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Adopting an Entrepreneurial Mindset: Community Colleges Facing A New Fiscal Norm

The EvoLLLution | Adopting an Entrepreneurial Mindset: Community Colleges Facing A New Fiscal Norm
The effects of the Great Recession are still being felt by community colleges, who are adapting to the policy and funding changes implemented over a decade ago.

In the wake of the Great Recession, we are seeing a number of paradoxical trends. For example, in an era of declining support for community colleges, there’s higher expectations than ever on community colleges to fulfil their missions and serve their communities. But how can community colleges keep costs affordable when they are increasingly reliant on tuition and fees to cover costs? The new approach is to have an entrepreneurial mindset and forge partnerships that create more opportunities for vulnerable communities. In this interview, Gregory Thomas discusses the state of community colleges and shares his insights on how presidents adopting an entrepreneurial mindset might keep them thriving.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few of the paradoxes that really define the community college environment today?

Gregory Thomas (GT): The focus has shifted to the lack of funding support that has emerged, largely since (or during) the Great Recession. The Great Recession produced a decline of state revenues for most states in America, which had an impact on the states’ capacity to spend on a variety of various public goods and services. The one that seems to have been hit particularly hard has been public higher education. Within the hierarchy of public higher education, it appears that the community college has been hit even harder than what we’re seeing in the public university sector. There’s a number of illustrations that we can point to that would verify that statement.

One of the paradoxes is that if you look at the economic and socioeconomic stratosphere, what you typically would find with most public community colleges is—whether rural, suburban or urban—typically disenfranchised populations, non-traditional populations, students of color, and women are going to be the ones that rely heavily on those public institutions. One of the hallmarks of the community college has been the capacity to provide access to such populations. In some regards, some of the literature refers to the community college as the democratizing college or democratizing institution.

With the reduced funding, community colleges have been put in a position where they have to serve the highest-need populations with the least available resources. What’s more, community colleges must find ways to offer affordability and access at the same time as they’re being forced to make up for declining public funding through tuition and fees.

Evo: How did the countercyclical relationship between employment rates and enrollment rates help to solidify this as a norm during the Great Recession?

GT: This is where it’s not business as usual. We aren’t really, as a country, reflecting on the historical significance of what’s occurred and what’s occurring. We’ve seen peaks and valleys within our economy throughout the history of the United States and you would typically see a correlation between a downfall in the economy and enrollment surges.

Where this is not business as usual is that we saw historical enrollment growth during the Great Recession. And while you had this historical surge in enrollment growth, we also had historical lows in state funding.

We witnessed the perfect storm, in a negative way, where a new fiscal paradigm was solidified for public higher education institutions. We have traditionally operated on a one-third model where the state, local taxpayers and tuition/fees were each responsible for a third of the community college budget. That model does not exist anymore; we have established a new fiscal norm.

One of the consequences of this new fiscal norm is greater dependency on enrollment as a means to compensate for the loss of state funding support. It makes you question how one provides sustainability long-term, given the normal peaks and valleys of enrollment numbers. As a result, what you’re seeing is an increase in tuition and fees for most institutions. One of the hallmarks of the community college historically is that it has served as a beacon of access, and part of the formula for access has been in the affordability factor of tuition and fees for community college students. But with cost increases, we run the risk of reducing access, hence potentially compromising social and economic mobility opportunities to those who need it most.

Evo: What are some of the consequences of this new fiscal norm becoming the status quo of community college management?

GT: One of the biggest fears is the notion of apathy.  The danger is that this new norm becomes accepted without any public push-back or sense of alarm. Maybe it’s human nature, but we tend to simply adjust ourselves to significant social paradigm shifts. But part of what potentially is eroded is the impact on educational quality and opportunities to foster socio-economic equity. Public community colleges are being asked to do more with less.

However, the needs of the students don’t change. If the Great Recession results in some loss of state revenues, then you would tend to think also the social services would be impacted. Systemically, this norm challenges certain populations in terms of loss of funding through the state, not just through the realm of public education. It will also hit in social services, which compounds the negative impact on our most vulnerable communities.

Evo: Why is an entrepreneurial mindset so important to ensure the success of the community college?

GT: There are a few low-hanging-fruit goals that can be accomplished through adopting an entrepreneurial mindset. For example, greater fiscal prudency, managing the budget with a higher degree of observation and making decisions that will have the most positive impact on the college.

Community college presidents are going to be forced to be more entrepreneurial, but in an ethical way. It’s not just a matter of just unabatingly pursuing funding. It’s a matter of pursuing funding and being entrepreneurial in the context of the institution’s mission, and the greater good of the college. There’s a necessity for helping community college presidents to develop competencies with regards to pursuing alternative ethical funding sources, alternative funding revenues, and also enhanced resource management.

Evo: Do you have any examples of leaders who take the helm to create productive, community-minded transformations of the college itself, to move away from the traditional funding model, to something that’s a little more sustainable but still focused around the mission of the institution?

GT: One of the central aspects of holistic, entrepreneurial change is responsiveness to a community’s issue or problem. In the community where my college is situated, there’s a digital divide. What we’re trying to do is increase the number of IT programs and offerings to the community through the college, and we believe that such career pathways could prepare our students for long term high demand employment opportunities and personal growth.

IT corporate leaders are indicating a high demand across certain aspects of the IT industry and necessity to increase the workforce pool. They’re also identifying skills gaps that are blocking hiring opportunities. Therein lies an opportunity for the college to partner with a corporation to provide the necessary training. These partnerships can help with the cost of a program in terms of equipment needs, software needs and scholarships for students. What’s more, they can directly lead to job placement opportunities.

Evo: What role do two-year colleges play in supporting key stakeholders in the communities they serve?

GT: They need to help inform the community in terms of some of the shifting fiscal paradigms for public higher education occurring locally and nationally. In addition, they need to leverage partnerships, not just with corporate leaders but with community-based nonprofit partners as well. It’s essential for public community college leaders to work with these key partners to holistically address the needs of their community.

These partnerships could take on many forms, even in program design. For example, formal partnerships with local universities can facilitate transfer for students who want to pursue that path. Partnerships with employers, industry and local workforce boards can drive the development of workforce development opportunities and training through certificate programs that leads to labor market outcomes.

Relationships are at the center of a modern community college and are a key skillset of the entrepreneurial community college president.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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