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Focusing on Relevancy and Flexibility: Solidifying the Place of the Community College

The EvoLLLution | Focusing on Relevancy and Flexibility: Solidifying the Place of the Community College
As postsecondary education becomes increasingly critical to meaningful participation in the labor market, community colleges need to maintain their role at the nexus of the lifelong learning ecosystem.

Community colleges play a critical role in the health of a community. Providing individuals—often from traditionally-underserved demographics—with an entry point into postsecondary learning and opportunities for upskilling and reskilling, all at an affordable price, places them at a critical spot in the lifelong learning ecosystem. However, competition is rising from all sides. In this interview, Lenore Rodicio shares her thoughts on the key challenges and opportunities facing community colleges, and reflects on what it will take for these institutions to maintain their critical place in the postsecondary landscape.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few key trends community college leaders need to be keeping an eye on?

Lenore Rodicio (LR): There are three things that need to be on every college leader’s radar: pedagogy, student support and the changing nature of work.

With regard to pedagogy, we have an ever-changing demographic of learners. In community colleges specifically, a single classroom can be highly heterogeneous as it relates to academic preparation. Our faculty have a yeoman’s job ahead of them in terms of making sure students with varying levels of academic experience succeed. The bulk of our faculty were trained in their respective areas of expertise, but few, if any, have formal training in effective teaching practices. As leaders, it is our responsibility to provide our instructors with professional development opportunities that allow them to better understand the community college student and the most effective teaching practices that will ensure quality learning and equity in the classroom. Nowadays, students literally have information at their fingertips through mobile devices. The effective faculty member will be the one that shifts the focus in the classroom from delivering information to ensuring students have an opportunity to access and apply information. Flipped classrooms, project-based learning and other high-impact practices will ensure healthy classroom engagement that results in deeper learning.

But for the typical community college student, a fruitful classroom experience is often not enough. The reality is that even the most determined community college students face life challenges that can become barriers to their education. At Miami Dade College (MDC), 89 percent of our students come from underserved populations. 48 percent are first generation college students. 69 percent are low income, 43 percent live below the poverty line, and 70 percent work while attending college. To say that these students need a complex system of support is a gross understatement. Community college leaders need to identify ways to use limited financial and human resources to strengthen advisement, supplemental instruction and mentoring. Matching students to federal and state financial aid, scholarship opportunities, and basic financial literacy is a non-negotiable function of the community college. More recently, the provision of basic needs through resources such as food pantries has become a staple at most of our institutions as well.

The question that often arises is, what is the return on investment for these students? Are the challenges of completing a degree worth it in the end? The answer is, undeniably, “Yes.” At MDC, 36 percent of all students move up two or more income quintiles. MDC ranks first among Florida colleges and fourth among non-selective four-year public colleges nationally in overall mobility, based on the recent New York Times Mobility Report Cards. These results are not a matter of chance—our institution, like most community colleges, is well attuned to the changing nature of work. We intentionally work with local industry leaders to ensure that our curriculum is clearly aligned to their workforce needs. An agile program development process ensures a nearly turn-key process for launching new programs in an ever-changing field of work.

Evo: By the same token, what are a few critical challenges facing modern colleges?

LR: As I indicated above, community colleges are tasked with training some of the neediest students in our community. We are open-access institutions that never deny an educational opportunity to anyone who seeks it. Additionally, we have no choice but to continue to keep pace with continually changing advances in technology and to maintain a dynamic and responsive infrastructure to respond to learner needs.

Our greatest challenge in meeting this lofty, critical societal goal is that the higher education infrastructure of our nation does not have the same agility that community colleges are called to have. It begins with faulty metrics that lead to less than adequate funding. For the most part, community colleges are asked to meet performance measures that were created for traditional college students—those enrolling immediately upon high school graduation, who attend and study full-time. That demographic does not reflect not our students. We are constrained by federal financial aid policies that, for the most part, are still tied to seat time, credit hours and traditional college degrees. This does not accommodate the type of training that emerging industries are asking of us.

While the metrics are admittedly inadequate, there are few advocacy efforts aimed at improving them, and community college funding is increasingly tied to performance funding built upon this flawed system of metrics.

Access to higher education must be a social and political priority. We need to recognize that the current system of metrics and funding does not support the majority of our nation’s postsecondary students.

Evo: Where do two-year colleges fit in the emerging lifelong learning ecosystem needed for individuals to succeed in today’s labor market?

LR: Community colleges are the nexus of that ecosystem. We are the institutions that bridge the gap between experience and credentials; between technical skills and soft skills. At the heart of our work is good teaching.

As I previously stated, it is critical that students learn to apply knowledge. This requires academic faculty and administrators to carefully curate programs, in order to ensure that there is a clear cadence in learning. Each and every course in a program pathway needs to have relevance to the overall curriculum. At MDC, we created a faculty-led process to regularly review course pre- and co-requisites to ensure an inherent sequence of learning. Additionally, our faculty have committed to ten college-wide learning outcomes, embedded in all programs, that ensure students will acquire key transferable skills including communication, quantitative literacy, and critical thinking. Faculty utilize course projects, service learning, and other high-impact practices to ensure that students have the opportunity to attain these key outcomes. Course, program and college-wide assessments create a set of student artifacts that allow us to demonstrate student learning and make continuous improvements in the curriculum.

Recently, we engaged faculty in a “Writing for the Real World” initiative to embed writing skills attainment in key workforce programs such as public safety, business, health and nursing. Course activities, co-curricular writing labs and career development opportunities ensure that students can improve their writing for their respective technical fields. Now in its third year, the initiative has shown how we can better contextualize our curriculum and co-curriculum to align student learning with industry expectations.

Evo: How are community and technical colleges affected by the increasing number of workforce-directed programming that’s being developed and launched by four-year universities?

LR: Strong 2+2 partnerships with local universities, particularly with our state university partners, are key to avoiding tension and unnecessary duplication in this space. For most high-demand workforce areas, there are not enough graduates produced out of any single institution to meet the needs of local employers. Seamless transitions are key. At MDC, we work closely with our state university partner, Florida International University (FIU), to ensure curriculum alignment. Regular meetings of faculty and administrators ensure that transfer students receive a strong foundation so they can compete with native students, and bridge advisors work across the two institutions to support students and ensure continuation of study. In fact, recent data shows that around 64 percent of MDC associate degree transfers graduated from FIU, compared with 55 percent of native FIU students. More generally, within six years of earning an associate degree at MDC, around 59.3 percent of all 2010/11 graduates earned a bachelor’s degree, compared with approximately 41.4 percent for all institutions nationally.

The private for-profit sector, however, is our major competition. These institutions often have large marketing budgets that allow them to aggressively recruit students in short-term programs. Unfortunately, these programs also come with a high sticker price and compound the ever-present issue of student debt. Community colleges must do a better job of marketing the quality of our programs, together with their affordability and the resulting economic mobility that our students gain. At MDC, when all financial aid and scholarships are taken into account, the average adjusted net price for all undergraduates is calculated at under $1577. Couple that figure with an 87-percent first-year job placement rate and $47,824 average wage, and there is simply no argument that can be made to negate the value of our degrees.

Evo: How are two-year colleges evolving their identity to remain relevant to today’s learners?

LR: We need to be nimble. Our programs cannot become institutional monuments; rather, they need to be vehicles for student success. This requires a coordinated program review process that includes industry input for key workforce programs. Updates to course curricula have become part of the day-to-day activities of the most successful community colleges. If we are to keep up with the changing workforce landscape, curriculum development and/or revision cannot take years, but must be completed in weeks.

We need to be flexible. At MDC, we provide learning in formats that are responsive to our diverse student body. That means that we have invested in growing our virtual offerings, prior learning assessment and competency-based education programs. Knowing that our students will stop-in and stop-out, we have created clear course sequence pathways with embedded stackable credentials that lead to associate and baccalaureate degrees. We do not offer “certificates to nowhere.” Every one of our college credit certificates builds into a corresponding associate degree.

We need to be relevant. At MDC, we not only align our courses to industry needs, but in most cases, the classrooms for our workforce programs mimic real-world workspaces. This allows us to create a work experience in the classroom. This is well exemplified in our award-winning Miami Animation and Gaming International Complex, better known as MAGIC. Our animation and game development programs were designed to mimic a working animation studio, and the program is structured to provide students with real industry experience. In their first year, students develop animated shorts or sample video games that they then pitch to industry leaders from studios such as Nickelodeon, Disney and Tell-Tale Games. Selected students then participate in a year-long mentorship program to develop their ideas. Other program students become the animation team. The program has become an exemplar for project-based learning and internship experiences.

In short, the key to remaining relevant is to meet students where they are. Our students are non-traditional college students, and that means that we need to be non-traditional learning institutions.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

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