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Training for a Tough Job: The Community College Presidency Pipeline

To say that the community college presidency is in flux is no overstatement. Many existing community college presidents have been reaching retirement age at a time when both the traditional presidential pipeline and rigorous leadership training programs have narrowed. At the same time, there has been a wave of community college president resignations and terminations, leading to warranted concerns about a shortage of qualified candidates who can tackle the increasingly challenging role.

Leadership matters. And high-quality sustained leadership is important for educational reforms to take hold and have long-term impacts. On the flip side, leadership shortfalls and transitions are harmful to those who depend on the community college’s success; namely students, faculty, and employees, as well as regional economies. Community colleges are at the center of policy discussions about preparing for the economy of the future and could be an immensely powerful tool for improving the opportunities of a very large and diverse group of Americans. Inequitable access and low transfer and graduation rates are persistent barriers, however, to community colleges’ incredible yet unmet potential.

A core challenge for present-day community college leaders is to drastically improve the success of their students in a rapidly changing environment that requires a deeper and broader skillset than ever before, while maintaining commitment to open access and low cost. Some of the inevitable changes presidents have to deal with include rapid transformations in teaching, learning, campus technologies, and colleges’ business models and financing. Presidents also face political conflicts, internal pressures, external stakeholder demands, and fiscal stressors. A community college presidency is no small task, and it is not surprising that traditional candidates, mainly provosts and vice presidents, are decreasingly interested in pursuing the role.

What has been done to remedy this problem? One effort worth highlighting is the Aspen Presidential Fellowship; one of a handful of comprehensive programs that prepare aspiring or recently appointed community college presidents to tackle the modern-day presidency. The program grew out of the institute’s research and recommendations for the development of a new generation of exceptional leaders – a need highlighted more recently by Aspen’s Task Force on the Future of the College Presidency, which calls for advancing new ways to develop a presidential talent pool that is also demographically diverse. This includes identifying and training nontraditional candidates, such as women and people of color, to aspire to and prepare for the presidency using evidence-based practices.

The first Aspen Presidential Fellowship program concluded this past April with very promising results, and the second group of fellows attends the first program session next week. The one-year program offers intensive professional development to cohorts of selected professionals through several residential seminars as well as ongoing mentoring. The program covers a range of topics, but is particularly focused on dimensions of leadership that research has shown to improve the likelihood of student success. By enhancing their skills and network, and actively preparing them to participate in presidential searches, the Fellowship aims to make participants competitive candidates for community college presidencies with the expectation that half will assume that role within three years of participation. It is also anticipated that, as presidents, Fellowship participants will deploy the skills they acquire to help their colleges achieve greater progress in student success than other, similar colleges.

Ithaka S+R conducted an evaluation of the first iteration of the program through feedback surveys administered at the end of its four residential seminars. The fellows, a talented and diverse group of professionals with an average of 21 years of experiences in the field of higher education, expressed very high levels of satisfaction with the program.

This was such a valuable experience from start to finish. The consistent focus on student success and the goal of becoming a transformational leader (rather than spending time on the transactional) set this opportunity apart from other professional development options. I feel much more confident in my ability to lead a community college and to truly make an impact on the lives of students.”

They reported gaining valuable information on the president’s role in different areas, a range of concrete tools and skills that will help them take actions to promote student success on their campus, a better understanding of and ability to plan for the transition to a presidency, and a peer network that will offer them lasting forms of support and knowledge to draw on.

“This experience helped me identify areas of gaps and areas of growth and develop a network of colleagues who can identify potential opportunities for me and that can be peer experts in areas where I need to help my institution to grow.”

Fellows also reported positive shifts in how they construe transformational leadership for community colleges and the concept of student success.

“I now have a much more tangible plan for creating and communicating a presidential vision for student success and change. And, I had the opportunity to give the vision a ‘dry run’ with my mentor and other fellows.”

Presently, twelve fellows from the first cohort of the program, including seven women and six individuals of color, are sitting community college presidents. An additional 38 new fellows are about to embark on the year-long journey, with equally promising outcomes. Such high-quality targeted and evidence-based leadership training programs are a valuable part of the solution to the community college presidency pipeline problem, and deserve to be met with high-quality research that can both document training impacts, as well as new presidents’ experiences during their transition into the role, in order to further inform and refine training programs.

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