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Shock the System: True Reform Requires Diversification

With state funding unlikely to return to prior levels, America’s community colleges must find new ways to foster change.

Empowering Community Colleges to Build the Nation’s Future: An Implementation Guide provides targeted outcomes outlining the “Next Big Things” in the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) 21st-Century Initiative. The guide implores the nation’s community college leaders to stop looking backward and instead move courageously forward.

Many of our colleges have already started on this journey. Change is an institutional imperative. But, like just about everything in life, it cannot be had for free. As AACC’s latest collection of promising practices points out, we have to cultivate sustainable funding streams and relationships to power these reforms.

The concept of diversifying funding sources is nothing new. A history of Joliet Junior College, America’s oldest junior college, shows that administrators first proposed charging students for tuition back in 1931. But state support for higher education was stable and predictable for decades, making such proposals less urgent — until the 1980s.

It was then that we began hearing the whispers. People started saying that these financial downturns could be permanent and that we had better prepare for an uncertain fiscal future — or what Peter Vaill called a period of endless “whitewater.”

But we were growing. We had more students, community and industry support (albeit within the broader questioning of higher education as a public good) and a seemingly limitless future.

We also had a problem: The enrollment increases our institutions enjoyed in the 1990s and 2000s masked the many financial deficiencies we were experiencing. Much like the recent housing boom, our organizational economies were structurally unstable.

Looking forward

We need to accept the fact that higher education’s endless whitewater is our new normal. State support of public funding is unlikely to ever return to previous levels. We need to stop looking to the past as a means to change our future.

We need to stop looking to the past as a means to change our future.

Instead, we should embrace those parts of the neoliberal ideology (including privatization) that allow us to generate revenues to replenish permanently lost funds. We should consider privatization where appropriate, but far from the core missions of access and excellence in teaching and learning — within these core elements there can be no compromise.

We must include faculty in the development of new financial models. We need their leadership, their direction and their engagement to increase the number of degree completers by 50 percent by the year 2020. We need to hire and train more full-time faculty. I have directed the Maricopa Community Colleges here in Arizona to move ardently toward a goal of a 60:40 full-time to part-time faculty ratio.

Shared responsibility

Privatization as a means of diversifying also means more of the costs of education will be shared with local businesses and industries that depend on the students we train.

Corporate training models already exist in many parts of the country, but we have to do more. Privatization suggests more aggressive marketing. Who among us hasn’t asked, or been asked, why we don’t do a better job of telling our astounding stories, from the lives we change to the hope we instill in students and community members?

Leveraging public–private resources, such as joint community libraries, wellness centers and health clinics, allows for community use and provides new and experiential opportunities for our students. Many of our colleagues across the country have taken steps to increase their fundraising and development efforts. My college presidents understand that they are expected to dedicate at least 30 percent of their time to bringing in new sources of funding and revenue for their institutions. And this need will only grow.

Stating our case

As we set about redesigning our colleges for this new normal, we must engage in advocacy and relationship building. It is possible to change funding models from the inside out. But this work will go only so far unless we overcome policy roadblocks and other political challenges. We already must contend with financial aid funding based on seat time and credit hours, competency-based credentialing and credits for prior learning. These and other old-hat funding measures threaten our progress.

Diversification is something our institutions do well. Adaptation is our hallmark. Our colleges want to do more — to do things differently, and to do things better — for the success of our students. And that is why we must be bold in envisioning our future — to protect the promise of the American dream.

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