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Securing support in state legislative agendas—from protecting public funding to education reform efforts—requires that community college leaders take the time to educate lawmakers about the value of their college programs.
It’s a process that requires persistence and patience, as the intended results may not happen for a while. The Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges (AATYC) has been working on a more streamlined transfer system for the past seven years and has finally seen its efforts pay off.
As a result of legislation that took effect in July, more students will be able to transfer with more credits and will be able to complete a bachelor's degree in less time, said AATYC Executive Director Edward Franklin.
“If you take 60 credit hours in an associate degree program, you shouldn’t have to take any freshman or sophomore courses at a university,” he said.
The new law also establishes a statewide common course numbering system. Initially, there were conflicts between universities and community colleges over whether courses were comparable, Franklin said. Lawmakers came on board when they heard complaints from constituents who had to spend an extra year in a university because they weren’t getting credit for community college courses.
AATYC put together a group of two-year and four-year college leaders to work with “champions” in the legislature to spearhead the legislation, Franklin said.
Serving as spokesperson
For California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott, advocacy is a huge part of his job.
“I’m constantly advocating for community colleges, talking to the governor and legislators, and making speeches to business and other groups,” he said.
Scott takes full advantage of the relationships he developed during his four years in the state Assembly and eight in the Senate, where he served as chair of the Senate Committee on Education.
“Get very well acquainted with your legislators,” he said.
Bring to lawmakers’ offices a team of four or five people consisting of faculty and students, as well as the president, Scott said. Those visits are especially effective "when you have a student with a compelling story to tell," he said.
It’s also important to invite legislators to visit your campus, Scott said, where the focus should be on career and technical programs and how they put people to work.
“Articulate the case for your community college and what it does for your community,” he said, adding that it's important to also have data on job creation to share with them.
In a state with severe a budget deficit, California community colleges were able to get by this year with a cut in state funding of 5 percent— much less than universities—by showing legislators that “we are the most cost-effective form of higher education,” Scott said.
Still, community colleges in the state are undergoing some tough belt-tightening, including fewer courses offered and larger class sizes. Those measures may continue to expand as state higher education leaders expect midyear state budget cuts.
Another key victory for California colleges last year was passage of a bill creating a system-wide transfer system, so anyone graduating with an associate degree can enter a state four-year college as a junior. This year, one of Scott’s top priorities is approval of a statewide common assessment used by colleges to determine whether incoming students need developmental coursework.
The Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS) has a very organized and strategic approach to advocacy. It begins preparing its advocacy agenda in mid-August with meetings of the state’s community college leaders, followed by meetings with its board of trustees, to prioritize the most important issues and draft position papers.
LCTCS President Joe May then meets with college faculty and staff and the most influential people in the state—those who contribute to elected officials and candidates, for example.
Finally, May meets with members of the legislature to present them with data and facts. The idea is to “educate them on what are the problems, and what we see as the solutions," he said.
May stresses to lawmakers the needs of students and businesses. One need the colleges can address is work readiness. According to May, 600,000 Louisiana residents age 18-49 do not have a high school diploma or GED, and only 55 percent are in the workforce.
“If we can get that up to 80 percent, it can have an enormous impact on the economy,” he said.
In response to that need, one of LCTCS’s top priorities last year—which was passed unanimously by the legislature—was transferring the state’s adult education programs from the K-12 system to the community colleges. Adult education was also renamed "Work Ready U" to reflect that the program focuses on using education to create a pathway to employment.
Reframe the issue
In Michigan, hard-hit by the recent recession, most state programs have seen their budgets slashed. But community colleges have been able to avoid significant funding cuts by stressing their role in job creation.
This year, state funding for community colleges was cut just 4 percent, compared to 15 percent for four-year institutions, said Adriana Phelan, vice president for public policy at the Michigan Community College Association (MCCA).
“We’ve been trying to reframe the conversation to focus on our role in training dislocated workers,” said Phelan, who noted that the state lost half of its manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years.
"It’s no longer effective to go legislators and say 'Don’t cut us.' That won’t work anymore,” Phelan said. Instead, “we talk about how we can add value in terms of talent development, job creation and economic development.”
One key element in this effort was the association’s success in getting the legislature to enact the Michigan New Jobs Training Program in 2009. The program allows community colleges to issue debt on behalf of employers that create new jobs. The debt is paid by recapturing the incremental increase in the state income tax associated with the new employees’ wages and redirecting that revenue to the college instead of the state.
Another of MCCA’s advocacy priorities is encouraging the legislature to allow community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees in five fields where there is a demand for highly trained workers but no four-year colleges are offering majors in those areas. The fields are maritime technology, concrete technology, culinary arts, energy production and nursing.
The House passed the bill, and Phelan believes there is a good chance the Senate will follow.
At the campus level
Northwestern Michigan College (NWC), on the shores of Lake Michigan, has one of the nation’s six federally chartered maritime academies along with its Water Studies Institute, said NWC President Timothy Nelson, so the college wants to be able to offer a baccalaureate program in maritime studies.
In addition, MCCA is working with the governor to implement a statewide initiative to allow a block transfer of credits for a seamless transition from community colleges to four-year institutions. That is needed because Michigan doesn’t have a statewide articulation system.
Nelson, who is currently serving as president of MCCA, is also promoting the concept of “reverse transfer credits,” which would allow students to transfer their university credits back to the community college, so they could earn an associate degree. It would also help improve college completion rates in the state.
Nelson said he builds relationships with lawmakers by inviting those in his region to a breakfast on campus twice a year.
“Let them know about the services you’re providing to their constituents,” he said. “And ask them if there are things they would like to see your college work on.”
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges