One of the most important decisions in the state is now being made, slowly and, by necessity, behind closed doors but, not by necessity, out of the view of the people most affected.
Sometime in the next few months, Virginia will hire a new chancellor for its 23-school community college system.
Pop quiz: Can you name the current chancellor, who is retiring?
Go ahead, I’ll wait . . .
The odds are more people can name Virginia Tech’s new football coach – who has yet to coach a single game in Lane Stadium – than they can Glenn DuBois, who has been chancellor for 21 years.
That might tell you all you need to know right there about our priorities as a society. DuBois presides over a system that dwarfs even Virginia’s biggest four-year universities. As of last fall, Virginia’s community college system enrolled 144,215 students. That’s almost four times as big as George Mason University (39,142) and Virginia Tech (37,279), the state’s two biggest public four-year schools. Heck, even just one community college – Northern Virginia Community College, with 49,559 students – is biggest than either of them.
Here’s how remarkable DuBois’ 21 years at the helm of this system is. The average tenure for a college president nationwide is 6.5 years. DuBois has more than tripled that. He’s been through four strategic plans. He’s now dealing with his seventh governor. If we counted all the students who have passed through the community college system under his watch – well, I can’t count that high.
That will be a tough act to follow. If DuBois’ successor were somehow able to duplicate that, he or she would still be in office in 2043, graduating students who haven’t even been born yet.
So this hire is kind of important.
It’s even more important when you take into account what a recent Old Dominion University report had to say. That report warned that Virginia’s colleges campuses are economically segregated, with the so-called “elite” schools not doing a particular good job of admitting and educating students from low-income backgrounds. That report concluded by saying: “Whatever the causes of this stratification nationally and in Virginia, the traditional higher education task of providing opportunities for economic mobility has been largely forfeited by the elite and now falls substantially within the provinces of the community colleges and larger public urban institutions (GMU, ODU and VCU fill this bill in the Commonwealth). It is they who effectively now carry the economic mobility torch. If Virginia hopes to skirt destructive class and racial conflicts in the future, then it will be its community colleges and large urban institutions that will have to carry the proverbial ball forward.”
That’s a pretty powerful statement. Some might find it self-serving that a report from a school winds up citing itself as one of the solutions to the problem it identifies, but the charts and graphs that accompany the report are hard to argue with: Community colleges are pretty important and don’t get nearly the attention (or funding) that they deserve.
So Virginia really needs to make sure it gets this hire right.
The hiring process is being led by the chair of the state community college board – Nathaniel L. Bishop, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion and Student Vitality at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Bishop is a longtime educator whose curriculum vitae includes a degree from a community college – New River. The goal is to make a hire sometime this spring and have the new chancellor in place by July 1. According to a timeline posted on the college system website, the search committee is currently the process of reviewing applicants and recruits and deciding who to interview.
I’ve been on more than a few hiring teams myself over the years, and I always appreciated input from others who might be affected, so I’m sure this search committee will appreciate me suggesting a few questions that candidates for the chancellorship ought to be asked.
- Enrollment. Community college enrollment is down. It peaked in 2011 at 197,226 and has now fallen for 10 straight years. Strangely, this comes at a time when the demand for skilled workers is growing – and we’re increasingly told that a four-year degree isn’t necessary for everything, but that a K-12 education isn’t sufficient, which would seem to make community colleges even more important – so we have a disconnect here. How can we fix this?
- Free community college. The economy seems to be saying that many workers need a K-14 education yet the state only pays for K-12. Many states – some of them quite conservative states – have been trying to make community college free. Virginia has started down that path a little ways with the G3 program but that only applies to certain fields and then only under certain circumstances. How much should we be pushing for free community college? And if we don’t, then let’s circle back to question one and address that again in the light of students who simply can’t afford community college. How much is this a state issue and how much should be left to individual schools, who have vastly different resources at their disposal (see question 5).
- Scholarship and aid programs. A lot of programs are set up with the assumption that students are coming straight out of high school, but we all know that’s not really so. The typical community college student is older. From society’s point of view, the biggest challenge isn’t so much getting high school students to continue their education but to get adults back in school. Of course, that has its own challenges: We’re not talking there about teenagers living at home with their parents. We’re talking about adults in low-wage jobs who could sure benefit from community college to move into higher-wage jobs but who can’t even afford so-called “free” community college because they still have bills to pay. They can’t afford to quit their current jobs to go back to school because how will they afford to pay for rent and child care? Any solutions here?
- Child care and other student support. To deal with those problems, we’re seeing some community colleges set up child care programs and, in some case, food banks for students who can’t afford groceries. Is there anything the chancellor should or could be doing on this front?
- School disparity. Many of those programs are paid for through the non-profit foundations attached to each community college, but there’s a vast disparity between schools. Lord Fairfax Community College – which will be Laurel Ridge Community College by the time the new chancellor settles in – has the most assets, more than $33.6 million. Paul D. Camp Community College, which serves Franklin, Suffolk and Southampton County, has the least – $1.6 million. (These figures come from the Virginia Community College System and are updated through the 2020-2021 budget year). One of the beauties of Virginia’s community college system is that much of it is decentralized so individual campuses can be attuned to the needs of its own community. Other the other hand, we have these disparities in resources. What, if anything, should the chancellor and the state system do to address these disparities? (I should point out that these disparities aren’t always where you think they might be. While the wealthiest community college foundation is on the edge of Northern Virginia, the second wealthiest is in the coalfields – Mountain Empire weighs in at $31.8 million, which is surely a sign of how much that community values the school. In fact, three of the four wealthiest are west of the Blue Ridge, with Southwest Virginia at $29.2 million and Virginia Western at $26.5 million. On the other hand, four of the lowest five are all in rural areas – after Paul D. Camp, there’s Eastern Shore at $3.7 million, Central Virginia at $4.2 million, Virginia Highlands at $5.2 million and Southside at $6.2 million).
- Differential pricing. Historically tuition has cost the same no matter what the field the study. There are some who think Virginia should go to “differential pricing” – charging more for classes that are more expensive to teach. Example: A science class that requires fancy equipment would cost more than a literature class where all a student needs is a book. The accounting behind differential pricing seems sound but what’s the trade-off? Would this make it harder to enroll students in those STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering and math) that we need? Would it make it especially harder to enroll low-income students in those fields?
- Diversity: Here’s a wild card question but one that reflects the reality of the western part of the state. Community colleges have historically played an outsized role in getting minorities into post-secondary education. As the nation’s demographics change, we hear even more about the need for diversity today – and rightly so. But how do you translate that to counties that are more than 98% white?
- Student clubs. OK, this seems like a really small thing but it’s not. Across the country, some community colleges are trying to improve student retention by fostering a greater sense of community on campuses that have often felt very transactional – drive in, take your class, drive home. (The Boston Globe wrote about this in January). In some cases – Virginia Western is the example I know best – that means encouraging and supporting a lot of student clubs. What does the new chancellor think about this? More importantly, what, if anything, would he or she do to support these efforts?
- Accounting for student success. Here’s one weird thing about how Virginia tracks statistics. If someone needs a single community college class, and takes that class, that’s success, right? Wrong? Under Virginia’s system of accounting, that looks like failure because that student didn’t graduate – even though that was never the goal. This kind of accounting makes the drop-out rate at Virginia’s community colleges look worse than it really is. How would the next chancellor try to change things so we can get a better picture of student performance?
- Access. How much will need the new chancellor stay in Richmond and how much will he or she get out of the capital? Obviously any smart candidate is going to say they’ll get out and about but how about a commitment? How many times a year will you visit each campus? How often will leaders at some of Virginia’s more far-flung community colleges be expected to get in their cars and burn up a day driving back and forth to Richmond? Useful data: Some parts of Southwest Virginia are closer to six, seven, eight and in one place nine other state capitals than their own. We may need to learn many things but we already know our geography.
So, there are 10 questions we ought to asking the candidates for the next chancellor and not a single one of them involves how they feel about the football program.