A Q&A With An Outgoing President

By Sonya Stinson

Thomas Snyder of Ivy Tech Community College reflects on his time leading the college toward success.

Just two years before Thomas Snyder took over as president of Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, in 2007, the state had implemented its community college system. Under his leadership, Ivy Tech has grown into the state’s largest public institution of higher education, with an enrollment topping 98,000, and the largest singly accredited statewide community college system in the United States. In 2013–14, Ivy Tech conferred 9,453 associate degrees and 6,514 two-year certificates, more than any other two-year college in the U.S.

Snyder is retiring next summer, but he won’t be leaving higher education. Early in September, President Barack Obama appointed Snyder to the new College Promise Advisory Board, which will help to develop and promote the national America’s College Promise initiative to cover community college tuition.

We asked Snyder to reflect on some of his greatest achievements and toughest challenges as president.

You must be proud of one of the college’s most recent accolades: ranking first among U.S. two-year colleges in the number of associate degrees and two-year certificates granted during the 2013–14 academic year. What does that accomplishment mean to you?

I think the state has made a lot of progress in creating its community college model. We were the last in the country to endorse the community college. The law was passed creating the concept on July 1, 2005. Most of the country had already done this decades earlier. We had a technical school that wasn’t actually accredited until the ’80s, so the past nine years for me have been quite a ride.

What else would be on your list of the college’s greatest achievements made during your time as president?

I think that the things that we did on our completion agenda [were accomplished] within a very strict budget regime. We went through the world’s worst recession in a lifetime, from ’08 until the turnaround that’s just now starting. Budgets for a few of those years were flatlined.

There were three big changes on the academic side: the change in remediation to co-requisite remediation; the change in math [requirements] to eliminate college algebra for all, which gave [students] multiple pathways for math; and the organization into meta-majors, where we’ve divided the school into what are essentially four colleges. Each college has its own orientation and guided pathways for full-time and part-time students.

What has been your biggest challenge as president?

We do quite well in performance metrics, so we receive [performance-based funding]. But when the colleges were formed as community colleges in ’05, there was really no supplemental funding for that mission. So the college has been operating a little bit behind the power curve in terms of advising and full-time faculty. We have the lowest ratio of full-time faculty in the country of any major institution; we’re about 70 percent adjunct. That’s probably the biggest barrier that can only be overcome with funding.

What has surprised you about being a community college president? What lessons have you learned?

I came from the auto industry. As we were implementing best-in-class practices for the college system, the biggest surprise was how amenable the teams were across the entire state to looking at new ways of doing things. We changed a lot to try to save money: outsourcing bookstores, signing contracts for computers and online books and furniture. We put together cross-functional teams in virtually every subject, and that’s how most of the improvements have come about.

Another issue that was a surprise for me — because as an employer, I didn’t fully see it when I was in industry — is that the low barrier for well-paying jobs is now a high barrier. In other words, to have a middle-class lifestyle, you’re going to have to have a postsecondary education. People didn’t recognize that when I started in ’07; everybody understands that today. That means that the Tennessee Promise, the Oregon activity and America’s College Promise are all going to be critical to figuring out how we take a free- or reduced-lunch community and let them get a postsecondary education without [acquiring] a mountain of debt. That’s where I think the next few years are going to be instrumental.

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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