Thursday, October 11, 2012

2012 ACCT Congress: A New Urgency to the Student Success Agenda

Opening the 43rd annual ACCT Leadership Congress, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO Sterling Speirn told attendees that they are "living in one of the most critical times our nation has ever faced."

The nation's future "depends largely on the investments we make on the institutions that support the human capital that is the bedrock of our society," Speirn said during Wednesday evening's opening session. "Student success in your colleges has a lot more to do than with just the individual success of your [students], but their role in our economy and democratic system going forward."

Over the next day, in sessions, keynotes, and a standing-room-only town hall meeting, Congress attendees grappled with a student success agenda imbued with a new sense of urgency. Reflecting on his recently published book, First in the World: Community Colleges and America's Future, ACCT President & CEO J. Noah Brown underscored the importance of the success agenda in restoring America's global competitiveness. "We face many challenges in the U.S., but none more important than educational attainment," Brown said. "Community colleges prove an on-ramp for the greatest diversity of individuals to the higher education superhighway. We are the most critical sector to restoring the economy and ensuring our people achieve the American dream."

During Thursday's general session luncheon, speakers pointed to the growing connections between industry, K-12, and higher-education systems. Bill Green, executive chairman of Accenture, touted community colleges as the lynchpin of talent acquisition for employers, calling the community college model "the shortest time from aspiration to a job."

Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, discussed the more stringent Common Core standards being implemented at the K-12 level and made the case that community colleges and school districts should work together to address the ongoing challenge of students who leave high school unprepared for college or careers. "There's no reason for us to graduate a student who then goes into remediation," Wilhoit said, urging community colleges to engage in "deep conversations" with the clusters of K-12 districts that feed into their campuses. "Better for one of our students to stay in our system a bit longer than go into your system unprepared," Wilhoit added. "That should happen in K-12, but it cannot happen without your help."

"The good news," said Paul E. Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, "is that we're starting to get it as a country. The level of K-12 and community college collaboration is higher now than it's ever been. We're working together to reform teacher education and develop the capabilities to meed this agenda… We're beginning to stop pointing fingers and trying to find a silver bullet, but coming together around this agenda and really working to achieve the kind of educational success that we achieved 50 years ago, when Sputnik frightened us and almost on a dime we changed the way we… set aspirations as a country. We're on the verge of doing it again."

In a Town Hall meeting Thursday evening, a group of experts argued passionately that community colleges can deliver on what society needs most from them. Community colleges "make up part of the only system that has the opportunity to respond to the crisis," said Elizabeth Mason, CEO and co-founder of Single Stop USA, which has helped more than 50,000 community college students receive wraparound services over the last two and a half years. "The resources are there, the colleges are there, the demand is there and the leadership is there. We need to have the will to move forward." Douglas Wood, program officer for the Ford Foundation, agreed, adding that the foundation is focusing on community colleges as the "anchor institutions" to provide meaningful links between higher ed, K-12 systems and economic development organizations in "corridors of college success."

As a roadmap, AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus pointed to recommendations from the Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation's Future report, created by the AACC's 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges. Byron McClenney, director of student success initiatives at the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin, emphasized the importance of trustees in shifting cultural mindsets. "Culture eats strategy for breakfast," he cautioned. "It starts with the board doing things differently and saying we're going to elevate the student success agenda and have the back of the CEO as he does the tough, courageous work."

ACCT Chair-Elect Jean Torgeson, a trustee at North Iowa Area Community College, told trustees that it is too late to make minor changes, adding that transforming colleges will require the participation of all stakeholders. "What's it going to take?" she asked. "Every single one of us."

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