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Learning, Diversity and the Road Ahead

Community college leaders anticipate wrestling with the increasing challenges of students enrolling at their institutions at different ages, with different backgrounds and beliefs and with vastly different levels of preparation. But there are many other issues of concern as well, such as keeping up with technology and recruiting and retaining diverse faculty.

We recently completed the fourth in a series of road-ahead surveys to find out what community college leaders think will be their biggest long-term challenges. Here’s a quick overview of some of our key findings, which will be published by the League in July: 

Patterns of Enrollment: Even more students will hold jobs, most will be first-generation college students and a growing cohort will be immigrants. Neat, linear pipeline models and traditional two-year programs will be hard pressed to meet the needs of these students – as they have been for some time. Leaders saw the need to expand outreach services to reach and truly engage these diverse students on their lifelong learning journeys. Everything from accelerated programs to five-year models will be tried, along with strategies to better bond with students as they enroll, leave and re-enroll in the community college. In addition, a growing number of recent high-school graduates will be driven our way because of the increasing costs of higher education. This cohort may lull us into thinking the traditional model is back in force. Demographic data, and our participants, warn against this assumption.

Diversity of Learning Needs:  Meeting the learning needs of local communities will continue to be a challenge. Biotechnology, teacher education, law enforcement, homeland security, health programs (especially nursing) and a general emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math will dominate the programmatic planning to meet the most pressing learning needs.

Recruitment and Retention: Survey participants noted the challenges they faced recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and staff. Home-grown programs and targeted recruiting are going to be on the rise as institutions wrestle with this ongoing challenge.

Rapidly Changing Technology: Exciting new learning technologies will enable new initiatives and empower students like never before. Blended learning, mobile learning, blogs, podcasting, social networking and holographics look to be in the future of many institutions as they work to stay somewhere between basically relevant and the cutting edge.

The Learning Nexus: In addition to their own programmatic offerings, K-20 and workplace program linkages are becoming the norm. Dual enrollment, tech prep, early-college high schools, middle colleges, concurrent enrollment, articulation agreements, co-location of educational facilities, university centers, business and industry training centers and the slow but steady rise of the community college baccalaureate are the tools and techniques that are making these institutions a community’s epicenter.

Learning Entrepreneurialism: Increased business partnerships and entrepreneurial efforts will continue between community colleges and the business community. Building capacity for legislative relations and grant writing is also in the works for many community college leaders. Increasingly, community colleges are taking steps to better connect with alumni. And the top trend from the entire survey involves the rise of private fund raising – community colleges moving full force into institutional advancement. Community college presidents told us this anticipated job responsibility is one of the biggest changes over the past 10 years.

Exploring Learning Outcomes: Hard looks or soft reflections, data-informed or discussion-heavy, the leaders in our survey told us that exploring learning outcomes will be an increasing priority on the road ahead. Learning is just too important to everyone, individually and collectively, for them not to do this work.

Finally, survey participants made the case that community and technical colleges are not at a crossroads; they are in the fast lane moving at full speed. Community colleges have been discovered by politicians, community leaders and economic development specialists. Our democratic, open-access, fast-paced model is being adopted worldwide. However, slowing down every now and then is still important. Taking a deep breath, cleaning our windshield and comparing notes better prepares us for the diverse learning challenges on the road ahead.

– Mark David Milliron serves as the Suanne Davis Roueche Endowed Fellow, senior lecturer and director of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development at the University of Texas at Austin. Gerardo de los Santos serves as president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

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