Q&A with ED’s new lead on community colleges

Casey Sacks, the U.S. Education Department’s new deputy assistant secretary for community colleges, visits with Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges. (Photo: Matthew Dembicki)

The U.S. Education Department (ED) has a new deputy assistant secretary for community colleges.

Casey Sacks, who serves in the department’s office of career, technical and adult education, joined ED in December after serving as vice chancellor at the West Virginia Community and Technical College System for two years. Prior to that, Sacks spent eight years at the Colorado Community College System in academic affairs.

Sacks recently visited with Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), and his executive team. Below, Sacks answers a few of questions about her role at the department and what community colleges can expect from ED in the coming months.

Q: What has been your focus these first few weeks at the department?

My first few weeks here I am focused on meeting with stakeholder groups and getting to know my team here at the department. There are a number of federal agencies that are invested in the work that our community colleges are engaged in – finding the right people at those agencies has been a priority so we can align our work. Meeting with state leaders about the reauthorization of Perkins has been a lot of fun. And of course getting to collaborate with colleagues at AACC and the Association of Community College Trustees – most of all I want to make sure people recognize they have a community college advocate in the department and that they know how to connect if they need something.

Q: You’ve recently spent time working at the state level in West Virginia and Colorado. How have those positions helped shape you for this post?

My work in Colorado and in West Virginia has given me both local community college and a broad state perspective about education policy and how the federal government impacts and informs the work at the local level. Experience from both states helps me frame how I think about education policy work and I consistently bring that local lens to conversations with my colleagues in the department.

Q: Looking ahead, what can community colleges expect from your office?

The secretary [Betsy DeVos] is incredibly supportive of the work happening at our community colleges and wants to continue to showcase that work. In fact, she has made career and technical education one of her highest priorities and all of the divisions of the department are being challenged to support the work happening in that space.

Q: The administration has embraced community colleges in its role to help prepare the nation’s workforce. How will your office factor in various efforts, such as developing more apprenticeships, which President Trump has championed?

In 2017, the president created a White House Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion. As you know, there are a number of recommendations that came from that work. In a related effort, DOL [Department of Labor] will shortly be announcing a second round of apprenticeship grant awards to support the expansion efforts. My office continues to be a close partner with DOL and the White House efforts to expand apprenticeship. From my experience in both Colorado and West Virginia, it is clear to me that community colleges are well positioned to provide the formal educational components for an apprenticeship. But community colleges cannot accomplish an expansion alone. We need partners from business and industry and from local workforce boards and many other local stakeholders to really grow these programs.

Q: Regarding workforce development, can you discuss any cross-department collaborations?

The most immediate collaborations I see are with the Department of Labor. For example, in Perkins V states have the option to submit joint state plans for WIOA [Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act] and Perkins. This kind of flexibility allows departments in states to collaborate with each other to agree on the same goals for their federal programs.

Q: Workforce development has received most of recent spotlight when talking about community colleges. Can you touch on some of the academic aspects ED hopes to address?

When you talk to employers about the skills they need in employees, you always hear about “soft skills.” If you ask more questions about what they really mean, they are talking about communication, literacy, mathematical reasoning, problem solving and collaboration. Those are all skills that are at the core of a strong academic model.

As a community college sector, one of our challenges is in integrating those skills in short-term programs. It is a challenge for a number of reasons, but because so many of our students need immediate access to credentials for employment, they come to our colleges for a short time. We see in our data that they put off taking core courses like math. That course taking behavior doesn’t serve the students well and doesn’t serve our employers well. It is one of the many reasons why AACC’s guided pathways project shows such incredible results. The pathways create intentionality and integration across the curriculum – that ultimately serves our employers and our students more effectively.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.