In September the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents received the community college task force report along with its recommendations. Some of these recommendations are obvious and clearly needed, others are novel and still others are untried and controversial.
The task force was charged by Chancellor Klaich in July 2010 with evaluating whether community colleges were truly aligned with the future employment and learning needs of Nevadans. The task force committee members represented a diverse group of business owners, business executives, K-12 and higher education individuals, and a former regent. The committee was chaired by Bruce James with additional System support by Dr. Magdalena Martinez. The committee visited all of the community colleges plus a number of other entities that either receive or produce students for the workforce.
The report begins with a number of observations about the status of higher education in Nevada, projected workforce needs within the state, Nevada’s national ranking on these matters, and the character and function of the community colleges. The report then concludes with a number of recommendations. Given the diversity of committee members’ affiliations, and the fact that some of the recommendations represent a fundamental shift in how community colleges are to achieve their mission, there was no consensus on the recommendations by the committee members.
This lack of consensus, however, should not preclude all of the recommendations from having a fair and detailed hearing. Some of them clearly point to areas that need attention or redress if Nevada is to have an educated citizenry and well-prepared workforce. To date, there is no strategic planning whereby community colleges and employers can comprehensively determine workforce needs now, or for the future. Technology will continue to be a transformational vehicle in all phases of education; this too ought to be implemented strategically and on an ongoing basis.
Public schools are taking ownership of the fact that a significant number of the high school graduates who attend college for the first time require remedial classes. The System needs to create pathways from K-12 through college to career so that students have clearly defined goals. Avenues for students to gain an associate’s degree while still in high school are novel, as is the concept of variable-tuition pricing. These recommendations need airing, as some are sorely needed.
Other recommendations in the report are revolutionary. Should public-private partnerships be explored? They should. Should public-private partnerships undermine or compromise the academic integrity of NSHE institutions? They should not.
As for a Nevada Virtual College, there is arguably a place for it within NSHE. Using the current model, associate’s degrees could be offered online, self-paced. This model would enhance access and flexibility for certain students, reduce duplication of offerings and permit the redirection of resources. A virtual college could also reach out to students beyond our borders – for instance, to those in the military – and conceivably serve as a much-needed resource center for NSHE. Across the country, 22 states have adopted virtual colleges.
However, the task force’s recommendation that the virtual college be put out to bid undermines the significant amount of work already begun in this area by Truckee Meadows Community College, Nevada State College and College of Southern Nevada. It begs the question of who will assume responsibility for academic integrity. Evidence is mounting that for-profit institutions have significant academic challenges they have yet to recognize, much less address.
The task force report also recommends that K-12 address remedial issues for recent high school graduates, and that remedial education be outsourced for all others, so that community colleges can focus on preparing students for transfer or certificates. On the surface, this sounds fine… until one recognizes that a significant number of adult students returning to college do not need remedial instruction. These students (and they represent most adult returning students) do not lack specific skills so much as an understanding of the culture of success that is critical for any college student. These adult learners need encouragement, specific explanation and a one-on-one relationship with their professors far more than a basic skill set. For-profit institutions are prepared to offer content, but lack the ability to serve this other, often more important need.
While the task force’s recommendations are being discussed, it is imperative to keep the students in mind – not only because it is in their best interest, but also because the training they receive will best serve the needs of Nevada. Revolutionary ideas always contain unintended consequences. Those consequences rarely affect those doing the implementation, but always affect those on the receiving end.