Addressing the Future Leadership Needs of Community Colleges

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Lead Author: Magdalena H. de la Teja
Dr. Magdalena H. de la Teja earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from The University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. degree from The University of Texas School of Law.  In February 2009, Dr. de la Teja began serving as the Vice President for Student Development Services at Tarrant County College, Northeast Campus, Ft. Worth, Texas.  She has been active with the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) throughout her career and currently is Chair of the Community College Executive Leadership Experience (CCELE).
Additional contributors to the article:
Paulette Dalpes is the Dean of Student Affairs at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Denise Swett is Associate Vice President at Foothill College, Middlefield Campus and Community programs in Palo Alto, Calif.
Edward Shenk is Associate Professor and Program Director at Alliant International University in San Francisco, Calif. and Editor for the iJournal.

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Magdalena H. de la Teja, Vice President for Student Development Services

In this article, the author and contributors identify the myriad of challenges facing current and future leaders in community colleges. They build the argument that current community college administrators would benefit from an executive leadership program, the Community College Executive Leadership Experience (CCELE), desinged for SSAOs that will address many of the challenges outlined in this article and more. The hope is to help future leaders refine and enhance their leadership skills so they can be hired to lead institution out of the current quagmire and into sustainable colleges meeting the future needs of our students.



A Snapshot of Community College Students

Recently, the nation’s community colleges have received attention from the Obama administration for their roles as gateways to higher education for underrepresented students. AACC indicates that community colleges enroll 40 percent of all first-time freshmen and 44 percent of all undergraduate students, of which 39 percent are among the first generation to attend college. The ethnic diversity of community college students is projected to increase, especially the number of Hispanic students: Hispanics represent the largest and fastest-growing ethnic minority in the United States. The majority of undergraduate Hispanic and Native American students in the higher education system enroll at community colleges, as do 43 percent of all undergraduate African American and Asian-Pacific students.
About 60 percent of community college students are female, with a trend of shrinking male enrollment, especially among African American and Hispanic students. The majority of students hold at least part-time jobs and two-thirds attend college part time. The average age for community college students is 29, who include single parents and many from low-income families. Community college students typically delay enrollment after high school graduation or earn general education diplomas (GEDs). According to AACC data, about half of students who earn baccalaureate degrees attend community college during the course of their undergraduate studies.
Community colleges, which will be competing for federal as well as state funding to serve an additional five million students by 2020, play a critical role in closing degree attainment gaps for underrepresented students. These colleges are increasingly viewed as the postsecondary institutions most capable of strengthening the U.S. economy by equipping students with the leadership and workforce skills needed for today’s rapidly changing, competitive global economy.
Challenges for Community Colleges

For many years community colleges operated within the status quo, offering all kinds of programs to high school students, those just out of high school, and older adult students, as well as special populations within each of these groups. During that period, funding increased, support services evolved to meet changing needs, and traditional operating structures were followed. Recently, the community college landscape has shifted as the economy crashed, homes and jobs were lost, and certain training and careers became obsolete. Today, community colleges face the staggering task of offering more classes and programs at the same time that their own workforces are shrinking.
The next few years present unprecedented challenges for fiscal survival as well as unique opportunities to reshape the way community colleges do business. As the full impact of the economy, technology, special populations, the federal agenda, and changing demographics is felt, the historical focus of the community college on access and opportunity alone will no longer suffice.
Working with diminishing resources, community colleges must choose what programs and services will remain intact, will be redesigned, or will be eliminated. For instance, leaders at California’s community college are struggling to maintain quality programs with cuts up to 68 percent in high-need student service areas. Growth caps in enrollment and state resources as well as mid-year budget cuts will test even the most effective leaders as they try to forecast the future.
Another consequence of the budget upheaval is the early retirement of college presidents and vice-presidents to reduce administrative costs. In some cases, colleges are combining key leadership positions or presidents are seeking more compatible administrative reports. As a result, many positions are opening at the upper administrative levels and future leaders need to be prepared to assume these restructured challenging positions. This is especially true in California with the extreme level of budget cuts and the equally high demand for leaders to guide institutions through these troubled waters.
Leading these institutions in new directions will require strong commitments to maintaining fiscal stability—with a focus on prioritized goals that demonstrate innovation, creativity, and strategic planning—along with high levels of confidence, understanding, decisiveness, and empathy. Community college leaders are turning to colleagues to work together to develop innovative solutions, such as community partnerships, entrepreneurial ventures, educational collaborations, and alliances with business and industry. Refocused college missions and goals have become more clearly delineated to directly address the critical programming that supports basic skills education, vocational and technical career tracks, and transfer coursework. These challenges provide opportunities for those SSAOs who are prepared for broad campus leadership to help in leading in new directions. They can create multi-year plans to consolidate services to achieve cost efficiencies, review and evaluate program effectiveness, and be integrally involved in cabinet leadership decisions and allocation of resources.
Leadership Skills for the Future

To lead in constantly changing times, internationally recognized futurist Rick Smyre cites the need for transformational leadership skills with the ability to create new knowledge by identifying connections and patterns between totally disparate ideas and factors. In 2006, Barbara Viniar and Martha Stettinius of the Institute for Community College Development edited a report, titled “The Entrepreneurial President,” which describes the executive leadership skills required to build and sustain a culture of innovation and transformation that takes advantage of the community college’s greatest strength—its ideal position for change in meeting community workforce and economic challenges. So now, we wonder how community colleges will find new leaders to meet these challenges.
The AACC has identified core competencies for community college leaders that include organizational strategy, communication, resource management, collaboration, community college advocacy, and professionalism. These competencies offer SSAOs a framework for refining or developing the leadership skills and attributes needed to resolve current and future challenges and prepare for career opportunities.
Further, the NASPA Community College Division offers institutes and other professional development opportunities at regional and national conferences and other venues to prepare SSAOs for senior leadership positions. Additionally, the Divison will launch the inaugural Community College Executive Leadership Experience (CCELE) just prior to the 2011 NASPA Annual Conference. CCELE is a selective executive leadership program for SSAOs that will address many of the challenges outlined in this article and more. The hope is to help future leaders refine and enhance their leadership skills so they can be hired to lead institution out of the current quagmire and into sustainable colleges meeting the future needs of our students.
To learn more visit To provide your input and ideas, contact Stephanie Gordon at . An expanded version of this article can be found in the NASPA’s Leadership Exchange, Volume 8, Issue 1, Spring 2010, pages 11-15.