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Non-Traditional is The New Traditional: How College Presidents Can Drive Institutional Change

The EvoLLLution | Non-Traditional is The New Traditional: How College Presidents Can Drive Institutional Change
Community college leaders have the power to advocate for families and working adults and help them access upward mobility through education.

Community and technical colleges have a critical role to play in supporting the transformation to a knowledge-based economy. These institutions are the entry point to postsecondary education for some of America’s most vulnerable populations, and it’s essential they gain support for their work. But leaders in this space also need to ensure their institutions evolve to keep pace with changing needs. In this interview, Mark Mitsui reflects on the core responsibilities of community college presidents and explains why serving working-class adults should be a priority for colleges across the country.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What makes the role of community college president so unique?

Mark Mitsui (MM): Traditionally, higher education was reserved for the elite, wealthy few. This changed with the Truman Commission Report in 1947, which called for a national network of community colleges to democratize higher education. Since then, community colleges have been at the forefront of opening and increasing access to higher education for a larger proportion of the population.

Community college presidents are, therefore, at the intersection of higher education and opportunity. We really are in the enterprise of changing lives, whether it is for first-generation college students, low-income students, students of color, returning veterans, dislocated workers or single parents. The average age of our students is 28, and many work two jobs or full time, have kids and are simultaneously trying to attend school.

What used to be called the “non-traditional” student is our traditional student. We are working on creating greater opportunity for these students through education and training that lead to higher wage, family wage, high-demand jobs.

There are many other aspects of this job that make it unique, but I would say the mission is meaningful, challenging and rife with opportunity to help more families access upward mobility through education.

Evo: Now in your second presidency, what has surprised you most about the demands of the role?

MM: Community colleges are severely underfunded. Our students come with twice the barriers and half the funding. We receive less than just about any other sector of education, while our students experience housing insecurity, food insecurity, transportation barriers, childcare barriers, and don’t have a support system they can rely on to help them access and complete the community college journey.

One surprise is how few advocates the working poor have. We work with folks who are trying to make a better life for themselves and their children, but the advocacy network for them is not what it is for other sectors of education. Part of my work is to create that advocacy network so that, when we go to the legislature for more funding or we advocate to others for more resources, there’s a strong base of supportive partners singing from the same chorus sheet.

Another personal surprise for me was the level of visibility. In some ways, community college presidents are treated like political figures—mayors or folks with a lot of visibility. It’s really important to recognize that fact and to be aware of the level of responsibility that comes with it.

Evo: What are some aspects of life at a community college you wish more people in higher education and government knew about?

MM: There is a growing need for more community college education. Here in Oregon, there are 442,000 adults over the age of 25 who are making less than $15/hour and hold less than an associate’s degree. Of that group, 275,000 do not even have a high school credential.

If individuals don’t have an associate’s degree or some high-quality, post-secondary training and education, then upward mobility and entry into the middle class is going to be a very rough road.

At times this seems to catch policymakers by surprise. Part of what we’re doing is trying to raise awareness—among working adults and the working poor—of the importance of the community college education for their upward mobility. This involves mobilizing, organizing and identifying communication strategies to get the word out.

Of course, students are our best ambassadors, and we have a lot of students whose life stories are inspiring, so we highlight their journeys. One of them went through a six-month welding program and earned a certificate, coming in as a first-generation student, and is now doing very well financially, in a very specialized field of welding. There are countless other stories of upward mobility because of community colleges.

We have to raise awareness, so we’re bringing employers, students and alumni to our state capitol, enabling them to tell their stories to legislators, to illustrate just how important it is to support community colleges. Many of our employers understand this because they’ve been hiring our graduates for years, and they need more of them.

The skills gap is noticeable; those trained with a specialized and needed skill will be hired into positions offering upward mobility, living wages and benefits. Community colleges just need additional funding to get more individuals through the pipeline so that employers can hire them.

Evo: How can non-credit workforce development programming help individuals achieve economic security and upward mobility?

MM: It comes down to what the non-credit credential represents, what kind of skills the credential-holder possesses, and how portable and recognized the credential is nationwide. That’s what is of value in the marketplace.  There are some industry-recognized credentials that are non-credit and have significant market value for the holder, and then there are those that don’t. It’s important that prospective students understand the difference and behave as wise consumers.

We have the same type of expectation: that our non-credit programs are reflective of the skills that employers are looking for. At Portland Community College, we have contract training that is calibrated and customized for specific employers. It is leading-edge in terms of the skill building it provides for both incumbent workers and those interested in breaking into a new field.

There is a lot of potential for the non-credit side and we are hearing more talk in Washington, DC, around Pell eligibility for both shorter term credit-bearing and non-credit programs.

Evo: On the topic of creating pathways to employment, there is a concern about the balance between education and training. What does it take to effectively balance the needs of learners, employers and the broader community?

MM: A broader answer is around the quality of instruction and how faculty provide an experience to students that is both educational and offers specific skill training. We do that in a couple of ways.

One, of course, is the careful selection of folks who do the teaching. I started out as a vocational instructor, working in what are now called career and technical education (CTE) programs. I saw a lot of talented CTE faculty embed large life questions and themes into technical instruction; everything from professional responsibility to problem solving and critical thinking to working in diverse work teams and the importance of interpersonal communication. It’s possible—and in fact, important—to weave these essential skills into the technical section of our curriculum. There are training programs that try to “flash bake”the process, meaning they offer a short, superficial training process that doesn’t adequately prepare students because it doesn’t provide the real skills needed for success. This is a problem. In the community college world, particularly on the career technical education side, it is well understood that you have to contextualize training.

Besides great teaching, community colleges can address the need for both education and training through clearly defined learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are being promoted more and more by regional accrediting bodies, and have a lot to do with critical thinking and creative problem solving—outcomes and objectives you see in humanities and liberal arts. The expectation is that at least some of those learning outcomes will be achieved by all students who pursue general education requirements or CTE offerings.

Through college-wide discussions on learning outcomes and then implementation of those learning outcomes across the curriculum, there is an integration of education with training.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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