Fans of The Office will remember one of Regional Manager Michael Scott’s rules of business about being able to adapt to different situations: “Adapt. React. Readapt. Act.” In today’s dynamic economic and political climate, higher education leaders may feel like they are stuck in a continuous loop of adapting, reacting, readapting, and acting again.
Multiple factors influence leadership decisions at their colleges: state disinvestment in higher education (namely, reductions in financial support and services and programs); public questioning of the purpose and value of higher education; record levels of student debt; and graduates’ difficulty finding jobs in their fields of study. Since community colleges are not immune to these external factors, they are also required to operate with less revenue.
These various factors can influence the organization’s goals and mission, and with the diverse array of community colleges and the communities they serve, no single regulatory choice is adequate for all of them. Organizations that are strategically involved in understanding themselves and their environment can identify the internal and external factors that affect them while providing solutions that influence student persistence and success.
For community colleges to be successful in the current dynamic climate of higher education, their leaders must fully understand these factors and ensure that the alignment of organization behavior and mission—ultimately, student learning—is at the forefront of all decision-making. Gansemer-Topf and Schuh found a relationship between organizational behavior (resource allocation) and retention and graduation rates, referencing Berger’s theory that colleges and universities exhibit behaviors that can impact undergraduate retention. This reality—that institutional decisions can influence student outcomes—should be considered in all discussions and deliberations concerning student success.
Community college leaders do not need to change institutional structure immediately; however, they should analyze the internal and external environments to help strengthen the college mission. At Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), a large single-campus community college in Arnold, Maryland, this process of effective factor analysis led to a realignment of structure to focus on student outcomes.
For AACC, the organizational shift was initiated by two major changes. The first occurred in 2002 when, according to Smith and Meyer, the college experienced a 24 percent growth in enrollment. They report that during this time, AACC created a strategic plan driven by its mission statement that focuses on “(a) meeting community needs, (b) student success; (c) community outreach; and (d) institutional integrity.” Martha Smith, then-president of AACC, shifted the institutional focus to “a continuum of lifelong learning.”
As a result, AACC realigned to become more responsive to internal and external factors impacting the institution. In a significant reorganization, Smith abandoned traditional senior level leadership roles. She created a Vice President for Continuing Education and Workforce Development to demonstrate the commitment to the business sector, and a Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs to emphasize the commitment to student success. Within this structure, continuing education and workforce development collaborated closely and created new, high-quality programs and services.
This newly merged division reinforced the relationships with the business community while establishing a culture of internal collaboration. Smith then replaced her traditional cabinet with a Learning Response Team (LRT) to focus on administrative and managerial systems that could help the college meet new and emerging learning needs. Using an LRT, AACC fostered partnerships between continuing education and workforce development that created seamless credit and noncredit options to fit students’ diverse needs.
The second change occurred in 2016 when President Dawn Lindsay announced that with a new strategic plan the college would expand its data focus to include disaggregated data to clearly show any differences in completion and dual enrollment rates by race, ethnicity, gender, and Pell status. Gavin and Bolton reported that Lindsay described the need to eliminate “equity gaps at all levels” as a “moral imperative.”
In reframing the conversation from “focusing on what we could not control to what we could control,” AACC’s Office of Planning, Research & Institutional Assessment is employing data analytics and designing new dashboards, scorecards, and trackers that will provide current data at scale. The data will reflect student demographics and persistence to completion, and will provide administrators the opportunity for real-time assessment at critical points in initiatives that may need support or revision.
As access to data and its interpretation grows, the focus on achievement gaps will be strengthened. Lindsay engaged the college administration and staff, focusing on building a campus culture of completion by using disaggregated data to inform decisions, embrace the equity imperative, commit to academic excellence, and strengthen learning pathways in support of the new strategic plan. The shift from access to completion provides a different lens for many faculty and staff members as it highlights the equity gaps in completion and dual enrollment rates.
By using different strategies to help the institution adapt to its environmental needs, AACC first focused on internal and external influences and then turned to organizational structure. The emphasis on alignment of action with mission led to a new mission statement and changes in the institutional culture to reflect it.
With internal and external factors continuously influencing our colleges, and while measurable student outcomes are mandated, the “Adapt. React. Readapt. Act” loop continues, but smart leaders can learn to manage it with innovative practices that provide opportunities to enhance services, focus on variables within leadership’s control, and align resource allocation with institutional mission. In this way, institutional decisions can support enhancements to the college experience for students that lead to improved student outcomes.
Dr. Rufus Glasper is President & CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College. Emeka A. Ikegwuonu is a doctoral student at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University, and has interned at the League for Innovation in the Community College.