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Community Colleges Aren’t Prepared to Succeed

For a long time, I have said that most community college degrees do not provide enough income for their recipients. The low average income of community college credentials, combined with the (likely related) low completion rates seriously damage whatever value proposition associate degrees and their non-degree certificate counterparts might otherwise have to offer.

Rehabbing the associate degree into a higher value income producer is likely the only way to recover at least some return on our collective investment in this nation’s community colleges. For too long, we have relied on community college administrators who come to their positions with little in the way of vision outside of how large their compensation packages should be.

They show up for work bereft of ideas, devoid of actionable strategies, and largely incapable of performing the work of running a community college without the substantial assistance of a small army of Vice Presidents who someday themselves hope to occupy the big chair. As a result, our community colleges have suffered tremendously, both physically and functionally.

Instead of investing in academic and occupational education programs that would sustain economic development, our community colleges have emptied their budgets to pay for a bumper crop largely vacuous educational leadership. The campuses themselves have suffered from a chronic lack of upkeep. The maintenance budget has been busy buying shiny things while the toilets empty out onto the front lawn.

So now, our politicians (understandably but incorrectly) assume they can collect a nice return on the billions in public funding we’ve thrown at community colleges for the past six decades. They’d like to pass out “free community college” but they don’t seem to realize that our community colleges are so far gone that they are no longer set to deliver much of anything.

We need more performance from community colleges

If community colleges are going to play any role of any kind in the economy, the federal and state governments will need to invest billions more in our community colleges to return them to a productive state. Unfortunately, community college executives have demonstrated again and again that we cannot rely upon them to prioritize meaningful institutional performance.

The whole mechanism of public oversight needs to be rethought. Instead of electing or appointing all the trustees, a community college board should be made up of some elected officials, some state-appointed officials, and some county-level officials. Currently, Michigan state law requires that community college boards be no larger than 7 members, but this number should be expanded to eliminate the supper-club mentality that seems to invade small groups.

Asset protection as a condition of employment for the institution’s top executive(s) must become the norm. If the executives aren’t operating in the college’s best interests or adequately maintaining the public infrastructure, there should be a simple and efficient contractual mechanism to move them along. I have often wondered how EGCC might have fared if its executive were contractually obligated to ensure its well-being.

Published performance standards should also be the norm. We should recognize low completion rates, low retention rates, and low transfer rates for what they are: strategic and executive failures. Failure to develop and offer programs that enable students to both work and earn enough income to live in the county should be grounds for executive dismissal. Likewise, failure to terminate programs that cannot reliably meet this standard also deserves correction.

Community colleges have a long way to go before they can perform as we expect them to. There’s no time like the present to get started on the repairs.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk, via Flickr