11/03/2013 05:59 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Vision and Mission at Community Colleges

For the past quarter century I have been one of those policy wonks trying to figure out how to judge whether a college is doing a good job. People who work at colleges, especially the faculty, tend to be annoyed by those of us who ask about effectiveness, because it seems like it should be obvious. The instructors have earned their bona fides in their disciplines. They have succeeded in attracting students. What more do I need to know?

Nowhere are the instructors more annoyed by the question than at community colleges, which tend to enroll the neediest of populations with the fewest resources. And I understand why: It seems almost insulting to ask them for an explanation of purpose, like asking a nun at an orphanage for a mission statement. But it is precisely because the needs are so great, and the resources limited, that community colleges in particular need to know - and be able to explain - what guides their decisions about who to serve and how.

"Open access" is not an adequate explanation, since institutions serve only the students who happen to discover and are attracted to the courses, programs, locations and schedule a college happens to offer. Likewise, "student demand" does not explain what is offered, because there is no way for prospective students (imagine young adults hanging out on a street corner) to express demand for programs that don't exist but could theoretically be offered.

A community college can choose to subsidize more or more or fewer career-technical programs as opposed to transfer courses; it can offer English or electrician training, chemistry or calligraphy, archery or astronomy. It has a choice. Why does the community college do what it does? Why does it continue to do this year what it did last year? What evidence does it consider in making its decisions?

In his new book Noble Ambitions Daniel Seymour makes the case for taking seriously the task of developing meaningful, ambitious, and actionable vision and mission statements at community colleges (I wrote the book's foreword but I do not earn anything off of it). What informs the decisions trustees make? What public purposes guide the president, faculty and staff in their daily activities? How would the trustees and the public know that the institution's resources are strategically arrayed to achieve the goals? Colleges and faculty can too easily be accused of being knee-jerk protectors of the status quo. A robust, shared, operating vision for the college helps to make clear how the public interest, not personal interests, determine the steps that the college takes.

In making the case for planning that is truly strategic and potentially transformative, Seymour shows, with examples, the power of developing an institutional vision, a description of the college doing its job better in the future. "While the mission validates, the vision energizes." Most community college web sites explain what the college does, sometimes how. To motivate the college's constituencies, leaders also need to explain why. Doing so will make the college more effective, more likely to achieve the vision. Conveniently, it will also make it easier to answer those annoying questions from outsiders.