The End of Community Colleges

Community colleges serve almost half of higher education's students today. We consider ourselves indispensable, yet the marketplace will allow us to fail.
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In 1996, the Chancellor of the State University of New York suggested community colleges were more sensitive than universities to the whims of the marketplace and more at risk of closing. We might, he said, disappear because of the ability of competitors to deliver similar services and programs more cost effectively and with greater public acceptance. His comments ignited a theme that inspired me then to publish an article in the Community College Week, which is even more relevant today: that a community colleges' most profound challenge is to inspire trustees, faculty, staff and students to understand that rapid and dramatic academic and organizational change are necessary for community colleges to fulfill the demands of community and employers in the 21st century.

The issue is quite simple. The university owns the public's respect as a prestigious gateway to a successful life. Many small colleges will disappear, but universities will continue to generate substantial funds for technology advancement, research and teaching, continuing their control of access to a desired future. Yet, community colleges serve almost half of higher education's students today but face the following:

  • Diminishing resources and reduced student access;
  • Tuition caps as our customers are more sensitive to costs, especially if Pell grants are restricted;
  • Competition with increasingly aggressive organizations for the same resources;
  • Competition from for-profit colleges, corporations, entrepreneurs and universities, expanding their markets in the community college's traditionally "protected" turf;
  • A confusing image that is too broad and poorly marketed;
  • Traditions that make any change ponderously slow.
We consider ourselves indispensable, yet the marketplace will allow us to fail. Consider that two years ago, the Texas legislature proposed eliminating four of the states' 50 community colleges. Although withdrawn, it could very well resurface. Many technical and community colleges have been consolidated. Meanwhile, the City College of San Francisco may not survive.

Key strategies utilized by competitors have challenged community colleges' traditional culture:

  • Customer Focus - in all things
  • Agile - able to respond quickly to the market
  • Placement - graduates matched to the market
  • Focus - niche driven to maximize enrollments and revenues
  • Marketing - sophisticated, continuous
  • Personal Service - the student/customer feels welcomed
  • Student Financial support - no lines, easy payment
  • Collective Mission - all employees focused on the customer
  • Scheduling - meets customers' needs, not employees
  • Access - delivers where and when customer requires
  • Performance based - outcomes defined, applied/contextual learning with measured results
  • Streamlined - minimal credit hours to achieve certification
Community colleges have the creative employees to implement these strategies. But until we change our paradigm, acknowledge our competitive environment, no longer with the fiscal assurances we've enjoyed, we risk being replaced by others more customer-focused and efficient. We are confronted by what Charles Handy calls the "Age of Unreason," a period of discontinuous change in which we must turn our thinking "upside down" and respond in totally different ways to the environment. Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen refers to this as "disruptive innovations." He identifies community colleges as disruptions to universities but ironically, multiple competitors are now challenging community colleges.

In this high-performance age, the demand for learning will increase. Thus, community colleges have great opportunity. But we must stop functioning like mini-universities and fulfill the founding promise of a student centered, market responsive, academically innovative organization. As tax supported institutions, we have a moral imperative to earn the public's trust by focusing on success of all students, high performance/efficient operations and programs that increase our communities' economic strength.

We know that our traditional educational approach serves only some students well. The model has always replicated the university approach, that's where we were raised. Inertia and tradition have restricted our willingness to shift the paradigm to one in which all students succeed. Yet, we know that:

  • Learning is best achieved when one is fully involved in applied and contextual discovery;
  • General Education has little meaning as individual courses but must be an integrated whole. Faculty must guide students to connect in multiple ways to the diversity and complexity of ideas that can be applied to their careers;
  • Learning is increasingly "just in time" and lifelong, accessible from multiple sources;
  • Work, co-ops, internships and other forms of "service-learning" are key to understanding and maturing;
  • Nurturing learning, understanding curriculum design and utilizing multiple instructional techniques are more important for faculty than deep expertise in a discipline;
  • Traditional teaching will be replaced by faculty acting as coaches, facilitators and information brokers;
  • Learning is best that occurs in the community because resources are plentiful and learning more relevant than only in a classroom. Learning must become collaborative as today's careers require social sophistication and collective performance;
  • The college organization must continuously adapt to a changing environment.
To prevent the "End of the Community College," its leaders must redesign our mini-university model and become the assertively responsive, transformative, and community-engaged design that is our very own so that we are leading, engaging and accelerating actions necessary to competitively flourish.

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