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  • Writer's pictureBryan Reece, Ph.D.

Being the Community's College

One of the things I love about community college work is the “community” aspect or our mission. Unlike our 4-year colleagues, the community college is dedicated to a defined service area, seeking to lift and develop the communities we serve. I know universities often have a town and gown function, but this is typically a public relations tool used to mitigate the impact a university has on immediate neighborhoods. Community colleges play a much larger role in the community, intending to stimulate economic, social, academic, and cultural development. This is a mission-level understanding that I missed for many years, but have come to relish this role of the community college.

Many community colleges serve areas that are struggling with cyclical poverty, unemployment, low college going rates, dead-end jobs, and the social issues that often coincide. There are many areas in the U.S. like this and the community colleges in these towns can have a significant impact on these conditions if they adopt a set of strategies, partner deeply with civic leaders, and embrace the idea that we are the community’s college. We have an obligation to affect change through the work of the college that raises the quality of life in the areas we serve.

What We Can Do

To develop our regions economically, we need to consider partnering with the business community to close the skills gap and train existing employees. We should intentionally try to attract new businesses to our areas through strategic alignments with our academic programs. We should partner to support young entrepreneurs, take responsibility for their training, help find investment and much more. These are some of the ways we can address poverty, homelessness and upward mobility in our service areas.

To develop our regions culturally, we need to partner with artists in the area to stimulate fine and performing arts. We need to identify, encourage and train young artists. We need to partner with our local civic leaders to build shared performances spaces. We need to recruit major artists to our areas and promote attendance to these events by community members. This is how we improve the aesthetic qualities of life in our regions.

To develop our regions socially, we need to build community. Our campuses need to be spaces that are open to the residents we serve rather than surrounded with brick walls and tall hedges. Our pathways need to extend into the community, drawing them to us and us to them. We need to engage with our neighbors and teach basic civic dialogue. This is a skill that is declining with ever increasing partisanship and hyperbolic political-speak. We need to teach and model basic critical thinking to our region with language that is objective, informed, honest and open. We need to invest in the development of our current and future civic leaders. This is how our work can improve the qualities of society in our service areas.

To develop our regions academically, we need to partner with high schools, offering college courses on every high school campus. We need to develop application/enrollment processes that are seamless and intuitive. We need to partner with research universities, bringing their presence closer to our communities (especially communities that do not have a local university). We need to attract academic speakers and organize presentations/conferences on our campuses with deliberate outreach to the community to participate. We need to intentionally invite civic leaders into the academic planning dialogue around our institutions. This is how a college can raise the academic environment throughout their region.

Who We Should Partner With

To achieve these outcomes and impacts, we need to partner deeply with the community—especially our civic leaders. The civic leaders who will partner with us to help improve our service areas generally fall into four categories.

Regional Leaders — This community consists of civic organizations and related community leaders including public offices, nonprofits, educational institutions, faith-based organizations and private industry. These are the organizations that give immediate shape to our service areas and the leadership in these organizations are typically eager to partner with their local community college leaders.

State Leaders — The community at the state capital typically includes the college system office, the Governor’s office, legislative members from the service area, legislators with interest in higher education, state agencies that regulate higher education, state agencies that regulate particular offices or industries in the service area, interest groups that attempt to influence education policy, and associations that help organize education actors across the state. The leaders of these offices and organizations are often highly interested in partnering with educational institutions.

Washington DC Leaders — Every state has two U.S. Senators and at least one member of the U.S. House of Representatives (usually much more than one). For most community colleges, there are a few House districts that intersect the service area. Nationally, there are several other House and Senate members who participate in education policy development. Federal agencies implement policies that directly influence community colleges. Several federal agencies may be particularly active in a service area because of federal offices, federal land, or federally regulated industries. Accreditation policies are largely directed by the U.S. Department of Education, and interest groups are active in higher ed policy development. The leaders of these offices and organizations share common interests with local community colleges and can become strong community partners.

National Leaders — There are also national leaders related to higher education that can become significant partners. Examples include vendors and national organizations (universities, nonprofits, etc.) that participate in the dialogue around community college work. There are also national leaders that may have a particular interest in a given service area due to unique opportunities. These leaders should also be approached to join local partnerships.

Combined these four communities constitute the civic leaders colleges need to consider partnering with in their efforts to positively develop the communities we serve. If these four communities are successfully integrated with the college leadership, significant momentum for regional transformation can be realized.

Transforming students’ lives through education is a core element of the community college work and I have never encountered a community college that missed this element in their mission. However, transforming the communities we serve through economic, cultural, social and academic development is often missed or allocated to a lower strategic ranking at our institutions. This I believe is a grave mistake. Community colleges are large and vibrant organizations in their service areas with the capacity to lift the human condition if the faculty, staff, managers and Board members are collectively intentional and strategic about their desire to partner with the community.

Let me know what you think.


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