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July 26, 2016

There's no shortage of issues facing the higher education industry and perhaps no sector within that industry faces more challenges than community colleges. These two-year institutions serve the vast majority of college students in this country, but they often lack resources and suffer from low graduation rates.

This month, Doctor David Podell takes the helm at Massachusetts Bay Community College. For the past eight years, he was the vice president for Academic Affairs at Marymount Manhattan College in New York. 

 As part of our Leaders in Higher Education series, On Campus' Kirk Carapezza caught up with Podell on campus in Wellesley and asked him how his previous experience at a private college prepared him for his new job.0

Interview Highlights

On Podell’s experience working with colleges in New York City:

After a long career in the publics, I came to a private college, which was a different world entirely -- fascinating, serving a very different population with a very different mission. But what I learned that was valuable here at MassBay had to do with admissions and fundraising. In the private college you live and die by enrollment and it’s more like owning a small business. There’s no cushion, there’s no net like there was at the City University of New York (CUNY). I honed a lot of my skills there, some of which are relevant here some of which are not, but it’s an insight and a point of view that informed my thinking about higher education and particularly at the community college level.

On his leadership style:

For me, working in higher education is leading a team of administrators and faculty. So one person doesn’t do it herself or himself, but one person can provide a kind of organization that moves it forward. People need to feel that they’re working in a great place, they need to appreciate the value of what they’re doing and the impact it has on all of the students that come through here. My leadership has been about building the community of faculty and staff so that we’re all more effective in what we do.

On serving non-traditional college students (i.e. full-time workers, parents, military veterans, immigrants):

People who come to community college often don't have the resources and they don’t have the support mechanisms they need. They come with language needs, developmental needs in basic skills. They come with a lot of issues that have to be dealt with.

The way to improve our graduation rates is to better target students into programs, but not let them enter a program because they chose it at random without a lot of knowledge or because they checked a box. That’s not how you get from the beginning to the end. You get from beginning to the end by getting good guidance good advice and entering a pathway that’s going to lead to graduation, and then receiving the specific kind of support that you need to get there. The open-access approach to education, which we're all committed to, is a challenging one, but we need to apply all of our intelligence, our imagination and what research shows to get us to the point where students are graduating at much higher rates.

On recent survey data that shows more people see the value in community colleges over expensive, four-year colleges:

I think people understand that an education is an investment in your future. You could not go to college and get a job and get paid, but you’ll be paid less over your lifetime. Invest the time and sometimes the money in going to college, and you’ll be much more successful over the long-term, financially but also in terms of your development as an individual. I think that the reality is that people don't understand the value. They’re thinking about money, they’re thinking about the education, but they’re not thinking about the value that colleges offer. At a very low cost, you get a quality education.

Earlier: New Wellesley President Brings Focus on Women's Health

On misperceptions of the cost of community college:

I think many people don’t understand the financial aid that they’re eligible for, the scholarships they eligible for. Usually first generation people coming to college, who don't know the rules about colleges. They don't know the ins and outs.  How could they? It’s our role to have to educate them and prepare them and make sure they understand the value of the option of coming here.

On progressive politicians’ endorsing debt-free or free community college:

I like what I’m hearing. I have to say, it will so much benefit so many people that it’s almost an irresistible claim. Now a democracy is based on the knowledge of its citizenry, so anything that forwards the education of many to me strengthens a democracy. I can’t resist that tendency towards that trend. I hope that becomes a reality. It not only would be good for MassBay, but it’ll be great for all those thousands, perhaps millions of individuals who will have access to education.

A nation makes choices, a government makes choices about where to invest. If we take Western Europe, for example, education is free but not available to everybody at the higher levels and the higher you go up the fewer can get in. But they’ve made certain choices about making higher education free. It’s a question of priorities and a question of will. So I don’t think free community college is pie in the sky, I’ve learned in my lifetime that things you think could never possibly happen sometimes do. You have to have hope and you have to press for it, because why should we live in a society where some have access and some do not?

Related: College Material: Community Colleges Come of Age

community colleges, technology and innovation, new business models, increasing access and success, confronting cost, global competitiveness

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