Monday, April 25, 2011

Creating Opportunity

Thousands of student stories are developed at MVCC each year. Without the support of the MVCC Foundation, many of those stories would have a very different narrative. For example, the story of a student who graduated in the top 10 percent of their class and attended MVCC before transferring to a highly respected university would not have played out without the student receiving a presidential scholarship. Similarly, the single mother who completed our nursing program and started a career and support her children would not have been written without the student receiving multiple scholarships available through the Foundation. These stories and countless others comprise the story of Mohawk Valley Community College itself. Whether it’s helping to slow the "brain drain" by providing excellent education to recent high school graduates, providing relevant career skills to returning adults, or breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty for underserved populations, MVCC has been able to fulfill its mission to a greater extent due to the support of the MVCC Foundation. With the challenges facing this region, MVCC has an unprecedented responsibility to advance our important mission to the greatest extent possible.

Unfortunately, not every need can be met through traditional means, which is why the Mohawk Valley Community College Foundation recently launched the Challenge and Opportunity comprehensive fundraising campaign. With a goal of $7 million, this campaign will provide the College and our students with the traction necessary to ensure that obstacles are overcome to secure individual student and community success. A feasibility study was conducted to assess the critical needs in the community that MVCC can only address with private support outside our operating budget. One-hour interviews were completed with 76 people of influence and affluence – some connected to the College and others not as much. The study helped identify four initiatives that comprise the focus of the campaign – 1. Creating student opportunity; 2. Breaking barriers; 3. Revitalizing the Economy; 4. Educational Excellence. This post is the first of four that provide background on the context and significance of each campaign initiative.

With the rising cost of tuition, a college degree is increasingly out of reach for too many Americans. Although MVCC is committed to limiting tuition increases – having raised tuition less than 3% each of the past 5 years (with 1.5% increases 3 of the last four), not every student qualifies for federal and state financial aid. If a student has a household income of as little as $44,000 in some cases, they fall above the threshold for federal Pell grants and must take out student loans if they do not have the resources to pay for college. The Creating Opportunity initiative provides scholarships for students of all backgrounds who might not otherwise be able to afford attending college.

The MVCC Foundation currently manages 92 named scholarships and provided $280,000 in scholarships to 250 individual students last year. An endowed scholarship can be established with $10,000 to provide a scholarship from the annual interest of the investment. The most comprehensive scholarship program is the Presidential Scholarship that provides full tuition for two years to any student who graduates in the top 10% of any high school in Oneida County. The Presidential Scholarship is one of the best approaches to minimizing the natural “brain drain” that occurs in every community where the best and brightest high school graduates leave to attend college elsewhere – too often rarely to return home. Each year about 60 presidential scholars, including some valedictorians, save money and stay home for two years by enrolling in small classes taught by highly qualified faculty. By attending MVCC, these students spend two more years in this community with a chance to expand their experience and appreciation for the region – making them more likely to stay or return if they choose to go away. Endowing the Presidential Scholarship fund is a primary priority of the Challenge and Opportunity Campaign and represents half of the overall $7 million goal.

The Creating Opportunity initiative will help secure the futures for countless MVCC students for years to come. With hundreds already benefiting on an annual basis, expanding the number of scholarships available will ensure that even more students are able to pursue their educational dreams that otherwise would be delayed or derailed completely due to the lack of financial support. The Challenge and Opportunity campaign will expand the student stories that have yet to be written and help craft the future narrative of this community by creating opportunity where it currently fails to exist for so many in our community

For more information, check out the MVCC Foundation website or if you have any comments on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I love to play with words and enjoy when I come across a creative arrangement that puts something common into new perspective. Like a Seinfeld television episode, a Simon & Garfunkel song, a Maya Angelou poem, or a Dilbert comic strip, creative play with words can causes us to think differently about something we might otherwise dismiss through a general inattention that sometimes develops through the speed of daily life. I recently came across one such arrangement of words that reminded me of a fable that I hadn’t come across in years.

As an undergraduate, I was told by my career counselor not to major in communications. He said, “You need a skill. After all, look at us now, we are already communicating!” I’m glad I didn’t take his advice because in every college I’ve worked, “communication” always seems to be the “thing” we need to improve the most. Organizations are comprised of people –with all our gifts and gaps.  As much as organizational communication can be improved, individual communication is the mostly frequently used form of communication, and yet, the hardest one to improve on any large scale. I think it falls short when we don’t take the extra time to ask one more question, or confirm what we’ve heard and what we’ve decided. This shortcoming is best illustrated in the old story about Everyone, Anyone, Someone, and No One (I couldn’t find the author for attribution.)

“Once upon a time, there was a big job to do and Everyone was responsible for completing it. But Everyone figured that since Someone was bound to do it (Someone always did), Everyone didn’t have to. Of course, Anyone could have done the job, but as it turned out, No One did.  This made Someone quite angry because it had been made clear that it was Everyone’s responsibility, not just Anyone’s. Yet No One had envisioned that Everyone would skip out on the assignment. When an explanation was asked for, Everyone pointed a finger at Someone only to be told that No One had managed to do what Anyone could have done.”

I feel the pain in the simplicity and the truth of that story. Hopefully, each of us can think about how to help Anyone be more successful. If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, April 11, 2011

From Churning to Learning

During a recent breakfast with thirty high school superintendents and principals (MVCC has hosted this event regularly for several years), I shared a video entitled “Discounted Dreams.”

While many school districts use documentaries like “Race to Nowhere” and “Waiting for Superman” to help explicate their current circumstances, community colleges have been using “Discounted Dreams” for that same purpose. The video chronicles nine amazing students, each working to overcome challenges - from financial struggles to learning disabilities – in pursuit of their educational dreams at community colleges around the country. Several vignettes discuss the obstacles faced regularly in the effort to define and measure success among community colleges.

The segment I showed the superintendents and principals centered on the proposition that funding incentives are, essentially, backwards for community colleges – “funded by enrollment, as long as community colleges have as many students coming in their front doors that are exiting their back doors (dropping out), they have no financial incentive to change…it’s a churn model.” A “churn model” wherein the “substance” being “ground up” is the student!

It seems to me that, all too often, when we focus our discussion on inadequate performance in the community college, those discussions center on student effort above all else. The notion espoused in “Discounted Dreams” suggests that what’s needed is a fundamental reexamination of the structure of the community college (especially as it pertains to operational funding) – at least equal to that given to student performance.

If we are truly mission-driven organizations (and I believe we are), community colleges need to turn the current Washington D.C. rhetoric into reality. Increasing student completion rates and significantly growing the number of college graduates in this country is a must if we expect higher education to lead the nation’s future economic growth and stability efforts in any meaningful way. It’s equally important that our graduates leave our institutions having experienced the joy and power of having participated in a life altering academic endeavor, replete with a plethora of scholarly effort. I believe that reality can come for most, only after the move from a churning model to a learning model of student success is made.

It’s not about social progression and passing students to simply get them through – it’s about maintaining our commitment to open access while offering programs and services that lead to real learning and growth; maintaining academic rigor while providing appropriate student support to actually bridge the gap between level of preparation (where we find students) and program outcomes (where they need to be to live engaged, productive lives). Changing mental models and financial incentives, from where we are as an institution to where we need to be, will be a journey, to be sure. But if we develop a laser focus on student success, enrollment (and the necessary funding) might just be a natural bi-product.

If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Two Lists - Two Perspectives

Lately I’ve heard more about a recent story in Moneywatch (based on a Gallup Survey) than I have about a CNN story (based on a budget travel study). As a glass is half-full person, I’m compelled to write about one story more than the other. The Moneywatch story covered the results of a recent Gallup Survey of 350,000 Americans about their state of happiness – asking questions about how they view their social and work experiences, health, and overall well-being. The Utica-Rome area ranked 10th lowest out of 188 metropolitan areas. It can’t be all about the weather and the unemployment rate is a full half percent below the national average and we’re in the top half of the 372 largest metro areas in terms of lowest unemployment rates. My guess is, like with most things, it’s all in how you look at it.

Having moved around the country a bit (New York is the fourth state we’ve called home), I understand that every place has a downside. For example, I absolutely loved living in the Denver/Boulder area with the Rocky Mountains, 300 days of sunshine, and vibrant big city feel. However, I didn’t like the overwhelming growth, traffic, school class sizes, living in drought conditions, and the fact that Albuquerque was the nearest metropolitan area – six hours away. Every place has its downsides. To that point, every area has its upsides. The CNN story listed the top 15 places kids should visit before they’re 15. While I’ve seen many of these places on other lists (e.g., places to see before you die, etc.), what I noticed on this particular list was that more than half are within a seven-hour drive and 5 (a full 1/3) are within a five-hour drive of Oneida County.

The items in the top 15 related to history are enhanced by additional places within a few minutes or few hour drive, including, revolutionary and civil war sites, the Erie Canal, women’s history, and interesting local lore. The natural wonders sites are also complemented by the amazing Adirondack and Catskill mountain ranges that sit in our own backyard along with the Atlantic Ocean and eastern shoreline a few hours away. We have the full four seasons, unlike one-third of the country that suffers through something like winter, but really it’s more like a long cold, windy, slushy season with a few days of snow. It’s the real deal here where you can embrace the winter months and fully invest in winter activities (granted, this was a long winter to be sure). Although it’s often mentioned that the 4-5 hour drives to Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia are great, we don’t talk as much about the fact that the area has such good schools, amazing performing arts offerings, and very little traffic that helps reduce the stress of daily living in the Mohawk Valley.

Wherever you live is also about community and feeling connected with others – something this area has in abundance. The sense of community in this area is quite remarkable and takes shape through the generous and giving spirit that makes for such great turnouts at local fundraising events like the Greatest Heart Run/Walk and large community events like the Boilermaker. And while we have many challenges to overcome, unlike many areas, this is one that is small enough that you can get involved and feel like you’re making a difference – and at the end of the day, that's likely toward the top of the list for most people. If you have any comments on this post, contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.