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Mission focus rewards TX community college with rising enrollment

Last week, I wrote about the survival skills that community college administrators need. Some community college administrators seem to be particularly lousy at managing risk, competing, and recognizing deficit spending. Administrators are in love with the idea of running a community college “like a business.” Unfortunately, few of them have any idea how to run a business.

They should spend a little time looking at Odessa College in Odessa, TX. Unlike most community colleges in Texas (or the US for that matter), OC’s enrollment is rising. In fact, OC’s enrollment has risen for the last seven years running. While most community colleges were bleeding off the students they’d gained during the Great Recession, OC was growing. And not just by a little bit. Since 2015, OC’s enrollment has increased by 44%. (Somehow, it gets by with only four Vice Presidents, too.)

So, what does OC know that other community colleges don’t? It appears that OC’s “good fortune” starts at the top with an administrator who’s truly engaged in the college’s mission. Upon arrival, OC President, Dr. Gregory Williams, made it his mission to recruit both traditional and non-traditional students. A community college picks up a certain number of recent high school graduates each year. But Williams clearly understands that his playing field is a lot larger than that.

There’s a lot of competition for recent high school graduates. Four-year universities, community colleges, the military and local employers all want to recruit these students. There’s far less competition for non-traditional students, and there are a lot more of them. Non-traditional students include former students, single mothers, women re-entering the workforce, inmates, laid-off workers, and those looking to retrain.

What community college leadership looks like

But recruiting students is only half of the battle. Once a student enrolls, Williams is determined to keep them. That meant shortening OC’s semesters to eight-week half-sessions and training faculty on how best to support tentative students. Additionally, under Williams, every new OC student’s first class is on the house. OC also gives away a Ford Mustang each year to one student. Students earn points throughout the academic year by completing educational experiences. Those points generate entries into the drawing for the car.

His retention efforts work. OC students have one of the lowest drop rates in the nation – hovering between 3%-4%. Overwhelmingly, OC students who enroll in a class complete it. That’s fine with Williams, who believes that dropping a class reinforces failure and leads to dropping out of college.

And when it comes to competition, Williams knows exactly who he’s competing against. Odessa is in the heart of the West Texas oil fields. A high school graduate here can earn $100,000 driving a truck for an oil company. Williams knows he has to offer something of real value to get students to enroll in that environment.

Williams has overseen a $90M capital investment in the campus that has upgraded OC’s classrooms. The college also offers a slew of technical baccalaureate programs and offers a large number of hybrid-format classes.
It’s clear that Williams cares about OC. He graduated from the school in 1983 while on his way to earning a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate. Clearly, he has accomplished a lot for the people of Odessa. What makes Williams so successful is that he doesn’t run OC like a business. He runs it like what it is: a college on a mission.

Photo Credit: mkw87 , via Flickr