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Transforming colleges for the new century


​Alex Johnson, president of Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio and co-chair of the 21st-Century Initiative's Implementation Team Steering Committee, discusses the recently released implementation guide with a colleague at the AACC annual convention last month.

Photo: Matthew Dembicki

​Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the April/May edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

When AACC released its 2012 report, “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future,” the educators and thought leaders behind the initiative knew it would only go as far as the nation’s community college leaders were willing to carry it.

Two years and more than 120 volunteers later, the initiative continues to gather steam, challenging educators, policymakers, workforce partners and other stakeholders to rethink how they deliver education and measure student success.

“The great thing about 'Reclaiming the American Dream' is that it took our challenges head on, and that’s what our team did with accountability as well. Those are very thorny issues for us, and I learned a lot from my participation,” says R. Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System.

Building a game plan

Reclaiming the American Dream is the cornerstone of AACC’s 21st-Century Initiative, launched in 2011 with the goal of outfitting an additional 5 million students with degrees, certificates or other credentials by 2020.

Phase 1 featured a nationwide “listening tour” by AACC staff, who gathered input from more than 1,300 students, college faculty and staff, administrators, trustees, state policymakers and college presidents and chancellors.

Strategies to implement the 21-Century report

Phase 2 established the 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, a group of community college leaders charged with safeguarding the fundamental mission of community colleges and imagining a new path forward for their institutions, their students and, ultimately, the nation.

That work resulted in the formation of a special Steering Committee and nine Implementation Teams, dedicated to helping community colleges carry out the recommendations outlined in AACC’s "Reclaiming the American Dream" report.

After meeting for more than a year — in person and via teleconference and social media — the implementation teams' finding were released last month at the AACC annual convention in an implementation guide.

What was learned

Here, we ask some of the participants to weigh in on their experiences over the last year and reveal some of what they learned — about their colleges and themselves — in the process.

“Our team’s topic, accountability, ties very much into the overall theme about how we look not just at our positives but also the challenges we have,” Ralls says. “The team shared commonalities as community college leaders, but we came at it from different places.”

One of the primary tasks assigned to Ralls and his teammates was to address the implementation of the AACC’s Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA), the first national system of accountability specifically for community colleges.

Rallying college leaders for the '20-mile march'

“We had a collective endorsement of the VFA; then we talked individually about what that meant,” Ralls says in describing the collaborative process that was used throughout. “We saw that it can mean different things in different places. We had insights into how we can both promote the VFA and use it in our accountability, and how that ties into other types of accountability systems, state or local.”

Steven Lee Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College in Ohio, served on Implementation Team 1, which focused on college success, and on the Steering Committee, which oversaw the work of all nine teams.

“We acted as an advisory and sounding board,” he says of his work on the committee, “and to fill in the gaps when teams needed clarification.”

He also talked about his experiences as an implementation team member.

“It involved lots of conversations around what is it we know, or believe we know, that will make a difference in student success? What are the obstacles?” he recalls. “People with various interests would break into smaller groups or as individuals, and over time, work out answers. They would bring back examples from other colleges for follow-up meetings and vet different ideas. What works at other colleges? What do we want in a tool kit? What are our policy recommendations? Those are the types of things that emerged over the individual teams’ discussions.”

A different experience

Not surprisingly, all the college presidents who we spoke to for this report have served on a variety of local and national education-reform panels and committees. Yet, across the board, they agreed that their time on the 21st-Century Initiative was different.

“There was a definite sense of urgency, that if we don’t embrace the needed changes for community colleges to be responsive in the 21st century and beyond, someone else will do that for us, or we will not survive,” says Cynthia Bioteau. Bioteau was recently appointed president of Florida State College at Jacksonville, though she was president of Salt Lake Community College while a member of Implementation Team 4, which focused on developmental education.

“We know nationally that developmental education is not a successful approach for the majority of our students when we look at completion rates,” Bioteau says, adding that the experience provided an opportunity to debate the issue with her peers.

“To ask questions in a safe environment, knowing that colleagues were all struggling with the same thing, maybe with different gradations, was a very good exercise for us,” she says. “When you have a representative team of people who are tops in their field and are thought leaders in community colleges, and you’re able to sit around a table with them to discuss such an important issue, it’s as good as it gets.”

Visit the AACC 21st-Century Center for resources and recommendations.

How community colleges in rural areas confront critical workforce development issues is a particular focus for Katharine Eneguess, president of White Mountains Community College in New Hampshire, a remote community with less than 10,000 residents. That’s partly why Eneguess was chosen to serve on the Steering Committee as well as Implementation Team 5, which explored closing skills gaps in the workforce.

“When we talk about rural versus metro issues, I have a loud voice about that,” Eneguess says. “We are in the forest products area, where we continue to have economic stress, and we have to work differently.”

Interacting with her peers on the team, Eneguess stressed the importance of preparing students for the global marketplace.

“We talked generally about system change elements that involve governance and other fundamental structures within all our community colleges,” she says. “And we broke into teams to focus on the particular things we need to do to escalate and to help people understand the critical nature of closing the skills gap.”

The Implementation Team members and other commission members say the real payoff will come as those findings begin to trickle out to the nation’s more than 1,132 community colleges, as well as to K–12 schools, business partners, policymakers and other stakeholders within those communities. Community college leaders say they plan to work with these groups and others to implement the recommendations issued in "Reclaiming the American Dream."