Needed: Urgency, Innovation, Collaboration: Why Community Colleges Must Lead the Way in Reshaping Higher Education in America

Article excerpt

In the 1970s, I began what was three decades in the automotive industry. It was a good place to be. U.S. automakers had enjoyed decades of growth and profitability, and it seemed like history would continue to repeat itself. Well, we all know what happened next. U.S. automakers grew somewhat complacent, seeming to take their good fortune for granted. As concepts like competition, market share and customer service received little attention, innovation stalled.

Today, as president of Ivy Tech Community College (Ind.), I see higher education confronted with some of these same challenges. After decades of success, it's tempting to continue down the same path. But if we simply rely on past practices to move us forward, we'll likely end up with struggles that the U.S. auto industry was confronted with in the 1980s.

That prospect, of course, is unthinkable. As critical as the auto industry is to the U.S. economy, higher education plays an even more important role. It's clear that we can no longer risk our future because we're too indebted to the past.

This was my perspective on December 5 as I joined President Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and a small group of higher education leaders at the White House for a roundtable on affordability and productivity in America's colleges and universities. I was honored to be the sole community college president to attend, and humbled to represent Ivy Tech's world-class faculty and staff. And I was thrilled to be part of a conversation that is so critical to this country's future.

During the discussion, I was reminded that while institutions of every kind will need to be involved in reshaping higher education in America, community colleges must lead the way. Our unique position with regard to affordability--the most critical area that needs to be addressed--combined with our collective impact--given that we serve 44 percent of all U.S. undergraduates--means we have a special responsibility to the nation. Community colleges are a launching point for first-time students and a place adult students return to get new skills, providing millions of Americans with an on ramp to the middle class. And if America fails in this same mission, community colleges will bear much of the responsibility.

Productivity With Quality

One of the first things we must do is focus on productivity. Community colleges must eliminate waste, cut costs, find new revenue, and increase the donor base. These priorities are articulated in Ivy Tech's strategic plan, "Accelerating Greatness." As a result, we've minimized the burden placed upon our students and carved out an unmatched competitive edge when it comes to affordability.

We realize, however, that productivity also means improved outcomes. Community college leaders must insist that quality does not suffer as we strive to better manage our budgets. …