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Who Will Lead Community Colleges?

June 21, 2013

More than 40 percent of the nation’s 1,200 community college presidents are likely to retire in the next five years. And the current pipeline to replace them is not up to the task.

Those are the findings of a new report from Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute College Excellence program. The two groups today called for an urgent national conversation about how to best prepare community college leaders to succeed in jobs that won't be getting easier anytime soon.

Past reports have also predicted rapid turnover at the top for two-year institutions. This one goes farther by calling for new and improved ways to train and select presidents.

“There is urgency,” said William Trueheart, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream. “There is also an inadequacy.”

Incoming presidents will need to have solid grounding in how to improve graduation and retention rates at community colleges, according to the report. They will also face challenges such as how to reform remedial education, engage with part-time faculty members and make decisions about “uncertain technological innovation,” such as emerging forms of online learning -- all with limited money.

Leaders of both groups said good work is being done at some existing community college leadership training programs, including doctoral degree tracks at universities and professional development offerings by higher education associations. But many more opportunities are needed, they said.

Some training programs need to better incorporate recent lessons learned about what makes a community college president succeed, according to the report. Likewise, trustees and presidential hiring committees often neglect valuable traits when selecting new presidents.

Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, agreed with the report's findings. "There’s a lot of room for expansion, proliferation and new approaches."

The report generally found an inadequate emphasis on student completion in the grooming of new community college chiefs. Also lacking is the placement of a priority on presidents who are ready to take risks and push changes, sometimes painful ones.

Two key qualities were identified often among top-notch presidents, according to the report: acknowledging when their institutions aren't cutting it and making tough budget decisions to fix those problems.

“Rather than defending current institutional performance -- including completion and transfer rates that are commonly below 50 percent -- exceptional presidents openly acknowledge shortcomings,” the report said. They also “understand that budget reallocations are necessary to maximize the portion of limited resources spent on what matters most to student success.”

Looking Outside

In recent years Aspen has identified top performing community colleges based on a broad set of completion-oriented data as well as site visits. The report drew on that process by including interviews with 14 presidents who lead colleges that have fared well in the Aspen Prize.

Achieving the Dream is a nonprofit group that works with more than 200 community colleges on data-driven improvements, many of which are also aimed at retention and graduation rates. The report includes results from focus groups with presidents at some of those colleges, as well as experts who have worked on student-success oriented reforms.

In addition to the importance of risk-taking, making tough choices about money and being committed to boosting completion, the research determined that successful presidents need to be in it for the long haul. For example, Aspen Prize winners and finalists all had their presidents in place for more than a decade.

The report describes how presidents can create lasting change by creating strong plans, collaborating on campus and building external partnerships.

To study how desirable presidential traits are being encouraged through preparation and the hiring process, the report included interviews with eight veteran search consultants. It also featured an analysis of the curriculums of 16 traditional academic and professional training programs.

The training programs fell short in a few areas. For example, budgeting and finance courses did not consistently address how to measure the efficiency of campus initiatives. And none of the curriculums reviewed included course content in communicating effectively with faculty and staff members.

Trueheart said he hopes the report can be used to develop “open-source curricula” for training presidents. To that end the two groups plan to collaborate with the American Association of Community Colleges and other higher education associations.

The most prominent academic program for aspiring community college leaders has long been the one at the University of Texas at Austin. But UT's Community College Leadership Program has faced recent turbulence, most notably the departure of John E. Roueche, its founder and leader for 41 years.

Roueche subsequently moved to National American University, where he now runs a leadership program at the Roueche Graduate Center.

Current programs cannot possibly fill the wave of looming vacancies, said Josh Wyner, executive director of Aspen’s College Excellence Program. The UT graduate degree track, for example, enrolled only four students last year, down from 12-15 in previous years.

Wyner and Trueheart encouraged community colleges to be open about looking outside of traditional pools of talent for new leaders. But those candidates, like others, will need proper orientation and preparation for how to tackle the job’s unique challenges.

One possible model to emulate comes from K-12. Trueheart and Wyner said the Broad Center’s Superintendents Academy is an innovative approach to training superintendents for success in urban school districts.

McClenney said coping with leadership turnover in the sector will require both creativity and hard work.

“We’re going to have to be able to look in nontraditional places because of sheer numbers,” she said, but cautioned that to “come in knowledge-free is not going to work.”

 

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