Wave of community college presidents preparing to retire presents crisis and opportunity

Kresge-funded report urges vast changes in the way future community college leaders are hired.

June 23, 2013

With nearly 40 percent of their presidents retiring in less than five years, the nation’s community colleges face a looming crisis – and the opportunity to focus on student success by overhauling the way top leaders are recruited, hired, prepared and evaluated.

That is the thrust of Crisis and Opportunity: Aligning the Community College Presidency with Student Success, a report from the Aspen Institute and Achieving the Dream. The Kresge Foundation-funded report was released Friday at a national forum in Washington. The forum was co-hosted by Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. Both groups are leaders in the field of higher education reform and funded by Kresge’s Education Program.

The Kresge Foundation works to expand opportunity for low-income people in America’s cities. Its Education Program supports projects that give low-income, minority and first-generation college students’ access to education and a path to a good job, often by funding work that strengthens the schools that serve those students.  

"I hope this report is a springboard for a greater national conversation about the urgency of this work, and an acknowledgement of the high stakes for the nation if we fail to act," Robert (Bob) Templin, President of Northern Virginia Community College and Board Chairman of Achieving the Dream, Inc., told the conference audience.

Kresge's Caroline Altman Smith, a conference participant, hailed the gathering of top leaders and organizations in the field for “a call to action about the urgent need to ensure we have a robust pipeline of community college presidents who have a burning passion for student success.”

“By working together within the sector, we can create a sense of urgency about this important issue and bring to it a greater level of attention and resources,” said Smith, a senior program officer.

Smith said the community colleges are doing a decent job of grooming future leaders, “but to get to the numbers we'll need, we also need to look outside of community colleges to tap accomplished professionals with transferable skills, and provide them with transition experiences to help acclimate them to community colleges' work and unique mission.”

“We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s higher education development,” William Trueheart, president and chief operating officer of Achieving the Dream, said in remarks released prior to the meeting. “We cannot leave it to chance that our nation’s community colleges will have the right kind of leaders who are dedicated to making sure students are learning, completing their degrees and heading out into the world with skills and competencies they need to get a good job and build a better future.

“While there is very strong work happening today in community college leadership development, it is not adequate to meet the coming demand,” Trueheart said.

Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, called the situation “an urgent leadership challenge that also offers unprecedented opportunity.”

Said Wyner: “We have learned a lot about what makes an effective community college president –  who they are and what they do. It’s time to not just name those qualities but translate what we know into action. … The stakes are enormous for millions of learners who we all need to be the bedrock of America’s middle class going forward.”

The report urges boards of trustees to seek candidates with deep commitments to student success, with the ability to lead institution-wide change, and who are willing to take risks for success. Trustees are also urged to look outside of academia for candidates.

The report notes that with the average age of community colleges rising, more than 40 percent of community college presidents will retire in less than five years, and more than half will retire by decade’s end. Moreover, current administrators in roles that typically lead to college presidencies, such as chief academic officers, are also approaching retirement age in large numbers.

Changes are also needed in courses and programs for training and developing community college presidents, the report said

The Aspen Institute and Achieving the Dream have worked with many community colleges across the country that are making improvements in completion rates and student success. A number of these colleges have been winners and finalists for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence and Achieving the Dream Leader Colleges.

Based on that experience and additional research, the report summarizes five qualities common among effective presidents:

  • Deep commitment to student access and success
  • Willingness to take significant risks to advance student success
  • Ability to create lasting change within the college
  • Strong, broad strategic vision for the college and its students, reflected in external partnerships
  • Ability of raise revenue and allocate resources in ways aligned with student success.

Read the full report.