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The pandemic has been devastating to many community colleges, with lost enrollment and declining revenue. But Carrie B. Kisker sees this as a time for community colleges to reform themselves, however much their budgets may be hurting. Kisker, an education consultant and a director of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges, outlines her vision in Creating Entrepreneurial Community Colleges (Harvard Education Press). She responded to questions about her book via email.

Q: Many community colleges operate without enough money and with various duties (only some of which make sense) assigned to them by their state and local communities. In this environment, how can community colleges think about the issues you raise?

A: Community colleges in nearly every state in the nation have experienced a disinvestment by state or local governments over the last several decades, a pattern that has intensified since the Great Recession in 2008. Indeed, as data from the Delta Project show, in 2017, states were appropriating roughly $2,000 less per student than they had been in 2001. And yet the expectations placed on community colleges have only increased. A 2013 report from the Century Foundation summed up the issue nicely: “A central problem is that two-year colleges are asked to educate those students with the greatest needs, using the least funds, and in increasingly separate and unequal institutions.” This, to me, is not only a morally bankrupt approach to educating our citizenry, but it is also an unsustainable business model.

The phrase “innovate or die” has become almost cliché these days, but in the case of community colleges, it may not be too much of an overstatement. Certainly the colleges’ long history of responding to external demands with incremental changes to form and function will not be enough to surmount today’s (or tomorrow’s) challenges. In Creating Entrepreneurial Community Colleges, I argue that an empathic, mission-oriented approach to organizational change will be necessary if community colleges are to sever the Gordian knot that has tethered them to the ebbs and flows of enrollments and public largesse for nearly a century.

Yet as you astutely ask, given all of the expectations community colleges face, many assigned by state and local governments, how do college leaders implement an entrepreneurial approach to education and training? I think readers will find more nuanced responses to this question in my book, but the short answer is this: while colleges do not always have complete control over what they offer, they do have some measure of control over how they do it. I believe an entrepreneurial approach can be incorporated into all areas of college functioning, from new program development to strategic planning to the ways in which courses are taught. Colleges that can learn how to act entrepreneurially, serve students and communities in new and fiscally sustainable ways, and redesign outmoded organizational structures and financial processes will not only meet society’s expectations but will have incredible opportunities to become the linchpins of regional economic transformations and to reimagine education and training for jobs that do not yet exist.

Q: Would you describe design thinking and how community colleges can use it?

A: At its core, design thinking is a framework for innovation and a tool to help organizations transform in ways that will position them for success in a future characterized by rapid and constant change. Originally developed as a blueprint for designing new products, design thinking has in recent years been extended to the development of programs and services in industry, education and other public and social-sector organizations. Regardless of where and how it is applied, design thinking is:

  • Grounded in empathy for stakeholders (in community colleges, these might be students, faculty, staff, community members, businesses and so forth) and focused on unmet needs.
  • Driven by possibility (the process encourages divergent and expansive thinking, risk taking, and a willingness to fail fast and recover quickly).
  • Iterative in nature (possible solutions are prototyped and tested over and over again to check assumptions, incorporate feedback and ensure that solutions meet stakeholders’ needs).

In Creating Entrepreneurial Community Colleges, I illustrate how the elements of design thinking can be employed across all areas of community college functioning, from the development of new revenue- or cost-sharing partnerships to the incorporation of an entrepreneurial mind-set throughout the curriculum. Design thinking can also help overcome challenges unique to community colleges, including communication and collaboration across institutional silos and resistance from faculty and others who fear that entrepreneurship is antithetical to serving the public good. By engaging in this approach to entrepreneurship, community college leaders can ensure that all new ventures amplify -- rather than sacrifice -- the institution’s mission and the human needs of its stakeholders.

Q: Much of the book comes out of work you did at the Maricopa Community Colleges. Would you describe that work?

A: The impetus for Creating Entrepreneurial Community Colleges came from my work with the Maricopa Community Colleges, and specifically a collaborative project between Maricopa and Arizona State University’s Decision Theater, an organization and physical space that helps visualize and test solutions to complex problems. In late 2015, following the Arizona Legislature’s decision to curtail all state allocations to the Maricopa and Pima Community College Districts, our group attempted to answer two questions: 1) How many workers with a college certificate or associate degree will be needed in the county’s six fastest-growing industry sectors over the next decade? and 2) What will this cost and how will the district pay for it? The first question was relatively easy to answer with environmental scans and economic modeling reports, but the second necessitated a wholly different approach to community college operations, one that relied less on adapting existing programs or budgets to meet external needs and more on identifying future opportunities and experimenting with the organizational, financial and other internal changes necessary to take advantage of them.

As our group and several stakeholder audiences surfaced numerous possible solutions to address how Maricopa might best meet identified workforce needs and how to pay for it, I had two major realizations. The first was that given constraints on historical funding sources, Maricopa would require a more entrepreneurial approach to financing and operations. The second was that although Maricopa and other community colleges may be quite experienced in adapting to external pressures, historically they have not been particularly well equipped to innovate or to engage in the type of creative, intentional change that may disrupt established ways of doing business. It became clear to me that community colleges needed to become more entrepreneurial in order to survive, but they lacked a process by which they could identify and evaluate entrepreneurial opportunities and experiment with the changes necessary to implement them without losing sight of their mission and values.

Of course it took several years for me to refine my thinking about this -- during which time I learned about design thinking and its application in schools and began visiting community colleges that were acting in entrepreneurial ways -- but I ultimately ended up with a framework for mission-oriented entrepreneurship. This is described in detail in the book, along with numerous stories about how components of the framework have been implemented at community colleges across America.

Q: Most community colleges are smaller -- some much smaller -- than those in the Maricopa district. How can those colleges do this work?

A: Every type of institution faces inherent advantages and disadvantages in acting entrepreneurially. Large community college districts like Maricopa have the benefits of scale and scope, which allow them to experiment with a greater number of programs and services and risk substantially smaller portions of their operating budgets on new and unproven approaches to meeting stakeholder needs. They also have more faculty and staff who can participate in entrepreneurial efforts, and those in metropolitan areas have access to a greater number of businesses and community organizations with which to partner.

However, smaller and/or rural colleges have their own share of advantages. These institutions often have much more experience collaborating with business or community groups and sharing resources with external organizations. Rural areas, in particular, are often tightly knit, with the survival of one institution (a college, hospital or business) inextricably linked to the survival of the community. In these regions, collaboration beyond campus borders has always been a way of life and thus may not represent such a paradigm shift as it does in metropolitan environments. This -- combined with the fact that small and rural institutions have long had to be extremely responsive to economic and workforce shifts to preserve enrollments -- may actually make it easier for them to act entrepreneurially. In Creating Entrepreneurial Community Colleges, I illustrate how North Iowa Area Community College -- a small institution with roughly 300 faculty and staff and 5,000 credit and noncredit students -- has gone further than perhaps any other community college in America to adopt an entrepreneurial mind-set across campus and throughout the curriculum.

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to many community colleges. How can they recover?

A: Many community colleges were in relatively dire straits long before the COVID-19 pandemic cratered their enrollments and bottom lines; even those colleges that weren’t shuttering programs or outsourcing their back-end operations were looking to cut costs or re-examine ways of doing business. So while the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic fallout have clearly been devastating for a great number of colleges, in many ways the events of the past year have simply made what had been a looming existential crisis into an immediate existential crisis.

This, of course, underscores the need to innovate and adapt quickly. Business as usual will not cut it in a post-COVID world. Community colleges will need to start experimenting with new programs and services -- designed around student or community needs -- that are financially self-sustaining or, ideally, produce a small return. Furthermore, these entrepreneurial efforts must be integrated into larger organizational, financial and cultural shifts that position the colleges for success in a wildly uncertain future, including replacing incremental and enrollment-based budgeting with a more flexible approach that ties internal allocations to outcomes, costs or strategic objectives. This will require college leaders to embrace innovation and reward collaboration, enable risk taking and support iterative problem solving. They will also need to get much better at illustrating the community colleges’ value proposition to policy makers, municipalities and partners in industry. Throughout all of this, college leaders must maintain a meticulous commitment to pursuing entrepreneurial strategies in an empathic, mission-oriented manner. There is a way out of this situation, but it cannot be accomplished with the colleges’ historic add-everything, change-nothing ethos. Our institutions can only recover by focusing on the opportunities inherent in today’s crisis and redesigning programs, services and internal processes to best meet student and community needs.

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