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21st-Century Commission mulls its mission


Jerry Sue Thornton, one of the three co-chairs of the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, outlines the panel's mission earlier this year at the annual AACC convention.

​A blue-ribbon commission comprising leaders from education, policy, philanthropy and business has started its work to map out the future priorities of community colleges.

Members of the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges—convened by Walter Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC)—met earlier this month for the panel’s kick-off meeting. The commission is co-chaired by Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio; Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin; and Augustine Gallego, chancellor emeritus of the San Diego Community College District.

The discussion was broad-ranging, covering issues that currently affect two-year colleges to the role of the institutions in the future, from college readiness and completion, to the economy and workforce needs.

"It was the first opportunity for the commission members to come together and to become better acquainted and begin the process of planning our work,” said Thornton. “There weren’t any shy people in the room.”

What the Listening Tour heard

Bumphus noted that the conversations were frank and robust, which is necessary to tackle such an ambitious agenda. And even though commissioners have their own views on the topics, there was an “excellent vibe” among them to work together to “set forth a bold vision” for community colleges, he said. 

Members of the commission agreed about the mood of the meeting.

"The first meeting generated a robust, open dialogue about the important work ahead for the commission,” said commission member Jim Ryan, chairman, president and CEO of W.W. Grainger. “The group's diverse knowledge and experience will help bring different perspectives to the issues facing community colleges."

Setting the stage

Commission members received background from experts on critical issues before the meeting to prepare for broad discussions. Information also included a summary of the issues conveyed from the field as part of AACC’s Listening Tour, which was the first part of the two-phased 21st-Century Initiative. During the tour earlier this year of nearly a dozen states across the country, Bumphus and senior AACC staff heard from college leaders and stakeholders about issues affecting their campuses (see sidebar).

Center to the commission’s charge is examining community colleges’ role in dramatically increasing the number of Americans with postsecondary credentials. The commission will recommend strategies to increase college completion, achieve equity in outcomes among all students, prepare students for sustainability jobs with good wages, and demonstrate public accountability for improving colleges’ performances and student success.

Members were provided questions that would frame the panel’s conversations. They included:

  • What are the essential priorities for community colleges over the coming 10-15 years?
  • What big ideas should inform the ways institutions organize themselves and deploy limited resources to accomplish those priorities?
  • How might existing and new technologies, whether conducive or disruptive, most powerfully promote realization of the 21st-Century vision?
  • How can we equip leaders at all levels to ensure that institutional solutions are large enough to address the magnitude of the challenges ahead?
  • What policy conditions would make achievement of key priorities for community colleges both necessary and possible?

Commissioner Eloy Oakley, superintendent-president of Long Beach City College in California, noted that the agenda reflects the myriad issues affecting two-year colleges.

“Our community colleges are facing challenges on multiple fronts, not just financial concerns,” he said.

However, the commission cannot address all the issues confronting community colleges, Oakley said. Rather, the commission will work to determine the key challenges that thread through most colleges and focus on those, he said.

Many of the issues discussed at the commission meeting intersected, noted Thornton. For example, the panel discussed globalization and what it meant for the U.S. and world economy, and how it affects workforce development and the role of community colleges. In light of dwindling public funding, the panel also discussed how globalization may offer new funding opportunities, such as developing or expanding campuses overseas or selling specialized curriculum or programs abroad.

“We had to place community colleges in context of where things may be going in our world,” Thornton said.

A landmark report

The commission also discussed the overall use of its final report, which will include the main issues community colleges face as well as recommendations. Members talked about the intended audiences of the report and how the report could be used to impact colleges, from the local to national levels, Thornton said.

“We don’t see [the report] as a finished product but an evolving opportunity for community colleges to stay current and to navigate some murky waters,” she said.

The commission will meet again in October. It will make its recommendations to AACC and community colleges at the association’s annual convention in April 2012.