Community College Champion

In 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama sat down with Dr. Eduardo Padrón for a two-hour meeting at Miami Dade College discussing his education platform, among a wide range of topics. Obama was also interested in the instrumental role Padrón, MDC’s president since 1995, played in building MDC into a top producer of associate degrees awarded to Hispanics and African-Americans. As the community college responds with bachelor’s programs to meet specific local educational needs, it has emerged as a top producer of bachelor’s degrees — it ranks 24th in education degrees awarded to Hispanics, according to the Top 100 Degree Producers in this edition of Diverse

MDC’s key role in helping fulfill Obama’s vision of having community colleges contribute 5 million new college graduates toward the goal of having the U.S. lead the world in college degrees by 2020 was punctuated by a March 2009 visit by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to MDC — Duncan’s first official college visit as Secretary of Education.

In an interview with Diverse, Padrón, who has served in numerous teaching and administrative capacities at MDC over the past 40 years and will also become chairman of the board of the American Council on Education in March 2011, discusses community colleges’ central role in revitalizing the U.S. economy.

DI: What goals have you set for the broader landscape of higher education as you step into the role of ACE chair in March?                     

EP: A number of priorities need attention: We need to recognize that attending and graduating from college is a necessity in today’s work force. That means ensuring that access to higher education continues to expand. And we need to ensure that students are better prepared for college, which suggests that the separate universes of higher education and the nation’s public schools need to establish more porous borders, better integration and more effective transition for students. More than half of all entering college students are underprepared for college level work, and, as expected, that percentage is much higher for urban institutions and community colleges. That has to change if students are to succeed in greater numbers.

In a time of fiscal austerity, we need to preserve arts and culture in the academic experience. The emphasis on science, math and technology is understandable, but the arts must be ever present in our learning environments. They are an essential aspect of all our lives and an indispensable avenue for learning.

Higher education needs to contribute to the conversation on the plight of undocumented students. And the point to be made is beyond the politics of left and right. It is, rather, one of potential and the nation’s need to realize and benefit from the productivity of millions of new contributors to communities across the nation. We need a national immigration policy that places the development of talent at the center of the conversation. This is the point of the Dream Act, which would open the door to college to thousands of young people who arrived in this country as small children but remain undocumented. Talent is at the heart of a vibrant economy.  

And, of course, we need to remain committed to fostering equity of opportunity and diversity in our leadership, faculty and students. And it follows that ACE will also be focused on leadership and professional development, ensuring the development of the next generation of higher education leaders.

DI: Given the fact that community colleges lost out on $12 billion in funding when the American Graduation Initiative was cut out of the final health care reconciliation bill, what would you like to see come out of the White House summit on community colleges this fall?

EP: The commitment of $12 billion to community colleges promised to be one of the best investments the nation has ever made. To restore that funding should be a serious consideration of this meeting. The critical importance of our nation’s community colleges needs to be a tangible focus of the administration. The president has set a goal of dramatically increasing college graduation rates. That means engaging students — all students — in the challenge of meeting high standards of achievement and providing them an unprecedented level of support. We need to come away from this meeting with a determination to expend the necessary resources that allow us to intensify our efforts to support student success.

DI: Why do you think the Obama administration has placed such an emphasis on community colleges generally and MDC specifically?

EP: Because they get it. These are people who are very pragmatic and they know that the only way that they will achieve the goals that they have set for this nation is by allowing open-door institutions like Miami Dade College the opportunity to grow and serve more people, because unfortunately, whether we like it or not, university education in this country has become gradually elitist, becoming more and more expensive. So the only way that we can have accessible, affordable, quality education is by relying mostly on community colleges. …  I think that’s something that President Obama realized very early, well before he became president.

When you are serving a population that is mostly first-generation, overwhelmingly minority, with students that are mostly low-income — the largest recipient of Pell Grants — most people do not give these institutions a chance. And what Miami Dade has demonstrated is that access and excellence can go together.

DI: As the economy has faltered, demand for community colleges has increased while state appropriations to these institutions have been cut across the country. Is the open-access mission of community colleges  being threatened?

EP: It’s being threatened right now in almost every state, there’s no question about that, and it is too bad that it is happening at a time when we’re best positioned to train people in the new jobs emerging in this economy that will really produce the high wages that American workers deserve.

The fact of the matter is that in a very quiet way, we’re producing the people that are the essence, the human element that is key to the development of society. And enlightened people understand that and enlightened politicians recognize that and our hope is that, as we come out of this recession, better decisions are going to be made about the distribution of resources so community colleges can do their job.

DI: Has MDC been able to maintain its open-door policy?

EP: Our commitment to open door is relentless, that is the essence of what we are. Realistically, whether (students) can find the classes they need in order to enroll, or to graduate or to take all the credits they need is a different matter, because, if you don’t have the resources to hire additional faculty to be able to offer more class sections in biology, chemistry (and) psychology, then you just don’t have the classes. So as far as the open door, it’s as open as always. Whether once you enter you can find the classes that you need in order to make progress and graduate, it’s a different matter, which we hope is only a temporary situation.

DI: Many community college educators warn that “mission creep” is setting in at two-year institutions as they launch baccalaureate programs and honors colleges. Is “mission creep” a concern at MDC?

EP: The demand for teachers in Florida is tremendous. All the universities together in the state of Florida were graduating about 6,000 teachers every year when the demand (was) for about 16,000. Florida (officials were) out everywhere (from) Utah to Iowa to Great Britain to the Philippines looking for teachers to bring to Miami, when we had good students here, mostly minority and low-income, who could have been given a chance. So what we did is, we offered baccalaureate programs for which there are jobs and we are giving opportunities to students that the universities still today are not giving a chance.

So if that is mission creep, let it be, because what we’re here to do is to help people reach the American dream, and that is work force training at its best, and that’s what we do. We’re doing it in nursing, in education, law enforcement management, engineering technology and areas where there are jobs. Our placement rate for programs is 96 percent.

DI: How do you balance serving the needs of top students with the need of remediation for underprepared students?

EP: (Remediation) is our most important role here, because that’s what nobody else wants to do, and I think that’s what we must do because we cannot set aside the overwhelming majority of the students who have graduated from high school [that] belong in that category. If we don’t rescue them, what you’re doing is creating a significant liability for our communities. There’s no more important thing for community colleges than the “salvage function” because we’re saving lives. If those students were not admitted to us because they are remedial, we would be paying for them later on through either welfare, housing, crime — you name it.

DI: You arrived at Miami Dade in 1970 as an assistant professor. What about MDC has kept you there for the past 40 years?

EP: It is true that throughout the years I have had incredible offers not only in the private sector but even in government — to become an ambassador, to go to Washington, as recent as with the Obama administration. While that is very flattering, I think that what I do here is so important for not only my community but for the country.

I never planned to be an educator. I studied economics and finance because I wanted to make money but I found my calling here, I found my passion. The satisfaction I get here every day from seeing the tangible results of our work, it is immeasurable.