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North Carolina State University

For at least the past 20 years, everyone from community college advocates to trustees has been bemoaning the increasing number of open and unfilled presidencies at two-year colleges across the country.

Even sitting presidents worry over the lack of a pipeline to replace them as they retire.

In North Carolina, for example, about half of community college presidents are expected to retire before 2019.

And that’s concerning to North Carolina State University, from which many alumni have gone on to reach the top position at one of the state’s 58 community colleges.

So this past year, NC State redesigned its three-year doctoral degree in adult and community college education to align its curriculum and standards with both the Aspen Institute’s research on community colleges and the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate. It's a move the university, along with a few other institutions, is making as part of a larger shift by the sector to focus not only on access and completion but postgraduation outcomes and the impacts those movements have on the presidency.

Now the program is focused more on labor market outcomes, learning, equity and completion in an effort to make future presidents more effective, said Ryan Knight, lead program associate at the university's Envisioning Excellence for Community College Leadership program.

“This is a chance to make sure courses we offer are in line with the most recent evidence-based findings of what makes today’s community college leaders most effective,” Knight said. “You can design a program today, but it’s not necessarily going to be relevant.”

NC State’s program takes the research and combines it with practical guidance about being a two-year leader, which is drawn in part from an advisory board that includes community college presidents. And it’s that practical aspect, combined with the work at Aspen, that officials at the institution hope makes NC State stand out. Currently, about 60 students are enrolled in the program.

For example, the curriculum emphasizes entrepreneurial approaches toward leadership -- an idea that current presidents have to grapple with as money from federal and state resources continue to decrease. So course work may center around looking for nontraditional funding sources or leveraging local industries and employers to invest in a college, Knight said.

There’s also some focus on how college administrators can better interact with legislators and policy makers, he said.

“Another major area we’re focusing on is equity and student success,” he said, adding that when administrators look at creating a new program and examine labor market data, they’re aware that everyone -- not just privileged groups -- should have access to equal opportunities.

The NC State program is one of what the Aspen Institute's Josh Wyner hopes is the first of many such community college leadership programs to emerge and help build a pipeline for two-year college leaders.

“They adopted the four-part framework for student success, and when you say that people think it’s just completion,” said Wyner, vice president and executive director of Aspen’s College Excellence Program. “For Aspen, it’s learning, completion, equity and labor market outcomes, and NC State has intentionally adopted that for its program as a way of framing practical education for students.”

Besides NC State, several other institutions are going through their curricula and trying to align them to the current sector needs, said Karen Stout, president and chief executive officer of Achieving the Dream. These include programs at the University of Maryland University College and National American University.

Building the Pipeline

There are more than 70 community college leadership programs across the country. The programs vary in the type of degree or certificate they award to people who are eager to reach the upper rungs of a two-year college or system, according to the National Institute of Staff and Organizational Development, which maintains a list of the programs.

However, in the past more community college leadership programs granted certifications, said Wyner, including the once-heralded graduate program at the University of Texas at Austin, which has been diminished in recent years.

“Given the enormous turnover and changing expectations of the presidency, we need a lot more and different community college leadership programs than we have right now,” he said. “The field isn’t robust enough and there isn’t enough differentiation in programs to meet the needs of community college leadership that exist across the country.”

In 2013, Aspen and Achieving the Dream estimated that more than 40 percent of the country’s 1,200 community college presidents were likely to retire over the next five years.

And for those universities that are still offering community college doctoral degrees, they’re producing very few graduates, said Terry O’Banion, chair of the graduate faculty at National American University. Much of the community college leadership program that once existed and was founded by John E. Roueche at UT Austin in 2012 moved to National American, which is a for-profit institution.

“Every decade we say there’s a leadership crisis, but it almost deserves that designation now,” O’Banion said. “The job has become too difficult. Faculty unions are in control of a lot of places. Constituencies and boards have become more active, and boards have become a real problem for some community colleges.”

But part of the challenge is that there are fewer professors at research universities who are evaluated on creating new leaders in the community college space, especially when incentives focus on research and publications, O’Banion said.

“The trickle of graduates from programs around the country is not meeting the need at all, and the need has increased extraordinarily,” he said, adding that the average tenure for a president at one of California's 114 community colleges is about three years.

The other avenue potential community college leaders commonly travel is pursuing doctoral degrees in education administration, which more often than not cater to the K-12 superintendent pipeline, O’Banion said.

Doctoral programs clearly are not the only path to becoming a community college leader. But Aspen’s 2013 report found that the curriculum in many doctoral programs preparing community college leaders wasn’t adequate. Those programs didn’t do enough work in focusing on partnering with employers and K-12 school districts or teach about the external, off-campus work presidents are expected to do today, Wyner said.

“We need many strong doctoral programs throughout the country, and they need to be, in my opinion, regional hubs,” said Stout, the ATD president. “And not just for presidents. Because of what I’m seeing in the pipeline, we need strong department chairs, deans, provosts, vice presidents of finance and administration that understand the operations of community colleges.”

And all of this is coming at a time when the range of preparedness in the presidential pool is more diverse than it has been, she said, adding that sitting presidents, deans and executives from outside academia all have been considered for presidencies.

Aspen also runs the Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence, in collaboration with Stanford University's Educational Leadership Initiative. Among the current 39 fellows, 12 have become presidents. Aspen’s fellowship prides itself in particular on assisting more women and people of color to move up the presidential pipeline. Of the 12 fellows who are presidents, six are people of color and seven are women.

In addition, some community college leadership programs are not tied to universities. For instance, the American Association of Community Colleges has a weeklong Future Presidents Institute.

“There is a lot of theoretical and historical knowledge doctoral programs need to teach, and there is no way Aspen can deliver a doctoral program,” Wyner said. “But by partnering with us, we hope to add to that the practical knowledge of how to lead internal change and partner for student success with outside entities.”

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