I retired in June as President of Ivy Tech in Indiana, the nation's largest singly accredited community college system. Although I had an advanced degree from the Kelly School of Business when I joined Ivy Tech nine years ago as the new President, my "classroom" as an educator centered in the corporate world as a team leader, having spent my career as the CEO of a large international manufacturing company.
My business background proved invaluable as I led Ivy Tech, always looking for the best educational experience for its 170,000 students.
After nine years at Ivy Tech, I have learned some valuable lessons that I believe can help, not only other community college presidents, but also businesses, local municipalities, and state and federal governments.
Community colleges are the backbone of American higher education. They train our first responders, nurses, chefs, IT techs and welders, among others. I believe that community colleges need to be held to a different standard than other institutions of higher education.
Our students are older; they have jobs and family responsibilities. Most don't have the luxury of going to school full-time. Often it takes them years to get a degree or a certificate. But they persevere, and when they succeed it means a better life for their families and often their communities because that's where they find jobs.
Community colleges also prepare many students to go on to four-year schools with many credits already on their transcript. They may not receive an associate degree, but move into a bachelor's degree program with a considerable number of semester hours already in the bank.
With that in mind, we must look at new ways to report graduation rates and community college success, and alternative methods to track students who may not get a community college degree before they transfer their credits to four-year institutions and will most likely take more than four years finish.
We should also champion career training with high school students and their guidance counselors. Not everyone can afford the luxury of getting a B.A. in art history. There are great jobs that only require a certificate that can often be earned in less than a year.
Our students want well-paying jobs and many of these jobs are in manufacturing. Many parents today don't want their children to work in a factory. But these are high-tech jobs that pay well and usually have great benefits including health care and 401ks. American manufacturing now requires advanced computer training, team skills and high levels of critical thinking.
We need to reach out to local manufacturers to design academic programs that meet their workforce demands. There should be more apprenticeship programs where students can learn as they earn. Community colleges are the solution to many U.S. manufacturers' worries that they cannot find skilled people to hire.
We also need to address remedial programs for returning adults and underprepared high school graduates. We want students to begin working toward a degree immediately and not get stuck in a remedial pathway. Many community colleges now have programs that combine remedial work with coursework for credit. Others are changing math pathways to match the mathematics skills to the field of study. College algebra and calculus for all will be a thing of the past.
Mentorship programs are also extremely important, and all community colleges should find a way to provide a mentor not just to high school students entering college for the first time, but also for veterans and adult learners. Some do this already. Research has demonstrated that having a mentor can be the deciding factor between success and failure in an academic setting.
We need robust partnerships with local high schools to convince students to start earning an associate degree while they are in their junior and senior years. Not only will dual credit save them money when they do enroll in college, it also prepares them for the rigor of college coursework.
Finally, community colleges need to do a better job of promoting our achievements in the media, with local, state and federal legislators, and with employers. This should be an ongoing effort so that our successes are front and center when it comes to providing crucial government funding for academic programs, or when a new employer is hiring.
That's one of the reasons I recently wrote The Community College Solution (available on Amazon as a Kindle e-book or in paperback), as I believe that community colleges are the pathway to the American dream. My book explores the various facets of the community college experience -- everything from how we are educating our veterans to our myriad success stories. This is a follow up to my original book: The Community College Career Track: How to Achieve the American Dream without a Mountain of Debt (Wiley, 2012) also available on Amazon.
As a member of the board of College Promise, which was formed to explore the concept of free community college, I still plan to work on behalf of community colleges even in retirement. I believe passionately that in these economic times, students shouldn't be amassing insurmountable debt to get an education. Community colleges should be the first choice of anyone looking to get a post-secondary degree or credential, whether it is a recent high school graduate or a displaced worker.
Community colleges are truly a low-cost, high-impact way to make our nation stronger. They need and deserve our support.