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Twin presidents take different paths to ATD

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​Even when community colleges have a lot in common, the unique aspects of student demographics, campus cultures, state economies and other community realities require them to tailor strategies to accomplish similar goals.    
 
The Ender brothers’ pursuit of student success is a case in point. The identical twins lead medium-size community colleges: Kenneth Ender is president of Harper College (HC) in Illinois, and Steven Ender is president of Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) in Michigan.
 
Each college has about 15,000 students. Most of the students are younger than 24. The Midwest colleges are only about 200 miles apart. And with GRCC’s recent affiliation with Achieving the Dream (ATD), both institutions are now part of the national initiative that helps colleges use data to develop strategies to improve student success.
 
Since the colleges have so much in common, it might seem like they would have similar approaches to student success. They don’t. Among the difference:
  • GRCC, which serves Michigan’s second largest city, is a more urban campus than HC, even though the Illinois college is located in metropolitan Chicago.
  • About 20 percent of GRCC’s students are minorities, with African Americans comprising 10 percent of students. HC’s total minority population exceeds 30 percent, but only about 4 percent are African American.
  • HC is bracing for a big drop in state support, while GRCC’s state support has been diminishing for a decade. 
  • HC has had the past year to gather and analyze data and will soon launch its student success strategies. GRCC is just beginning its data collection and planning year to develop its ATD strategies.
What makes the colleges alike is that, despite significant economic challenges, they both are devoting resources to create a “culture of evidence.” They are committed to using data to identify problems that prevent students from succeeding—particularly low-income students and students of color—and to develop ways to help more students earn degrees and certificates.
 
Strategy to meet a goal
 
Kenneth Ender’s first year at HC coincided with the college’s first year as an ATD college. During its presidential search, the college’s board of directors was also considering whether to apply to participate in ATD. After years of “salivating” about the opportunities the initiative provides to community colleges while serving as president of Cumberland County College in New Jersey, Ender wasted no time in making the case for HC to join. He made a presentation to trustees about ATD on the same day they voted to appoint him as president. 
 
Ender has combined HC’s strategic-planning process with its ATD planning to “punctuate the student success vision a little better.”
Setting a goal of graduating an additional 10,604 students over the next 10 years is an example of the decisions HC is making based on data analysis and input from the community, which includes businesses and other educational institutions. The college graduates about 2,000 students annually and is on pace to graduate 20,000 students during the next decade.
 
HC officials note the graduation goal dovetails with President Barak Obama’s national goal of 5 million additional community college graduates by 2020.
 
Because of Illinois’s debt, Ender expects HC will receive just half of its usual allocation of state funds this fiscal year. Nevertheless, the college’s board has set aside $1.25 million to fund strategic plan initiatives over the next four years.
 
“I’m going to take a portion of those funds and attempt to leverage a match to that portion from some of our stakeholder institutions that have helped us develop this plan so we all get a little skin in the game,” Ender said.
 
He added that he plans to ask local school superintendents to commit reserve funds to match HC’s money for improving K-14 curriculum alignment and to encourage kids to think about college.
 
“I come into this thinking there’s plenty of money to do this work if we can figure out better ways to put the money together without giving up our institutional autonomy,” Ender said. “The trick in this economy, and I think going forward in public higher education, is to not build anything by yourself, but to figure out ways to bring partners in so you can leverage each others’ resources.”
 
Across Lake Michigan
 
In Michigan, the erosion of public funding for higher education has been going on for 10 years because of steep declines in the domestic auto industry and other manufacturing.
 
With thousands of displaced workers looking for new careers and many more middle-income teens coming to community colleges because their parents can no longer afford four-year colleges, GRCC enrollment has grown by 2,000 students in the three semesters since Steven Ender became president.
 
“It’s quite the balancing act right now,” Ender said. “I’m in a growth industry with declining resources.”
 
To address a projected $3.5 million deficit during 2010-2011, GRCC has raised tuition by $5 per credit hour, tapped reserve funds, redirected income from printing, dining and parking funds and reduced personnel costs by offering early retirement incentives taken by 57 employees. Ender cited budget cuts when he declined a $10,000 pay raise the board offered him this spring.
 
Despite the budget challenges, the college is not hunkering down just to maintain programs. GRCC personnel at all levels are working to make sure programs meet students' evolving needs, Ender said.
 
“My board is one of the most proactive student-support governing boards that I’ve ever seen. They are quite committed to the success of our students. That has been a real help, quite frankly, for me as president,” he said.
 
Faculty and administrators have sought state and federal grants to expand the college’s offerings. The college recently received a $4 million federal Pathways Out of Poverty grant to educate 400 inner-city adults for jobs in Michigan’s emerging energy industry. The college also recently signed $5 million in contracts with three large employers to provide training through the Michigan New Jobs program.
 
The college has been equally aggressive in funding development education programs. Three years ago when the college's application for a Title III grant was not funded, the board and then-President Juan Olivarez used internal funds to shore up developmental education with intrusive advisement. This year, the board rolled into the regular budget the $350,000 annual cost of the program that Ender said “puts educators right in the face of students and challenges them not to fail.”
 
“For students who require large-scale remediation, you’ve really got to put bodies on bodies. You can’t let that student slip through the cracks because you’ll not get them back and because they’ll quickly experience failure,” he said.
 
Based on his experience as president of Westmoreland County Community College in Pennsylvania, where faculty and staff were energized by ATD, Ender said he sought to have GRCC join the initiative. He said its approach for disaggregating data and following cohorts of students to identify effective strategies will appeal to faculty and make ATD a college-wide effort at GRCC. 
 
"We have a lot of wonderful activities and programs going on that really do focus on student success and retention and graduation,” Ender said. “I think Achieving the Dream is going to help us kind of bring all of those various services and programs under a broad umbrella of developmental education.”
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