More Than a Silver Bullet: The Silver Buckshot Needed By Today’s College LeadersWilliam Serrata | President, El Paso Community College
Community colleges across the United States are in the midst of a shift. While community colleges have been thrust into the spotlight by the federal government, college leaders are struggling to keep enrollments high while improving the rate of success among their students. Colleges need new strategies ad goals to meet the expectations of the modern marketplace. In this interview, William Serrata discusses the challenges facing today’s community colleges and shares his thoughts on how these critical institutions can continue to fulfill their mission given today’s market conditions.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it so important for community college leaders to find new and innovative ways of enrolling students?
William Serrata (WS): President Obama and his administration have really looked at community colleges very differently than any other administration. It has brought us to the forefront and with that comes a lot of responsibility. We can’t graduate students if we don’t enroll them first so it becomes imperative for us to look at the population. In Texas, 70 percent of all new first-time college students start at the community college level and 80 percent of all students of color start at the community college. Those are also the fastest growing populations and segments of our society. It has become imperative for us to find new and innovative ways to get these students enrolled in higher education to give them the self-confidence for them to realize that they are not only college material but that they can be successful in college.
Evo: What are a few of the new audiences that community colleges should be serving, but aren’t?
WS: We have an enormous number of men and women in the military right now and as they start to exit, we really need to do a better job of enrolling these veterans, and providing them credits for the training they’ve already received.
The other segment is traditional-aged students from underserved populations. The Latino or Hispanic population is growing rapidly and is the fastest growing and most under-educated population in our nation.
In both segments part of what we’re looking at is minority male enrollment in higher education, because they have the lowest level of educational attainment. We need to find a way to facilitate this, otherwise we’re going to take steps backwards in our state with the men of our nation.
Evo: What are a few of the most significant challenges involved with serving a new marketplace?
WS: When we look at college readiness, it’s so much more than just test scores. There’s a system of higher education that is confusing. Financial aid is still cumbersome and challenging. We have to learn what the for-profits do and a big part of their secret is cultivating stewardship with those students.
We’re very proud to be an open admissions institution for the students we are privileged to serve. Sometimes, though, we forget that we’re here to serve the community. We expect the community to come to us as opposed to us being available to the community. That is one of the other major challenges.
We’ve really got to focus on what’s wrong with the institution before we ask what’s wrong with the student. What can the college do differently to help facilitate student success?
Evo: What are some of the fundamental changes that community colleges need to make to be ready to serve more at-risk populations?
WS: First and foremost, if we know that certain actions by students are going to be harmful or jeopardize their success within higher education, then we shouldn’t allow students to do that. One example is the elimination of late registration. As opposed to being a rigid, purely 15-week semester, we can shorten courses and we can have what we call “flex” schedules.
The next level of facilitating student success is comprised of two primary areas. One is predictive analytics and being able to look at our student data, identify which students are most at risk and ensuring that they take part in the many student success initiatives that we have available to them. The second is empowering students themselves by putting their own data in their own hands with mobile applications and technology.
We’ve become very data-oriented but all the data we look at is all dead data—it already happened. We can make changes and hope to affect future students, but the students we lost, we already lost them. Predictive analytics gives us the ability to positively affect students while we still have them.
Evo: You mentioned that there is no “silver bullet” to overcoming declining public funding, but there is a “silver buckshot” composed of numerous strategies. What are a few of the most promising strategies that can help colleges overcome their current funding and enrollment declines?
WS: I don’t believe there’s one answer, but there are a number of student success initiatives that need to be implemented.
The overarching goals for the institution have remained consistent. We’re looking at focusing on engagement at all levels of the institution in particular faculty-student engagement. If they connect with a faculty member, their likelihood for success rises significantly. We only have about 500 full-time faculty and 28,000 students. If we can’t connect them to the faculty, we connect them to someone—our counselors, our advisors, our student services and staff.
We focus on partnerships. We work very closely with our K-12 partners, with our sister university, with philanthropy, with business and industry throughout the region. We’re really focused on creating a college-going culture. The data is very clear that children as young as second and third grade are deciding whether or not they’ll go to college. Yet, we wait to recruit them until they’re in high school. Part of what we’re doing is we’re adopting elementary schools to create the college-going culture. The number one influencer for students to go to college is parents. If we reach down when they’re in elementary school, we’re reaching both the parent and the student at the right time.
Finally, we have to focus on completion. You only reap the benefits of higher education if you complete that degree or certificate and then move on to the next one. We really want to develop a culture of completion as well.
Within those overarching goals, we have several strategies. What I see as the most promising strategy is dual credit. The data is overwhelmingly positive, if we encourage students to take college courses while they’re still in high school, their success rates are phenomenal. We’re looking at an expansion of dual credit in our region, again partnering with our K-12 independent school districts. We’re looking at really revamping our new student orientation and front-door operations for a really welcoming environment. This is again changing what we do as opposed to changing our students. Once they get to us Education 300 is a learning frameworks course for us at El Paso Community college. It is a for-credit course. We’re looking at how we make this student success course mandatory for all our students to take.
We’re expanding our early alert program. We’re following up on that and extending into other campuses. We’re developing a case management approach to student advisement that we will pilot at our large campus and then take to the other five. Finally, the data will underline each of these. We will measure the results from each and then from each strategy, and those that work, we will scale. Those that don’t work we will tweak or stop doing.
Evo: It seems like a lot of these changes are centered on the idea of a greater customer service mentality everywhere but inside the classroom itself.
WS: With for-profits and proprietary institutions, their front-door operations are incredibly student-friendly. Once they’re in, there may be some questionable practices, but getting them in is very customer service-savvy and those are things we realize we have to learn from.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about creating this silver buckshot and what it’s going to take for colleges to really overcome the turbulent period that they seem to be in?
WS: We really have to measure these initiatives. The data has to drive the decisions and the application of resources. When I would present on the student success initiatives in the past I would hear “we’d never be able to do that at our institution” and I would ask why. They would say they couldn’t afford it.
I once held a registration rave. I opened on a Friday at 8 a.m. and I didn’t close until Saturday at 1 p.m. I measured the number of students I registered that day. I had a band, I had moon jumps for the kids, I had pizza and soft drinks for everyone that came in. I probably spent $40,000-$50,000 including staff and other costs, but I did the analysis and I enrolled almost 700 students that day who took an average of 11.2 credit hours and based on the data of their tuition in addition to state reimbursement, I showed that I made the institution over $2 million in that event. What we have to do differently is not say “we can never do that.” We have to show how it will impact student success, which in turn impacts resources for the institution. If we’re able to measure these and those that work we scale, it’s really paramount for us to understand that particular piece of it.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator