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Community Colleges, America’s Best-Kept Secret

Community colleges face a number of myths and misunderstandings, but the services they provide to non-traditional students and their work in developing America’s four distinct workforces make them America’s best kept secret. Photo by Steven Depolo.

The EvoLLLution recently sat down with Laura Weidner, the Dean of Workforce Development at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland. Weidner has spent two decades working in higher education, focusing on workforce-relevant learning and corporate training. In this interview we discuss the virtues of community colleges; how they serve adult students, the four different workforces and, most importantly their local communities. We compare community colleges with universities and, ultimately, talk about how community colleges are America’s best kept secret.

  1. You’ve worked in the community college industry for 21 years – what are some of the most prevalent myths you’ve come up against in that time?

Depending upon who you’re talking to you can get all kinds of different misunderstandings about community colleges. … It can be considered the college where students who weren’t accepted at their first choice go for their second choice. Oftentimes in the business world, they think of the community college as a place where you have to start your class in September and end it in December, there’s no flexibility; the faculty and quality of education are at a lower level because it is a “community college”. And if you talk to the residents in communities, they’ll tell you it’s a place where you can get a lot of fun classes like line dancing and tarot card reading and things like that.

But the truth is people I don’t think realize that the community college is one of the best kept secrets that we have.

  1. When you talk about the student within the community college, who is the prototypical community college student?

The perception is that it’s an 18 year old who just graduated from high school and got their first car and is working part-time while they go to school. But the truth is there really is no such thing as a typical community college student.

I think if you look at the statistics, most community colleges like ours will tell you that the average—and this is a statistical average—the average community college student is a 29-31 year old female who’s looking to get career skills to either come back into the workforce or change jobs. …

We have people whose companies shut down and they lost their job. We have people who are looking for a second career. We have people with PhDs and Master’s degrees who are looking for something different to do. … We have people who are the typical 18 year old looking for the first two years of a four-year degree or a certificate that will get them a job. We have people who are unemployed and looking for jobs. We have people who are looking to upgrade their skills in their current job—a technology’s coming in, new certifications are being required by their employer. … We have people for whom English is not their first language. Students who were doctors and lawyers and highly-skilled professionals in their own country who come to the community college to learn to speak enough English so they can get a job in America. …

  1. It sounds like you offer a pretty wide mix of courses and there’s a large contingent of non-traditional and adult students who are looking for—as well as the personal development—a lot of folks who are looking for professional development and career advancement from the college system.

That’s really true. My area is workforce development and that’s very broadly interpreted depending on who you’re talking to.

We say here that we serve four different workforces; one is the emerging workforce and that’s the pipeline of the students coming out of high school who are looking to begin their career. …

The second workforce is our incumbent workforce and this is primarily what I deal with which is businesses, employers, organizations and associations that are looking for some kind of training or skill upgrade or sometimes a degree or certificate for the people who are in their employ or organization.

The third group is the transitional workforce, and these are the people I mentioned… whose companies closed and they’ve lost their job or because of a downturn in the economy there have been layoffs. Those people we consider the transitional workforce because they’re either looking for another job in their same field and they want to brush up on the skills to get that job or they’re looking to change careers.

The fourth group is the entrepreneurial workforce; this is the group of people who are looking to go into business for themselves and interestingly they can come from any of the other three groups. …

The community college really targets all four kinds of workforce development.

  1. I especially like the idea of breaking up the workforce into its contingent needs because obviously each part of it is looking for different outcomes and have different goals.

Absolutely. The employer that wants their incumbent workers trained doesn’t want them to go to class from 9-9:50 Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between September and December. That’s really not going to suit his or her needs. So we really have to look at more creative ways to meet that employer’s needs where we may deliver the class at their worksite.

We may deliver the class at their shift change. We may schedule it to be compressed into a four-week period instead of a 16-week period. We may customize it so that it’s specific to their industry or their particular field rather than a more generic course.

We have to really focus on what it is that portion of the workforce needs.

  1. How do community colleges, in comparison with universities, better serve this contingent of non-traditional, adult students who are part of the incumbent and transitional workforces?

It’s not that universities are bad and community colleges are good, even though my passion is with community colleges. It’s that they have two different foci. The community college is focused on its community. The university is focused on the generally-resident students that are going through programs as well as research. And their faculty are challenged to do both research and teaching.

But you look at the community college, we’re partially funded by our local jurisdiction and part of that funding mandates us to serve our local area. Our mission is access. The community college provides access too higher education for anybody that wants it. So that forces us to be more flexible, more accessible, more readily available to adjust to what the needs are out in the community.

We have people who are faculty members who are regularly out in the business community. Many of our faculty are part-time faculty and they work in the business community. We have a huge non-credit area—where universities don’t do as much with non-credit—community colleges have significant non-credit departments where we can make things happen extremely rapidly n a way that a university system and processes don’t. It doesn’t mean we compromise on curriculum, either credit or non-credit, but we have the capacity to be a little more adroit in our movement.

Most of our students live in the local community because it doesn’t generally pay off economically to go to a community college out of your service area. So the people who are attending Anne Arundel Community College are Anne Arundel County residents for the most part. But the people who attend the University of Maryland are from all over the world and so we are still more focused in our community. And on top of everything else, we’re more affordable. We charge less for tuition and fees, we run a little bit of a tighter ship on what we have to do because we have to keep our tuition and fees so low. And that gives us a bit of an edge when we’re dealing with the business community and workers to make our programs a little more affordable. And then that’s a little more attractive to the non-traditional student.

  1. Looking into the future, do you see community colleges gaining a larger portion of the adult student market than they currently occupy or do you think that universities are going to pick up on the model that’s been crafted in the community colleges?

The answer is yes and yes. We’ve already seen universities begin looking at business and corporate training and in some cases businesses want the big-name universities. They’ll go to the state university for high-end engineering upgrades and the like and, of course, universities may have the higher end courses that we don’t have.

Universities are looking at ways that they can tap into what we call our fourth revenue stream of contract training. At the same time, I think community colleges, for the first time in history, are out in the front of everything right now. …

If you think back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, you didn’t hear much about community colleges. But we’re in the news regularly now and President Obama has put community colleges out in the forefront as the… center for job training for America’s workforce. With that, we’re out there and the good news is that people are starting to hear about us! The bad news is we’ve got to be able to accommodate all of these people. The poor economy that we’ve had for the last several years had caused a huge jump in our enrollments, particularly in credit courses, as people lose jobs and want to come back and get whatever skills they might not have gotten before to get a new job.

But we have to continue to maintain our affordability and our accessibility and our responsiveness to the adult student, to the business community, to the traditional student.

So yes, I think we will continue to gain that market share—more people are learning about us and they’re seeing the value in the community college. And more employers are learning about us and saying “Wait a minute, why do I have to pay ABC Consulting this huge cost for this when here’s a community college with a faculty expert in this particular area and they can give me a better price?”

So all of those things I think will help to get us out there. But, we have to maintain not only our affordability, our accessibility and responsiveness, but we have to maintain our quality and our accountability. That’s the only thing that keeps my customers coming back. It’s not how cheap my prices are, it’s that they get what they wanted, we deliver on time, we deliver a quality product and then they want more.

  1. Obviously it’s important to see your students in this day and age as customers and clients.

Well that’s probably a whole other discussion because most faculty and people in higher education don’t like to think of students as customers because you get into the old “the customer’s always right” and then faculty fear that they will have to compromise their standards in order to maintain that the student is a customer.

But we need to think of the student as a customer because that customer has a lot of choices where he or she goes for education and we need to make ourselves the choice, the selection that most people want to go to for education. And as far as the businesses and employers, they are my customers. I will always consider them to be customers because the customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer.

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