The Community Focus with Regional Colleges
As student enrollment continues to decline and the financial volatility the pandemic brought on, today’s economy is ever-changing and reshaping the workforce. This means colleges—regional colleges in particular—need to focus on what matters most: their communities. In this interview, Mildred Garcia discusses the importance of strategically focusing on communities around your college, the challenges in doing so and how to overcome these obstacles to better serve your learners.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for regional colleges to focus their strategies on better serving their communities?
Mildred García (MG): Community outreach and engagement are at the core of our purpose as regional comprehensive colleges and universities, dating back to the sector’s earliest origins as normal schools founded to address the states’ need for teachers. Over time, these institutions developed and matured into colleges and universities focused on a wide range of local and state workforce needs. Community demographics and economies have, of course, changed over time, but the thread of responding to community needs has been consistent. It’s a key pillar of what guides our work today. In 2022, AASCU released an updated version of our Stewards of Place publications to bring this legacy of community and regional stewardship into a 21st-century context.
Today, the conversation around stewardship of place has never been more critical and relevant in public higher education, given the array of challenges facing colleges and universities and their students. Institutions continue to grapple with declines in student enrollment, the financial volatility caused by disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic and the relentlessly changing nature of today’s economy and workforce. Doubling down on serving our diverse communities’ economic, social and educational needs represents a critical path forward for these institutions. What we hear from our presidents is that stewardship of place provides a compass north for strategy and decision-making during a time when institutions and the communities they serve are in a state of constant flux.
Also, demographics are changing. It’s important to understand what it means to be an anchor institution in a region and community. We must think about the way we strengthen civic engagement to ensure low-income or first-generation students, students of color and adult students have an equal opportunity to understand and contribute to our democracy.
Evo: What are some of the challenges colleges face when trying to address more than one need within the community?
MG: Forging consensus across a broad set of unique stakeholders and audiences, ranging from parents and families to administrators, faculty and policymakers, represents an ongoing challenge in this work. That’s always the case in higher education, but this needs to be an urgent priority for those stakeholders because they all quite literally have a stake in the success of the diverse constituencies served by our colleges and universities. In many cases, those stakes overlap.
Increasingly, our work at AASCU is focused on helping our member institutions understand the commonality and overlap between the internal and external audiences they serve. Institutions must learn their communities’ needs and priorities, then help these communities understand what the institution offers and how it can support them. Families need and want better opportunities for their children. Regional comprehensive universities offer that. Policymakers and businesses depend on a sustainable source of skilled and educated talent in specific local industries. Regional colleges and universities offer that, too. You want to build reciprocal relationships that lift up all parties and help a community thrive.
Evo: What are some best practices to support civic engagement and drive economic ROI while building those thriving communities?
MG: Regional comprehensive universities that seek to be good stewards of their communities must invest in education, relationships and communication. As I mentioned earlier, institutions must get to know their communities, while being aware that they adapt and evolve over time. That means institutions might have to relearn a community as community habits, preferences, composition and needs change. Forming these reciprocal relationships takes time because, let’s be honest, in some instances, institutions have had to rebuild their relationship with their community following experiences where their trust was damaged due to a lack of respect for what that community values and holds dear.
Building and maintaining multiple community channels between multiple institutional and community stakeholders is an important part of stewardship. It’s also important that college and university representatives can speak the languages spoken in their communities. Another best practice is feedback. Institutions must create opportunities to listen to locals and invite them to be part of campus conversations about major strategic initiatives. Sometimes institutions will hear things from the community that are painful to listen to but this kind of feedback allows stakeholders to develop respect for one another and help institutions make better decisions for both the university and the communities they serve.
Additionally, AASCU’s American Democracy Project is a network of nearly 300 state colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and abroad committed to developing civically engaged students. Now in its 20th year, ADP works to deepen the impact public higher education institutions have on preparing students to develop skills of critical thinking, deliberation, thoughtful listening and dialogue, particularly from opposing views and perspectives.
Evo: So, how do institutions put these best practices into action?
MG: Helping communities meet their needs can take different forms on different campuses. During the pandemic, for instance, many AASCU institutions served as COVID-19 testing and vaccination centers because there was enormous community need. When I was at Cal State Fullerton, the Center for Healthy Neighborhoods provided a number of resources to the community such as nutrition, social work and education for parents. In New Jersey, Stockton University learned that several major companies had summer labor shortages and that many of its students, especially low-income students, couldn’t afford to have summer internships at these companies because financial aid didn’t cover summer housing costs. By partnering with several companies in the area, Stockton got paid summer jobs or internships and housing for its students, and these companies got the workers they needed. At the end of the day, it’s really about college communities supporting local communities.
Evo: Were there any findings in the report that surprised you? If not, why do you think that is?
MG: No, not really. I wasn’t surprised because I know how deeply engaged our institutions are with their communities. But the latest report on funding and public policy presented some statistics that opened some eyes. The U.S. has more than 500 regional colleges and universities, and they educate about 5 million diverse and non-traditional students who combined represent the new majority of American college students. Regional comprehensive universities enroll 57% of all students seeking bachelor’s degrees and more than 60% of Black students and half of Hispanic students who attend four-year public institutions. 41% of these students receive Pell Grants, and many of them are first-generation college students. This statistic is a big one: Almost 90% of students attending regional comprehensive universities live within 50 miles of campus, and most stay in the area after graduation and get jobs in high-demand fields such as health care, education and business.
Evo: What are some trends you expect to see when it comes to regional comprehensive universities?
MG: Funding and enrollment will continue to fluctuate, public skepticism of higher education may deepen and political pressure will intensify. Student demographics will continue to change and evolve, as will the communities we serve. Our institutions will continue to adapt teaching and learning practices and policies to these changing conditions. Institutions will increasingly be thinking about hybrid models, flexible scheduling and diverse programming to meet these diverse learners’ needs. Out in our communities, institutions will continue working to understand new constituencies and stakeholders as they emerge.
Continuing to listen and to amplify those voices is critical. If regional comprehensive universities are to continue serving as good stewards, they must be seen as a valued and valuable part of the community and not apart from the community. Change is happening so much more quickly today than ever before. Our stewardship role in the coming years will become even more important to students, communities and the institutions themselves. Recommitting to place—and stewardship of place—has never been more critical for higher education.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.