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Serving Student Needs Over Institutional Pride

AUDIO | Serving Student Needs Over Institutional Pride
Creating partnerships and resources specifically designed to support student success and completion, rather than institutional prestige, should be the top priority for both community colleges and universities.

The following interview is with John Dunn, president of Western Michigan University (WMU). Over the past few years, WMU has signed transfer agreements with nine different community colleges and has two more in the works. These transfer agreements greatly increase access to both two-year and four-year higher education for individuals across the state of Michigan, and support their completion of both two- and four-year degrees. In this interview, Dunn discusses the process of creating these partnerships and shares his thoughts on the importance of prioritizing student needs over institutional prestige.

1. What are the most significant roadblocks that stand in the way of non-traditional students, especially those from underserved communities, enrolling in four-year universities?

There are some roadblocks; one that we all worry about, of course, is finances and making sure that the resources are there to assist individuals — from underrepresented communities, in particular — [to] be able to know that there is a way for them to access higher education.

I think the second is that we’re still dealing with — even today in the year 2013 — … individuals clearly from underrepresented communities that are still first-generation students. So making sure that they have good mentors and support systems, not only on our respected campuses but also in their community, within their family, to encourage them and help them navigate through the various questions they might have. And, also, provide for them encouragement that they can in fact do this and be successful.

I think the third is just making sure that we remove all roadblocks that we can think of in higher education that in any way preclude individuals from underrepresented communities accessing higher education.

2. How does partnering with community colleges, not just in a university’s local region but across the state, help create pathways to a four-year degree for non-traditional students?

Let me say it to you this way, to your listeners: all of us that are committed to advancing our society via education and the power of that and how important it is that we do that, we’ve got to remember it’s not about the institutions; it’s about the individual, the student.

So, when people say to me things like, “Well, how are you competing with community colleges?” My first reaction is, “We’re not competing. We’re partnering!” Because for many … people and families, as they look at cost of access, the community college may be the desired direction for them to go. And the four-year institution should honor that decision and we should then look for ways to support the student in that decision. And, if there are any barriers that we have in place where we want to make it difficult to transfer credits and all that sorts of things, we need to get over that. And we need to realize that, “Look, this is about the student. It’s not about Western Michigan University, it’s not about Kalamazoo Valley Community College … It’s about the student!”

3. WMU has been very diligent in partnering with community colleges statewide to help support non-traditional students who are looking to earn both associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. What were some of the challenges that had to be overcome in the creation of these partnerships?

First of all, I think for our community college leaders as well … our leaders on this campus [must] really begin to better understand and appreciate and value one another. It’s not been that many years ago, I was at the University of Utah for a number of years, and if you would go to Salt Lake Community College, for instance, people there might say, “You know, what’s wrong with you guys at the University of Utah? We’ve sent you our best and brightest and you guys messed it up.” And on the University of Utah campus — which is true at most universities — we would say, in a rather arrogant way, “Well, they were not adequately prepared and therefore they didn’t meet or standards to sustain their success.”

Both of those positions need to be checked, put aside and [leaders need to] think more carefully and clearly about the nature of the student. Because there’s a little bit, perhaps, of truth in both, but neither position is helping the individual, the student, who’s trying to make that transition successfully.

So, what we’re doing here is that we partner with our community college leaders — we break bread with our community college leaders — we sit down and get to know one another in our respected positions so that we develop a level of respect at, certainly, all levels that then transcends through the organizational structure.

And, as an example, not only do we have good transfer agreements, we have what we call a “reverse degree transfer.” So let’s say that a student goes to a community college and they spend a year there or a year and a half and they don’t complete their associate of arts or their associate of science degree, and they transfer to Western Michigan University. As they take credits here, we then make the sending community college aware that those credits have been generated here, that they’re transcribed appropriately. That then allows the community college to recognize us and award the student the associate of art or the associate of science degree because that is, again, trying to collaborate and respect them and to also help the student along the way, and … we call that the “reverse degree program.”

4. How have WMU’s partnerships with community colleges across the state impacted the university’s reach and attractiveness to non-traditional students?

I think in very positive ways… Today, for instance, I started my morning welcoming transfer students — many from community colleges, some from other universities in the state and the region and the nation — to Western Michigan University.

And, again, our goal and our responsibility is that people make those decisions for a variety of reasons. We’re proud that they have selected us, but we also want to make sure that we know that wherever they have come from, that we also are very supportive in recognizing prior academic success and the courses they’ve taken and making sure that the transitions for them go well. And that if there are things that we do here that are different from what they experienced wherever they were, that we try to ease that pathway so that they feel on very good ground and familiar ground on day one.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of these partnerships for the University’s reach and the importance of these partnerships for non-traditional students’ access and success?

Let me just end with the theme that I think is the most important theme. Perhaps this is based in my own life experiences after many, many years in higher education; at times, we have allowed our institutional pride [to] create barriers that are not necessarily in the best interest of the student.

I’m very pleased, for instance, that we are now acknowledging when we look at graduation rates that while, traditionally, we always looked at graduation rates in higher [education] from the cohort of students who entered in that freshmen year and how many at the end of six years actually graduated, but now, more and more, people are recognizing — including the federal government — that, “Wait a minute. If a student started with us and had a good academic record and chose for some reason to transfer somewhere else but still complete in six years, should we not all celebrate that?”

We shouldn’t feel bad about that. We served that student well from the time that they were here and, for a variety of reasons, they made a decision to go somewhere else. But the good message is that they completed somewhere else and that we were part of that success. And, collectively, we ought to all feel really good about that.

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