Monday, October 11, 2010

College - it's not just for kids anymore

I once met a community college president who wore her college nametag everywhere - even the grocery store - to prompt conversations regarding the college. Fortunately, our community is such that I find myself in conversations about MVCC while I'm at various soccer and gymnastics events for our daughters, attending countless community events, and yes, even the grocery store. The conversations are comprised of the usual, "I'm an alum"; "I took classes there"; "My wife and I are taking a community education class together"; or "My kid is going there before they transfer." Lately, however, I've encountered a new angle in the interactions I have with adults when I hear things like: "I just started taking classes at MV" or "I've had enough with my current job, am making a big change for myself and going to MV." In addition, walking around campus this past week I had individual conversations with five students – all in their 40s and early 50s, three with bachelor’s degrees – enrolled full-time in degree programs matching their personal interests. Indeed, college isn't just for kids anymore.

Adults returning to college is not a new concept. When I was 29 years old, and Dean of Students at a community college near Denver, students averaged 30 years of age. Until a few years ago, the community college where I worked in Omaha had more of its 14,000 enrolled students in evening classes than in daytime sections. That pattern held true across the Midwest and much of the country. Lacking empirical data, my sense is that the more northeast one travels, the more likely one is to find a bent toward serving traditional high school graduates in community colleges. This has been tempered somewhat by a recent nationwide trend over the last ten years, with a dramatic increase in the number of high school graduates directly enrolling in community college. Many of these students' parents enrolled in community colleges themselves during the 1960s and 1970s, helping minimize the effect of the negative stereotypes and elitist views, which frankly, tend to be more rhetoric than reality about the community college.

Looking to the future, we need to go beyond our success serving recent high school graduates and evolve our focus to meet the changing needs in our community. Each fall, MVCC enrolls close to 30 percent of recent Oneida County high school seniors upon graduation. Our high school partnerships are critical to the long-term success of the College and our community. That said, we know, from the number of current elementary school students in Oneida County, the pool of college eligible high school graduates will decline 25 percent between now and 2019. At the same time MVCC needs to think and act differently, and as broadly as possible, to address challenges associated with our secondary school partners, we're experiencing the greatest surge in 25 and older students in more than two decades. Our mission demands that we address this challenge as well.

The question quickly arises, "can we serve both populations effectively?" My response is, "Certainly." But to do so, we must live out our commitment to being truly student centered. A few important items warrant consideration. As community needs have changed, our evening offerings have been greatly diminished. With current unemployment over seven percent locally; an estimated twenty percent of the local workforce underemployed; and current and emerging manufacturing jobs becoming more complex and high-tech, adults are facing the reality that lifelong learning is the only way to a successful future. The evening program used to be a signature part of MVCC's offerings and services through the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, so we know we have that kind of capacity. If evening study is not the answer, what about on-line? What about weekends? What about flexible starts? The question really is, "Do we have the collective will to create program delivery alternatives that meet all our potential students’ needs in ways that are meaningful and attractive to them?" If not, there may be other organizations - both public and private - who do, but the taxpayers of Oneida County deserve our best efforts.

One of every five Oneida County households is led by a single parent. How easy is it for them to take classes between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday - the bulk of MVCC's current course offering schedule. How much of an effort do they have to make to enroll, attend, and study on that schedule and still hold down a job and manage family responsibilities? It goes without saying that it would be difficult at best.

We have a number of good ideas in play with regard to refining programs and services to more intentionally serve our older students better – we just need to see them through in short order. With the social and technological changes underway, it's more imperative than ever that we find ways to facilitate lifelong learning for everyone – because after all, college isn’t just for kids anymore. If you have any comments on this topic, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.