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What Community Colleges Need Right Now!

Reflections from NECHE 2020.

December 14, 2020

Last week at the virtual annual meeting of the New England Commission on Higher Education, I participated on a panel discussion of presidents representing three different segments of the industry. Peter Salovey of Yale University represented our region’s private institutions. Rebecca Wyke of the University of Maine Augusta represented public research universities, and I represented community colleges. The panel was going fairly well when moderator Scott Jaschik asked me what I thought of his list of top 10 issues for higher education. Jaschik, former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Ed, is the co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. He’s a pretty big deal!

I felt the sort of heat that, I imagine, one feels at a tanning salon permeate my body. Filled with embarrassment, I admitted that I had not attended his session earlier. I had a good reason, but it was nonetheless one of those moments that I will never forget. Scott was forgiving, and the experience got me to think about my own top 10 issues for community colleges. Here they are in no ranked order below:

  1. Fixing Faculty Salaries -- With a 5-5 teaching load and students with varied levels of preparedness for the academic rigor of college, the salaries of adjunct and full-time faculty at community colleges need to be adjusted. An increase in community college budgets commensurate with the increase of labor cost is what our colleges need from our funding bodies. Presidents are often held responsible for the low salaries when they are, in fact, not within our control. If we are truly concerned about equity in higher education, let’s start here.

  1. Dismantling the Childcare Barrier -- This is a gender equity and economic justice issue. Before the pandemic, we knew that lack of childcare limited women’s economic mobility more adversely than men. The pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. There is no reason for every community college to not have a childcare facility on campus.

  1. Increase College-Going Rates for Rural Populations -- The empirical evidence points to rural youth attending college at a lower rate than their urban and suburban counterparts. As we face labor shortages across many regions, providing training and a pathway to higher education for our rural populations becomes a national economic imperative.

  1. Social Capital for Students -- A college education is not enough. We need to help students build the kind of social capital that is conducive to thriving professionally postgraduation. Helping them build their networks through paid positions and making other practices that we know work widely available, especially for rural residents, is critical.

  1. Financial Aid for Competency-Based Education -- Last year, the government’s pilot program was terminated. What we need is not a pilot program. Today’s students and job market require that we allow students to demonstrate multiple ways of knowing. Our pedagogies need to evolve for our increasingly diverse student population and a changing marketplace for skills.

  1. Cultural Dexterity Training -- Beyond cultural sensitivity and DEI training, there is a greater need to educate ourselves and our students about norms, traditions and practices of nonmajority cultures to dominant cultures. It is easy to misinterpret, devalue and dishonor that with which we are not familiar and do not understand. Our colleagues and students of color, people for whom English is not the first language, immigrants, LGBTQ, neurodiverse and other groups need us to understand them and to be prepared for the diverse world that we are at home and globally.

  1. College Completion for Black and Latinx Men -- The rates of incarceration for minoritized men living in poverty with no education, no prospects for economic mobility combined with our dark history and present situation, are higher than for white men. A pragmatist would say that equity in this realm is in the interest of the public good.

  1. Diversify the Faculty and Administrative Pipeline -- The body of research on representation is unequivocal about the benefits of mentors for women, people of color and other underrepresented groups. We need to put our money where our mouths are. Our students deserve it. We already know what works. We need to fund those impactful practices.

  1. Professional Development for Employees -- The world of work is changing so rapidly and our budgets are so limited in terms of professional development that allows faculty and staff to experience those changes. Faculty-in-residence and other residencies where college and industry staff exchange part of their roles will provide valuable insights.

  1. Cultivating Innovation Alongside Tradition -- Our sector is married to tradition and, at times, we appear unable to disentangle ourselves even if the cost is our own extinction. This does not mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In a changing world, how do we learn to preserve the culture and characteristics responsible for our success, thus far, while making room for experimentation, failure, success and evolution.

In no specific order, these are my thoughts on what our priorities should be for this coming year and this decade. With Dr. Jill Biden, a former community college professor herself, I hope that we will begin to see some more evolved thinking and actions that can lead us toward a more just and equitable society.

Yves Salomon-Fernández (she/her/hers) is president of Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. She writes about women’s issues for Inside Higher Ed’s "University of Venus" from the perspective of a Generation Xer, a mom, immigrant and leader of color. Her social media handle is @PrezYves.

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