Redefining the Community College Experience

12/04/2013 11:11 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2014

The late 2000s, dominated as they were by the Great Recession, were years of unprecedented growth for the nation's community colleges. Colleges that had traditionally focused on student access and opportunity shifted institutional attention to student success and completion of a degree or credential. With completion the goal, the multiple defined pathways that learners use to pursue their dreams increasingly define their college experience.

Students are coming to community colleges after traditional high school graduations, adult basic education, employer training, military service or previous four-year college and university attendance, and are pursuing skill certifications, associate degrees (and increasingly community college baccalaureate degrees) or, through transfer, four-year bachelor degrees.

Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., is an example of such an institution. Enrollment at Forsyth Tech grew 52 percent from 2006 to 2011.

In October 2013, the Forsyth Tech's Board of Trustees revised its mission statement. The new mission statement is: "Forsyth Technical Community College provides students with flexible educational pathways to a competitive workforce for the community and global economy." This new statement is a departure from the previous statement, which catalogued the programmatic areas of the college, and it reflects Board members commitment to students and economic and workforce development.

The mission still embraces the comprehensive community college concept. It is inclusive of all the ways students -- in the broad sense of the learners served -- come to Forsyth Tech and of all of the paths they take to their careers. It includes the pathways that may begin in K-12, with programs such Early College or Middle College, and it includes those students who will successfully transfer from articulated programs and courses to a four-year college or university (and in some cases, who pursue graduate and professional education) before becoming part of the workforce.

As so many of the career opportunities in the economy now require higher level skill -- a trend likely to continue and intensify -- diploma and associate degrees are increasingly important. Nationally-recognized, third-party certified credentials such as licensure for nurses and other clinical health technicians, the credentials of the Skill Certification System of the National Association of Manufacturers or the IT certifications of CompTIA and software vendors also have increasing value.

Student learning isn't confined to classroom, shop, clinic or lab, and the pathways to completion must acknowledge that learners bring skills and knowledge from previous education and training, such as military training, and may want to move through the curriculum at their pace, acquiring the competencies and moving to the next learning opportunity when they are ready. Flexible pathways that include competency-based learning, experiential learning, and articulation of recognized, quality learning makes that possible.

We know from research of student success that students need direction and clearly defined pathways to reach their goals; the defined pathways must represent quality instruction and high standards of performance.

The mission of Forsyth Tech to provide those defined, yet flexible, educational pathways will guide the strategic direction of the College. Where obstacles are present, students may need help around them; where possible, the path needs to be straightened. I like the analogy in a recent television ad for a financial investment company, where a potential investor sees a green pathway to a secure financial future, and we hear of the company's commitment to keep the investor on that path. That's our goal: to keep our students on the pathways toward attaining their educational and career goals.