Learning to Lead in Community Colleges

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October 18, 2017
Abigail Dym

The Office of Institutional Research and Office of Evaluation and Assessment are tiny in terms of staff and influence within the bureaucracy of the Community College of Philadelphia, but they represent an increasingly important component of higher education in the United States: using research and evaluation to inform institutional policy.

Public institutions of higher education are faced with shrinking budgets and uncertain financial futures at an unprecedented moment of high tuition costs, high demand for postsecondary opportunities, and a dually economic and moral obligation to support diverse students to navigate and excel in a system that wasn’t made by or for them. This is especially true for community colleges. Faced with rigorous competition for public funding, the availability of data for informed evaluations of programs is essential to provide efficient and excellent resources for students, as well as proving the enormously positive impact of postsecondary opportunities.

This need for information is especially true for community colleges, which serve an especially diverse student body. Community college students represent a spectacular range of ages, nationalities, goals, and household circumstances. As such, they have a variety of needs that require – and deserve – a unique approach to collecting and analyzing data relevant to their experiences. Community college programs, informed by this data, must be sufficiently flexible, supportive of a range of academic and financial needs, and responsive to ever-changing workforce demands to truly satisfy a student’s cost-benefit analysis of attending. Offices of institutional research will be integral in developing metrics and systems of data sharing and analysis that are appropriate for fellow staff and the students they serve.

From my work with CCP, I’ve come away with three big takeaways:

Growth Mindsets are Essential to Sustainable Growth. The evaluation and assessment of programs is becoming the ‘new normal’ in higher education, but many faculty and staff are unaccustomed to this ethos. I saw substantial push-back to assessment due to what I view as a fear that certain programs, majors, projects, etc. would be cut as a product of the evaluation. While this concern is understandable, especially given shrinking budgets, the resultant fear fosters dishonesty and unhealthy competition rather than the reflective and thoughtful reassessment, revision, and realignment that any excellent program of study needs in a global economy. Leadership in evaluation and assessment offices needs to focus on creating a culture of growth mindset where faculty and staff look forward to assessment as a mechanism for informing the best possible outcomes for students. A fixed mindset fosters fear; a growth mindset fosters collaboration and commitment to change in the name of student success.

Mixed-Methods Matter. A teacher at heart, I never thought I would love research as much as I do. After processing a variety of research opportunities I’ve been lucky to experience over the past year, I am convinced that analytic work needs more heart, so as not to reduce the rigor of quantitative methods but to round out the picture presented by the data. This ‘heart’ should require of institutional researchers that they understand the very real problems faced by the students they serve. It is dangerous if an office that conducts research is detached from the population on whom they collect data. Thus, I think a mixed-methods approach – a marriage of qualitative and quantitative methods – would provide institutions with a broader snapshot of student successes and challenges and would thus better inform institutional policies.

Collaboration is Key. In my nearly ten years of public service, the lack of collaboration among people who work in the same sector has never ceased to shock me. I saw this pattern replicated at the CCP. For example, CCP houses programs that already exist in neighboring community colleges, despite the awareness that these other institutions compete for students with CCP, and still lacks sufficiently clear transfer agreements with neighboring four-year institutions. In many ways, this is attributable to the decentralized nature of state institutions in Pennsylvania, and certainly not the fault of CCP. However, local institutions should work to collaborate to best serve students on the aggregate. Schools – especially community colleges – should remember that the bottom line is student success. While this is a tall order, steeped in political tension, it would be an excellent long-term goal to streamline certain programs and make foundational the collaboration among community colleges and state institutions. 

Community Colleges began largely after the passing of the G.I. Bill to provide sufficient postsecondary opportunities for the influx of returning veterans who wanted to obtain a degree. In the past 50 years, these largely open-access institutions have been an essential lever in creating accessibility for students from a variety of academic and socio-economic backgrounds. Research tells us that by 2020 over 60% of jobs will require a postsecondary degree and community colleges will continue to be integral in providing local economies across the nation with educated and thoughtful workers. Institutional research and assessment will be crucial components of meeting this need and maintaining academic excellence. 

Fels Institute of Government

The Fels Institute of Government
3814 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104

(215) 898-7326