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Lesson from Liberal, Kan.: Community colleges must reach out more to communities

Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kan. (SCCC/Jakub Stepanovic)

By Ken Trzaska

These are times of deep distrust of higher learning institutions, with colleges and universities having lost their standing with some of the public. It’s clear that not everyone shares the belief that campuses serve as engines of thoughtful discourse and equality.

As an educator, it is easy to blame politics and partisan polarization for this disagreement about the value of higher education. It is more difficult to think critically about the widespread belief among educators that they, not the communities they purport to serve, know best. For those in our communities, lofty and abstract notions tied to a college education bear little meaning if a degree does not actually improve their lives in some tangible way.

I know this reality well.

When I became the president of Seward County Community College in 2015, there was a distinct gulf between what the college offered and what our surrounding community and region needed. The town of Liberal, Kan., which our college calls home, is a rural community of roughly 21,000 on the southwestern border with Oklahoma. It is the definition of rural working-class. The region relies heavily on the oil and gas industry for jobs. National Beef Packing, which employees 3,500, is the economic heartbeat of our community.

Liberal was once a place where a high school graduate could get a decent-paying job that provided a comfortable life. But those days are largely over. Automation across industries has
taken hold and farms continue to consolidate into corporate interests. The type of available jobs in our community has shifted and in the place of the reliable careers of yesteryear is a
burgeoning skills gap like that afflicting many communities across the country. The skills gap was expanding every day. As a result, we were missing opportunities to enroll
students and set them forth on the path to earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree that would lead to gainful employment.

We had to rethink what our college looked like and how it served our community. We needed to work harder to understand what the community needed and valued. We saw that to remain relevant in empowering the region required us to accept the reality that we must focus on the changing needs in skills and training and flexible access for all students. The challenges of shifting demographics and the economic and life realities of the students who walk through our doors reveal themselves daily. The challenges for first-generation college students — a majority of our incoming classes — and non-traditional students who juggle parenthood and other life demands, are the center of our focus.

The National Student Clearinghouse found in 2016 only 59 percent of rural high-school grads enroll in college — a rate lower than urban and suburban peers. According to a recent federal study, 28 percent of rural adults have associate’s or bachelor’s degrees — 13 percentage points lower than the share for urban adults. And despite evidence that higher education offers tangible economic benefits, rural white Americans are more likely than those in cities and suburbs to believe that their children will be worse off financially than them, according to a Pew survey. Adding to our picture in Liberal is the significant immigrant community. Many of those immigrants don’t know how or when to access an institution like ours.

However, community colleges are uniquely positioned to tackle these issues. According to a recent New America survey, four out of five Americans view community colleges as worth the cost and nearly 90 percent view apprenticeships and skills training as effective ways to prepare students for a good living.

So we changed our approach. We now start by asking people in the community what they need. We invest the time to engage with our students when they start in order to understand their specific interests and needs. We elicit meaningful input from regional business and industry partners, to learn what they seek in employees. Most important, we don’t presume that our notions of higher education and its value are the same as those held by our community, and we ensure that our offerings are tailored to our students — not
the other way around.

For instance, over the past three years, we’ve led the way in our state with programs like our “A-OK” courses – Accelerating Opportunity Kansas. These provide adult basic education pathway programs in professions like welding, commercial truck driving, and phlebotomy. We also introduced innovative BlendFlex classes aimed at reducing the barriers that interfere with attaining an education, be it a sick child, a revamped work schedule, or the need to take on an additional shift at work. Life happens. So we’re being as flexible and accessible as possible.

Refining programs that work for the needs of our community — without sacrificing the quality of our education — hasn’t been easy or simple. The fact is that we had a lot of work to do to reconnect with the longstanding regional community members and forge understanding with our newcomers. I’d wager that the same is true of many community colleges and other higher education institutions around the country. But that shouldn’t deter us.

The comfortable world of academia must own its shortcomings. Now, more than ever, our society needs strong community colleges. We need them to focus first on the community
aspect of our missions, and we need communities that believe in the work that we do. As community colleges, if we take the time to create a shared language with our neighbors, we’ll
have the opportunity to throw open the doors and invite more people in at a moment when society desperately needs it.

Ken Trzaska is president of Seward County Community College. It had 1,746 students in fall 2017.