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The 21st Century requires the creation of what I prefer to think of as a "Communiversity" -- an organizing strategy that enables us to tap the existing public resources of our secondary schools, the community college and our regional public universities. That means today's community college leaders must conceptually view and extend their definition of "community" beyond the community college campus to K-12, university and nonprofit community-based service partners.

We must move from a highly disconnected array of institutions to a more tightly bundled system of community-based education. What is needed is a new institutional model, one that promotes "stickiness" between community colleges and these other public sectors organizations.

This Communiversity form of public education stitches together the time and talent of our employees with the capital and fiscal resources of existing institutions and organizations: building out a new, more powerful ecosystem of public education.

In many ways, the community colleges of today are best positioned to promote that stickiness by serving as conveners or organizing bodies to leverage the joint capacities of the K-12, community college and regional university partners. Through this arrangement, the partner sectors could develop and deliver career and educational pathways that integrate secondary and postsecondary education through a new delivery paradigm. Combining local consortia of secondary schools and community college with a regional public university would create multiple career pathways that are localized and far less costly than today's distributed system.

Imagine a regional Communiversity that stitches together the resources of community colleges and local public secondary systems to deliver high value, low-cost certificates, associate degrees, baccalaureate and master's degrees through a networked system, both virtually and face-to-face. Through the distribution of community colleges across our country, these educational credentials could be delivered locally so that they are tightly connected to employer needs and aligned with economic development initiatives. The Communiversity would be anchored by a university that provides research and analysis to inform investments in talent development that is aligned with regional and local needs.

By using the combined resources of these institutions, multiple delivery platforms could be built out and delivered across the system -- think face-to-face, digital, competency-based, credit for prior learning and the like. Some common principles of this organizing model would be:

  • Open admissions where all students would be eligible for admission in certificate and associate degree programs and all completed associate degrees would guarantee access to the companion baccalaureate degree across the system.
  • Customized delivery platforms designed to accommodate both young learners and adults and be more customized to the needs of individual learners. Opportunities to offer earn-and-learn experiences for students, such as internships or apprenticeships, that allow students to determine earlier rather than later if a career focus is the right fit for them.
  • Affordable, so that students could live at home and afford an education through summer and part-time jobs. Independent students would be able to access the continuum of credentials offered at a price point that is aligned with the current community college pricing model.
  • Continuous enrollment with all programs aligned with work-force needs or economic development initiatives, offered both virtually and in-person and available at every site.
  • Information systems, data sharing agreements, analytical tools and learning support systems would be common across the system. Student enrollment services systems would be on a common platform and available 24/7 at all sites. All credentials would rest on a core of essential work-force competencies: communication, critical thinking, technology literacy, writing, numeracy and problem solving.

The Communiversity I envision is a very different model, from its organizational design to its implementation strategies. It leverages the geography, price point and connectivity of community colleges to the local community school systems, employers, regional universities and nonprofit community-based service organizations. This system would move from focusing on access and enrollment to a system of access, assessment and completion.

In today's economy, it is hard to imagine an adult in this country leading a successful, self- and family-sustaining life without the benefit of both a postsecondary credential and ongoing access to credentialing systems that support a lifetime of work and advancement. America has clearly become a knowledge economy, one that demands postsecondary readiness for all high school graduates and postsecondary credentialing for life.

And yet, between four and five million young adults ages 18-24 are neither employed nor in school. This is the casualty of an equity agenda not met. We must commit to end this growing number of disenfranchised young people in our country. One can only imagine the implications for our nation's economic security and social stability if we allow this trend to continue unabated.

The challenge for higher education is to provide access at a scale never realized before, at a cost that promotes significant value for the learner who invests. To meet the scale required and to survive in this milieu, change must be viewed as inevitable, and regarded as a good partner on the path to renewal. To look the other way risks going the path of our former "smoke stack" economy, the news business and, increasingly, our health care providers. The challenge facing higher education today is to provide mass customization of learning and skill acquisition at a cost, and through a delivery platform, that is both accessible and affordable.

Community colleges in this environment must invite disruptive thinking, innovative ideas and an institutional tolerance for risk and uncertainly. They must recognize the important core values of access, affordability and quality, and they must recognize "scale" that embraces and invites diversity. Finally, they must promote collaboration, cooperation and connectivity as systems come together to transform lives, our work force and our society.

The current configuration of public colleges and universities is unlikely to respond to the scale of credentialing that our present era demands. An organizational structure akin to the Communiversity will require the development of an ecosystem of public resources stitched together with an electronic backbone of support and coordinated through a collective-impact approach.

Financing this enterprise could be considered through a couple of approaches. The first, a private-public venture that puts the financing of the electronic service provider on the balance sheet of a current for-profit enterprise focused on educational services and support. The second, a third-party service provider formed by the partner institutions to perform the business and student support services of the Communiversity system. In either approach, the scale of the enterprise supported by one bundled system, sourced by that system and managed by that system, would achieve efficiencies that are difficult to imagine in the current fragmented system.

The future of public education must be reimagined and reengineered. While the system envisioned here may not be an ultimate solution, it certainly provides a set of guideposts by which new models may emerge. For the sake of our society's wellbeing, there is critical work to be done. Perhaps this is a start.

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