Forging the Future of Community Colleges

Dr. Daniel Phelan isn’t quite sure what the future holds for community colleges, but he does have a few ideas for moving things in a positive direction — and he should know. Phelan, a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Board of Directors, is president of Jackson College in Michigan, a position he’s held since 2001.

His new book, Unrelenting Change, Innovation and Risk: Forging the Next Generation of Community Colleges, aims to give community college leaders at all levels a practical approach to embracing change and understanding its strategic value. To do this, he weaves research with “on-the-ground perspectives” and utilizes real cases of success from both businesses and higher education.

“Community colleges themselves were initially a great innovation and disruption to higher education, expanding access and participation in higher education in a significant and scalable way,” he said. “I believe that we must reconnect and recommit to that aspect of our DNA that created the community college.”

Phelan said that increasingly fierce competition, reduction in aid, increasing costs, urgent calls for accountability and tightening federal regulations are preventing experimentation, innovation and risk-taking at the local level.

He calls on college presidents, trustees and community leaders to look at community colleges in a new light. Don’t believe things will improve if you simply work harder using the same tools; identify the changes in the way students learn and make progress, and adapt.

Some colleges are embracing innovation with promising results, and Phelan shares these examples in his book. Tidewater Community College in Virginia introduced a textbook-free Associate of Science Degree in Business in an effort to lower costs and improve student outcomes. Faculty members utilize Open Educational Resources for the courses, saving the students “upwards of $2,500.”

Bellevue College in Washington has found success with Competency-Based Education, which has emerged as a promising practice. Students progress through a business transfer associate degree based on demonstrated competencies, not classroom time.

Jackson College created its own public school academy on its central campus that offers sixth graders to college freshmen an opportunity for non-traditional learning. The school includes a year-round, all-day calendar, a competency-based learning model and digital devices rather than traditional textbooks. Students progress at their own pace and are able to earn a high school diploma and associate degree at no cost.

“As thought leader Saul Kaplan argues, in order to innovate at the pace in which the environment requires, we have to think like ‘market-makers,’ not merely ‘market-takers,’ ” Phelan said.

Community college leaders must first be open to change, he said. Those leaders must then be focused and disciplined, with a long-term perspective and a commitment by the college president and the board of trustees. Buy-in from community and business leaders and continued partnerships in workforce development and collaboration with external organizations are key as well.

As for the community college of the future? Phelan sees it as a combination of “what we will look like” and “what we should look like.” And ultimately, he’s optimistic.

Phi Theta Kappa President and CEO Dr. Lynn Tincher-Ladner said Phi Theta Kappa has much to learn from Phelan’s approach to community college innovation.

Phi Theta Kappa is adapting to the new ways students learn and communicate and finding ways to place a greater emphasis on creating job skills, giving students an opportunity for experiential learning and letting them earn credit for that learning — these are a few ways the Society can adopt the guidelines in Phelan’s book and use them to promote success among our members.

“Phi Theta Kappa has to be a clear representation of the communities and colleges in which we’re present,” Tincher-Ladner said. “Dr. Phelan’s ideas and the book itself represents an exciting opportunity for all of us serving those in higher education to take risks, to do more and to be better for the benefit of everyone involved.”

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