermann, Ivy Tech’s President, touts the strengths of a statewide college. “As a singly accredited statewide community college, there are many advantages for the state,” she says. “Curriculum is established statewide, which means student and employer needs are addressed consistently across the state. We can offer consistency across the state while still responding to the unique needs of each community. As one college statewide, we can more effectively partner with the Commission for Higher Education, the Department of Workforce Development, the Department of Education, the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, and certainly the General Assembly and Governor Holcomb.”
Like Indiana, Vermont’s state system has one community college, the Community College of Vermont, a statewide entity with 12 sites. The two governance systems are similar in that they both have a statewide governing board and a president of the community college, but in Indiana, the heads of those 19 college districts are called chancellors, and in Vermont the leaders of the learning centers (which tend to be fairly small) are called coordinators. “We’re unique. We are not just a community college,” states Tricia Coates, director of government affairs for the Vermont State College System. Vermont also has two four-year liberal arts universities plus a state technical college.
Dr. Monty Sullivan, President of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS), also appreciates the statewide governing system for its 12 colleges. “The statewide governing structure in Louisiana is one that has allowed our colleges to remain focused on the mission of access and workforce development,” he says. “This structure allows for strategic policy decisions, which contributes to our ability to quickly respond to industry demands and remove a variety of barriers for students. As a result, the winners are businesses that hire our graduates, students who find family-sustaining employment, and communities throughout the state.”
In addition to its governing Council, Rhode Island also has a governing Board of Education which oversees K-12 and the three postsecondary public institutions—the Community College of Rhode Island, the four-year Rhode Island College, and the University of Rhode Island. “In Rhode Island, a statewide system of public higher education offers numerous advantages that ultimately benefit students — our institutions collaborate and share effective practices and lay out clear, navigable pathways for students,” says Dr. Brenda Dann-Messier, Rhode Island Commissioner of Postsecondary Education. “Rhode Island’s holistic approach allows us to implement statewide solutions for strengthening the workforce, opening up opportunities for more Rhode Islanders and eliminating equity gaps.”
The Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) is a centralized system, but each of its 16 community colleges are accredited separately. The State Board determines statewide policies, curricula, tuition rates, human resources, and admissions guidelines
The current system was set up in 1998 by statute. Each college has an advisory Board of Directors to deal with local matters. Among the statutory duties of campus boards: making recommendations for hiring a campus president, evaluating the president, approving a campus budget for later approval by the State Board, and approving the campus strategic plan so that it is aligned with the statewide strategic plan.
Benefits are many, according to Dr. Jay Box, KCTCS President. “The strength of the partnership is a system of colleges and the ability to meet local needs,” he says. “Not only does the statewide system allow for flexibility for the individual colleges, but such a system provides an economy of scale. Efficiencies are built in — one student management system (SMS) and one contract with outside entities such as Blackboard Learning and Blackboard Student Services. Money is saved.”
Kentucky previously had a “disjointed” community college and technical college system that was part of the University of Kentucky. As vocational entities, the technical colleges were not accredited. “We now have a comprehensive system,” says Dr. Kris Williams, chancellor of KCTCS. She also added that a statewide agreement with a large manufacturing company (FAME Program) positively impacted all of the colleges’ advanced manufacturing programs throughout the state.
According to Cindy Ackley, executive assistant to President Box, state systems are a more unified body when going to the legislature. “Instead of 16 colleges, we go there as one,” she says. “We’re all in this together — a shared experience. We’re all helping get it done. A big family kind of feeling.”
Different Models, Common Benefits
These examples are just a few of the variations found among the nation’s statewide governing systems. States with a single community college like Vermont, Indiana, and Rhode Island undergo institutional accreditation as one college, yet vary in size and in the number of sites dispersed throughout the state. By contrast, Indiana’s Ivy Tech is the nation’s largest singly accredited statewide community college
“While community colleges in other states operate as systems of individual colleges, we have one process statewide,” says Ivy Tech’s Ellspermann. “With 19 campuses and more than 45 overall locations, a site visit is still very complex, but in the end it’s one process.”
Most leaders of state systems feel that these singular processes and alignments with state policies provide focused effectiveness for a state’s community college and higher education system. In spite of their uniformity as a statewide system, however, one concept lies true. As Jane Strain, chair of the Arizona Association of Community College Trustees (AACCT) and trustee at Cochise College in Arizona, notes, “The one thing about community colleges is that we are incredibly different.”
GISS is a national initiative that provides education for community and technical college trustees and presidents to assist them in data-informed governance to promote student success, equity and completion and career readiness. Visit https://governance-institute.org/ for more info.