Audrey J. Jaeger and C. Ryan Knight: Developing a Pipeline for Community College Leadership

For some time we have known of a fast-approaching leadership shortage, if not an outright crisis, heading for community colleges in the near future.

The writing on the wall has been present for some time. In 2001, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) reported an “alarming rate” of personnel (many in positions of senior leadership) retiring after decades of service. AACC updated its projections in 2006, forecasting 86 percent of community college presidents then would be retired a decade later.

Through its College Excellence Program (CEP), the Aspen Institute has identified “an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider community college leadership.” In the past, many community colleges have relied on “grow your own leader” approaches, but the volume of retirement has sparked the chance to develop intentional, cutting-edge community college leadership development programs offered through professional development, redesigned graduate programs, and more.

The focus of these refined leadership programs will require a new understanding of the challenges of community college leadership in the future. The previous generation of leaders focused upon assuring college access, but the next generation of leaders will need to make a concerted effort to improve both access and student success. The Aspen Institute has made an important contribution to this fresh understanding with its emphasis on student success as equity, learning, completion, and labor market outcomes. Community college leaders are having to expand their definitions of student success to all stages of the student experience (before, during, and after coursework).

The Aspen Institute’s CEP has taken the lead in paving the path forward for community college leaders. Its 2013 report Crisis and Opportunity, published with Achieving the Dream, identified five key skills successful community colleges will need to lead their institutions toward successful futures:

  1. Deep commitment to student access and success;
  2. Willingness to take significant risks to advance student success;
  3. The ability to create lasting change within the college;
  4. Having a strong, broad, strategic vision for the college and its students, reflected in external partnerships; and
  5. Raise and allocate resources in a ways aligned to student success.

Similarly, AACC has also identified key competencies for community college leaders: organizational strategy; resource management; communication; collaboration; community college advocacy; and professionalism.

These skills and competencies presuppose a commitment to making use of data to guide inquiry and decisions regarding student success, which necessitates the ability to commission, collect, and interpret data sets (both internal and external). Leaders will then have to make tough decisions about how to move forward in a way that will lead to the greatest degree of student success.

NC State University has taken great strides toward developing a pipeline for community college leadership by realigning the training it offers to community college leaders in North Carolina and beyond. Last year, the John M. Belk Endowment awarded NC State a grant to launch Envisioning Excellence for Community College Leadership. Its mission is help develop the next generation of community college leadership through a threefold strategy:

  1. to redesign its Ed.D. curriculum to incorporate the necessary skills and competencies identified by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and AACC;
  2. to increase its professional development offerings to community college leaders in North Carolina; and
  3. to create a statewide resource network.

Through Envisioning Excellence, NC State has discovered the importance of collaborating to meet the leadership crisis and build an infrastructure for student success. NC State aims to engage with other universities in North Carolina that also offer leadership development programs. These conversations would facilitate an understanding of the pressing leadership needs of community colleges, and how collaborative efforts between community colleges and the state’s universities could address those needs with a focus upon improving student success.

NC State has formed an Advisory Board of outstanding community college leaders to guide its efforts toward fulfilling its mission. Last year, the Advisory Board reviewed and commended NC State’s redesigned Ed.D. curriculum, finding it to offer students the professional training they need to successfully navigate the challenges ahead.

We face a crisis, but it is one higher education can meet if it plans accordingly, using the skills and competencies for success already identified and adapting training programs to harness those abilities. NC State has already begun doing this, and seeks to partner with others who want to address the leadership crisis.

Audrey J. Jaeger is Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor of Higher Education at NC State University. C. Ryan Knight is Lead Program Associate for Envisioning Excellence for Community College Leadership.

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