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Commentary: Community Colleges Must Lead the Way in Reshaping Higher Education in America

Dr. Thomas Snyder is the president of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Dr. Thomas Snyder is the president of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.

In the 1970s, I began what was three decades in the automotive industry. It was a good place to be at the time. U.S. automakers had enjoyed decades of growth and profitability, and it seemed like history would continue to repeat itself. Well, we all know what happened next. U.S. automakers grew somewhat complacent, seeming to take their good fortune for granted. As a result, concepts like competition, market share and customer service received little attention — and innovation consequently stalled.

Today, in my position as president of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, I see higher education confronted with some of these same challenges. We’ve enjoyed decades of success, and it’s tempting to continue down the same path. If we simply rely on past practices to move us forward, however, we’ll likely end up with some of the same struggles the U.S. auto industry was confronted with in the 1980s.

That prospect, of course, is unthinkable. As critical as the auto industry is to the U.S. economy, higher education plays an even more important role. It’s clear that we can no longer risk our future because we’re too indebted to the past.

This was my perspective in November as I joined President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a small group of higher education leaders at the White House for a roundtable on affordability and productivity in America’s colleges and universities. I was honored to be the sole community college president to attend and humbled to represent Ivy Tech’s world-class faculty and staff. Moreover, I was thrilled to be part of a conversation that is so critical to this country’s future.

As I participated in the discussion, I was reminded once again that while institutions of every kind will need to be involved in reshaping higher education in America, community colleges must lead the way. Our unique position with regard to affordability—the most critical area that needs to be addressed—combined with our collective impact—given that we serve 44 percent of all U.S. undergraduates—means that we have a special responsibility to the nation. Community colleges are a launching point for first time students and a place adult students return to get new skills, providing millions of Americans with an on ramp to the middle class. And if America fails in this same mission, community colleges will bear much of the responsibility.

One of the first things we must do is focus on productivity. Community colleges must begin by eliminating waste, cutting costs, finding new revenue streams and increasing the donor base. At Ivy Tech Community College, these priorities are articulated in our strategic plan: Accelerating Greatness. As a result, we’ve minimized the burden placed upon our students and carved out an unmatched competitive edge when it comes to affordability.

We realize, however, that productivity also means improved outcomes. That’s why community colleges must insist that quality does not suffer as we strive to better manage our budgets. At Ivy Tech, we have made student success our first priority, understanding that our ability to lead is contingent on our ability to perform. Even the most uncertain, conservative spending environment is no excuse.

We must insist that our students thrive in order for our work to have any meaning.

Community colleges also need to get better at telling our story. At the roundtable, President Obama mentioned the letters he receives from families who simply cannot pay off the college debts they have incurred. This can’t continue — and it shouldn’t if more people know that community colleges provide a high-quality and more affordable alternative even for those who intend to pursue a four-year degree. We can no longer be reticent about ensuring that America knows who we are and what we do. The traditional four-year residential collegiate experience is moving out of reach for many people. Over 31 million families are on free and reduced lunch programs, and they are often the same families borrowing as much as $50,000 for that traditional college experience.

Community colleges also must accept — even embrace — the reality that we can‘t do it alone. We need support from leaders in government, who must understand that higher education has to be a priority when it comes to funding. Last September’s Department of Labor’s $500 million grants to community colleges was a powerful step in the right direction.  We need to collaborate with employers to better understand their needs and respond with career-relevant programs that allow them to remain globally competitive. We must work with four-year colleges and universities to provide a higher education continuum that anticipates market conditions and responds accordingly. And we must listen to our students with an understanding that they are the best source of innovation and inspiration that we have.

Most important, community colleges need each other. Throughout the nation, great things are happening that deserve to be celebrated and championed as best practices. We must be unselfish in sharing what has worked, and equally as eager to adopt the ideas most likely to move us forward. This must be done generously, with respect on all sides but with less concern for what’s proprietary than what is possible. Whatever the source, the best ideas the community college has to offer absolutely must come to light.

This is a critical time for the American community college. I’ve seen what can happen when an industry ignores the need for innovation and reform from within, and it’s certain that higher education is headed down the same path if we do not respond. Now is the time for us to work together, in collaboration with our communities and with each other, to ensure the success we’ve enjoyed in the past is a precursor to what we’re capable of, instead of a fond memory of what could have been.

Dr. Thomas Snyder is the president of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.

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