opinion

Help Community Colleges Find Their ‘Camelot Moment’

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Sixty-one percent of community college students believe they are on track to attain their academic goals within two years. But only 39 percent of them actually earn a degree or certificate within six, according to the latest Community College Survey of Student Engagement 2016 national report.

That disconnect is alarming, disappointing—and completely avoidable. It is also just one of many statistics that keep community college leaders up at night. Solving this completion challenge necessitates elevated thinking, out-of-the box solutions and a deeper acknowledgement around the very real issues and complexities community college leaders are facing.

So it was to my surprise that I found myself having a Groundhog Day moment at the recent 96th annual American Association of Community Colleges convention, where the theme was “Our Camelot Moment: A New Day for Community Colleges.”

Many of the conversations were around the same issues of college completion: student retention, remediation, better ways to manage online services, or better ways to recruit. But so many of the topics, tools and vendors were not proposing anything new.

My biggest takeaway from the events at the convention was a challenge to those organizations that support community colleges and the individuals who lead them, myself included, to consider that if this really is the Camelot moment for community colleges, then we should do more to rethink our same old solutions and models.

The best place to start would be to take what we know has worked successfully in the four-year college space and apply it to community colleges. It is a dramatically different model of a public-private partnership, with shared revenue. It is a model of investment in services and products without a capital cost to a community college struggling to make ends meet. This model embraces the actual community college budgetary climate, which is now increasingly based on student learning outcomes. In this model, vendors immediately become partners in the purest sense of the word, since risk and reward is shared and directly aligned to that which is most important: the ability to get, keep and graduate students.

For example, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College launched a new partnership with Pearson this year. In this venture, we at Pearson are leading the college’s efforts in marketing, recruiting and admission and have made upfront investments to hire additional staff and support growth strategies. All activities are designed to attract and enroll new students, and to collaborate closely with the administration and faculty to build approaches that will increase student persistence. Planning and execution are informed by in-depth and continuous data collection and analysis throughout the entire process, from marketing through recruitment, student support, completion and employability.

This is just one idea, but there are many others, such as the creation of partnerships between colleges and local businesses. In this arrangement colleges provide custom curriculum to a business’ employees who are in need of very specific training. In return the business invests significant money in tuition, scholarships and upkeep of facilities where its employees go to class and where they eventually earn an associate's degree that directly aligns with their job. There is no exclusivity on innovation and more creative solutions exists. But we need to rethink the entire approach if we are to address the many competing interests that community colleges face.

Think about the many competing demands placed on community colleges. They are asked to be a pillar in the community, but also to be nimble as they address the needs of the community, with dollars apportioned by how well they achieve that goal. As open-access institutions, they are asked to serve everybody who comes to their door. They are asked to be the entry point for students who want to go back to school to get a better job to make more money. Yet those same community colleges are being held accountable even more than their four-year peers to outcomes-based funding.

Community colleges by nature are the central hub in terms of their importance to the communities they serve. The “community” in their name alone implies that they are a key support structure for local corporations and businesses. It’s not hard to connect the dots: when community colleges win, so too do the surrounding communities.

This brings me back to our partnership with Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. It is a bit early to suggest that it will change the world, or even Cincinnati. But it does represent a commitment to thinking differently about the challenges and competing demands placed on community colleges, and to better aligning ourselves against those challenges in a shared-risk, shared-reward business model. It's a model that's been around for years with four-year colleges, and now community colleges are taking advantage of it.

If we all can rethink how we work together, perhaps we can have a Camelot moment for community colleges, rather than Groundhog Day.

Brett Frazier (@BrettRFrazier) is senior vice president at Pearson Education. He is the leader of business development for Pearson Embanet, and he supports managed services for community colleges.

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