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21st-Century Commission to set vision, direction

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Jerry Sue Thorton of Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio) discusses the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges.​

​NEW ORLEANS — The three co-chairs of a commission that will craft a blueprint for the future of community colleges say their work will address an array of issues, from funding and advocacy, to college access and completion.

At the closing plenary of the annual American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) conference, the co-chairs of the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges set the tone for what they hope the commission will accomplish over the next 18 months.

The first step is to gather information from community colleges around the country about their top concerns, from issues they are currently facing, to what they see as the needs of colleges and students over the next 20 years. AACC President Walter Bumphus is collecting some of that information during his Listening Tour across the U.S. and will forward that information to the commission. (Bumphus has yet to name the members of the commission, which will include college leaders and stakeholders, including business and industry representatives and others.)

Input from experienced colleges leaders and new leaders, as well as college staff, partners and advocates, will help the commission develop a collective vision, said commission co-chair Jerry Sue Thorton, president of Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio). She hopes the commission’s work can rekindle the “pioneer spirit” of the community college movement.

“We must shape our own future,” Thorton said.

Co-chair Augustine “Augie” Gallego, retired chancellor of the San Diego Community College District (California), said the commission will have an opportunity to re-focus two-year colleges’ core goals. Access to higher education, for example, remains a challenge, he said.

Gallego noted it’s too soon to determine the direction of the commission, but community colleges must support and advocate for the DREAM Act (a federal bill that would help undocumented immigrants legally enroll in U.S. colleges), developmental education and articulation with four-year institutions.

“That agenda has not finished,” he said.

Gallego said colleges must establish a clear advocacy strategy to use locally, regionally and nationally. Colleges should also rally their community partners and businesses to advocate more for them and their students, especially during tough economic times when states are cutting funding to community colleges.

Commission co-chair Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, said she hopes the work of the commission will spark conversations and partnerships among stakeholders to develop ideas that will address the challenges colleges continue to face.

From the Listening Tour

AACC’s Bumphus said several common themes are emerging from his ongoing Listening Tour, which will continue to California and Oregon, among other locations. Top on the minds of many college leaders: defining college completion, fast-tracking developmental education and dealing with budget cuts. College presidents also want to share more promising practices.

Finding solutions for the challenges won’t be easy, and they won’t come overnight, Bumphus said. However, he and the commission co-chairs noted that community colleges are increasingly seen as critical to addressing many national issues, from increasing the number of college graduates, to providing a skilled workforce that will fuel the U.S. economy.

Bumphus said two-year colleges are up to the task, which he emphasized throughout the convention.

“We have the opportunity to do some of the most exciting work we’ve ever done,” he said.

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