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Community College Presidents Rob Denson and Liang Chee

posted on May 30, 2012

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College near home.  Iowa's community colleges attracting record enrollments training Iowa's future workforce.  A conversation with community college presidents, Des Moines Area's Rob Denson and Northeast Iowa's Liang Chee Wee on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Iowa's community colleges are increasingly becoming vital segments of the state's higher education system -- moving well beyond the inaugural vocational-technical concept.  They are now providing college credits, for example, for students still in high school and linking with Iowa's three state universities and some private colleges to provide seamless tracks for students moving among the various institutions.  And community colleges, of course, are also providing older, non-traditional students educational opportunities and new career retraining.  But supporters say the state isn't sufficiently funding its 15 community colleges and perhaps that is why their tuition is among the highest in the nation.  We're getting insight from Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson and Northeast Iowa President Liang Chee Wee at Calmar.  Welcome to Iowa Press, gentlemen.

Denson: It's great to be here.

Wee: Thank you.

Borg: And across the table, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson and from Cedar Rapids, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette.

Henderson: Gentlemen, community colleges in Iowa have more students now than the big three public universities.  Mr. Denson, is the system overloaded?  And as Dean alluded to, is state financing for the system keeping up with demand?

Denson: Well, last year we served 155,000 credit students throughout the fifteen community colleges of Iowa and enrollment continues to be strong.  If you look at where the needs are for jobs in Iowa we know that somewhere between 50% and 70% of most of the jobs out there that are either existing now or in the future require more than high school but no more than a two-year degree.  And that is right in the wheelhouse of the community college system.  So we continue to provide programs for the companies that we work with so that they have the workers at the time they need them with the skills they need.  So we think the system is responding very well to business.  We're probably as well connected to business as any sector of education in the world.  I mean, every one of our programs has an advisory committee of the businesses that hire students from those programs.  So that connectivity makes us very responsive, entrepreneurial and it's a great place to work.

Henderson: Mr. Wee, does the level of state support allow you to be as nimble as Mr. Denson suggests?

Wee: Well, when you look at the budget we know that has been a challenge for all institutions, really from the K-12 all the way to the Regents.  For us we work very well with the state legislators.  We really advocate our needs and we look at also the results that we're producing.  I think for us definitely the last few years have been challenging in terms of state funding.  We can always use more.  Some of the programs that we provide, such as the career technical, those are expensive ones.  So for us not only just the state funding, we're also looking at our business partners.  So, for example, we have the only John Deere program in the state.  So we partner very well with them.  I think we realize as the fifteen community colleges it's not just one source of funding but to have multiple sources of funding.  We need to have many people at the table.

Borg: Give us an example.  You said a John Deere program.   Is that farm machinery?

Wee: Well, it's basically a program that allows our students to work at dealerships, to work at John Deere so every single of the students coming in, each one of them is sponsored by either the dealer or by John Deere.  It is a two-year program and we have a facility on our Calmar campus and the John Deere Corporation provides equipment, some of the latest technology that they provide to the paying clients and for our students to work on.

Lynch: President Denson, you mentioned some of the demand that is fueling enrollment.  But there's still a lot of students who are going to the community colleges for their general education, their first two years.  Is that also fueling the enrollment increase as well as high school students who are taking some college credits while the local school district is footing the bill?

Denson: Yes, clearly more and more students and their parents realize that going to the community college for the first two years -- small classes, our faculty are passionate about teaching, our results are good and they save money.  So, I know we're an expensive system compared to the rest of community colleges nationally as far as the cost of our tuition but if you compare us to what they would pay at any public or private institution it is a great bargain.  Of course, we have a lot of high school students.  I think last year almost 38,000 high school students in the state took a course, a college level course while they were in high school with their local community college.  We have many high school students graduating with a year or more of college credit, all transfers very well to the four-year institutions, public or private.  So it is a great way for person to start, particularly if you're concerned about debt load and then the quality, of course, is there.

Lynch: Do you follow up on that and see do community college graduates fare as well at four-year institutions as those that start at a four-year school?

Denson: Very close.  We track -- Iowa State is DMACC's biggest partner.  We track all the students that transfer there and you can look at their grades.  It's very, very close, within a few tenths of what students who started at Iowa State, how their grade point averages are, which is very interesting since many of our students that we're sending to Iowa State couldn't have gotten in there as freshmen.  So we're taking students that may needed to upgrade their skills but when they transfer from us to Iowa State they are extremely competitive both in terms of grade point and in terms of graduating on time.

Borg: President Wee, we just heard President Denson say the partnership with Iowa State and DMACC and I know that Wartburg, a private college over at Waverly has just announced kind of a partnership like that where students enrolling at a Mason City school, NIACC, can transfer then to Wartburg.  I know that also is among the Regents' institutions and some community colleges.  But should those be individual agreements or couldn't it be that whatever community college you enroll in anywhere you can go to Simpson or Des Moines Area or to Des Moines University?

Wee: There are two ways of looking at it.  Some of the common courses, like math, they transfer anywhere.  I think for us we have articulation agreement with specific college is really looking at the programs because some colleges may have programs that others do not.  So for us when we are able to do that we are able to customize a little bit to the individual institution.  But if you look at many of the courses in general, they transfer from one institution to the next especially with common numbering.  The content itself with the Department of Education in the process are very fine but the rigor is there, the content is there.  So I think that the individualized is a little bit of customizing with each institution.

Borg: Mr. Denson, what does DMACC here in the Des Moines area -- do you partner with some private colleges such as Grinnell?

Denson: We have got degree partnerships with all three Regents and every private college that our students might go to, Grinnell being one, all the private colleges in central Iowa.  We have students who transfer all over the United States.  But we clearly want to partner with those schools that are in Iowa.  Buena Vista actually offers courses on some of our campuses statewide.  So it's very good partnering.

Borg: Do you also partner in recruiting students then?  Do you say to Grinnell, we'll go after this segment of students and we'll move them onto you?

Denson: Not to specific schools.  With Iowa State, for example, we've got an admission partnership program that if you come to DMACC knowing you want to go to Iowa State you're automatically admitted to Iowa State when you start with DMACC, you can live in the Iowa State dorms, participate in all their sporting, get a counselor from Iowa State but you're a full-time DMACC student.  We've got a similar program with Iowa.  We don't have the residential piece there.  We've got a summer program with Drake, Grandview, Simpson.  So we're interested in making sure that wherever our students may want to go that they have a seamless process and particularly they don't show up at the doorstep of some college or university, public or private, and have to retake a class.  So it works very well.

Henderson: I think the public thinks they can show up on your doorstep and enroll in a class immediately.  But there are waiting lists for certain courses at your institutions.  Mr. Wee, what are some of the waiting lists at your institution?

Wee: Definitely nursing is one and our John Deere program is very strong too.  So some of the programs definitely there are needs and it's not just people coming in expecting to be enrolled.  For us to get them on a firm footing at the beginning is important and so we look at the placement, we look at their previous preparation.  We have people who come through our doors having been out of school for 30 years.  And so for us it's not so much about getting them into classes, it's creating a game plan that says, how can we help that person be successful before that person even steps foot in the classroom.  So we deal with really a very wide variety of people coming through our doors.

Henderson: What is the biggest waiting list at DMACC?

Denson: Health, clearly.  Statewide health is the largest program at all the community colleges and generally there is an eighteen month to two year wait list to get into nursing, for example.  Auto technologies is a wait list.  Culinary arts is a wait list.  Welding will always be on the verge of a wait list and it depends on the time of the year.  But two Sundays ago we started a welding class that started at 10pm and went to 2am because that was the only time we had available in our labs.  So it ebbs and flows and we know how impatient people are, young or old, so we know that they're not going to sit on a waiting list for a long time so we work to slot them in as rapidly as we can or start them on the pathway taking gen ed classes or whatever it may be.

Borg: How would you expand so that you can accommodate and get those wait lists taken care of?

Denson: Let's talk about money.  This is where the funding issue comes in.  It is so hard to find bricks and mortar dollars.  No ear marks from the federal government will support bricks and mortar.  Right now in our area Southridge Mall is going to give us the old Penney's building so that's 64,000 square feet, we're going to put a career academy in there and a general education center.  Now we've got to raise the $14 million that it's going to cost to renovate it.  So it's a matter of money.

Borg: You're speaking and resonating with Senator Jack Kibbie and he was on this program about a month ago and we were questioning state Senator Kibbie of Emmetsburg.  He is often called the father, as you know, of Iowa's community college system.  And we asked Senator Kibbie about the expanding role of community colleges.

Senator Jack Kibbie (Iowa Press - April 13, 2012): I envision that it's going to continue to grow where it is.  Funding, of course, is the big setback there.  The community college students are paying over 60% of the cost to operate the community colleges.  It was never intended that way.  In the original law it was written that the state general fund be the primary funders of these institutions.

Senator Jack Kibbie (Iowa Press - April 13, 2012): The school has got three sources of income to operate the schools.  They have got the 20 1/4 cents property tax, they've got tuition and state general aid.  And the only flexible dollar they've got is tuition.  So the big negative to rely on tuition is, in my opinion, they can't offer a lot of expensive technical programs because they don't have the funding.  And they can't pay the salaries that's required to get qualified teachers.

Borg: President Wee, how are we going to solve that?  Or can you?

Wee: I think the key thing is to make sure we understand where the burden is.  The burden is definitely on the student and that is why for us when early on I talk about diversified funding, President Denson and I are just two example.  We go out and we talk to donors.  We create scholarships for our students.  We also talk to the business partners so that they can provide funding.  I think anything that we do nowadays is really tell our stories and bring in more funding.  The state is one source.  The community college itself when it comes to property tax, we take a very, very tiny sliver, not a slice, a sliver compared with other institutions.  So for us we just want to make sure that how can we provide more funding to the students for scholarships and at the same time advocate to the federal government.  Pell grants, for example, that is huge.  During the summer we find that the Pell grant is not really available to our students so some of the students are not in school.  We find that they are successful when they continue to be in classes.  So funding is not something going to be solved overnight.  We work with the legislature.  This year they have been very good to us.  In fact, they have been very, very aware of our challenges.  The key thing is we can not continue to go back to the way we have been doing.  We need to bring more partners to the table.

Lynch: President Wee, you mentioned the property tax portion of your funding.  Are all community colleges created equal here?  I mean, DMACC serves a very different property tax base than Northeast Iowa Community College.

Wee: I think for us because of size it is not easy to compare.  I mean, DMACC is many times bigger than we are.  So in terms of property tax there is a formula that allows them to bring in sources.  This year, for example, for just northeast Iowa it is 97 cents per 1000 valuation.  Last year it was slightly over $1.00.  For us it's not just funding but also to be aware of stewardship of tax dollars.  We do not go out and levy as much as we can.  We look at how we are doing it, not only just the funding on one side but we also are very aware of how we have been doing things.  Business as usual is not going to help.  So on our campus we're looking at the processes.  How do we use our human resources?  How do we use our equipment?  How does technology come into play?  I think it's not just about money coming in but for us it is how do we appropriate --

Borg: President Denson, it strikes me as to what he said here on fundraising isn't being important.  We know that is important at the three state universities.  But they have graduates who are maybe higher income earners than are your graduates.  Are you somewhat limited in fundraising?

Denson: We are.  A student comes to DMACC or a community college for two years and then goes to the University of Iowa to finish their four-year degree and when they leave they are Iowa grads.  So they don't forget their roots but usually the best funding flows to the university.  We solve our problem with partnerships.  We work with communities.  The community of Perry wanted a career academy.  They built a $3.5 million facility on their dime and then just gave it to us so we could run it.  We've got 260 students working out there in classes there.  So we solve our problems based on partnerships.  We need more funding.  The legislature has been very good if you talk to the republicans or the democrats they'll both say they are our biggest champions and they're both right because they are very supportive of us.  But still, this year's funding is still $6 million less than we received in 2009.  And our demands are much greater because if you talk to any business we have a skilled force issue here and we are desperately out bringing people into training so they can take very good jobs that are now open.

Henderson: Mr. Wee, Mr. Denson mentioned that there are 38,000 high schoolers who are taking courses at the community colleges.  Is that what they were designed for, these community colleges?  And how have you had to re-tool to address that different kind of student?

Wee: Well, I don't think when the founding fathers of community colleges started in the 60s they envisioned that.  But I think that is a credit to the community colleges.  We improvise, we're flexible, we're nimble.  And we look at the K-12 partners and we look at their needs.  We have very bright Iowa students and they want to be challenged.  So I think that those classes that we provide to them is a way of saying that they want to learn more and we provide it.  Those are college level classes with rigor.  Last year in our district we saved Iowa families over $3 million and those faculty work closely with the community college's faculty and deans, they basically teach the same curriculum.  And so I think we have evolved and I think if we have a conversation 40 years from now it will be the same.  I think that is the pride of community colleges.

Denson: But the best thing we've done with the K-12 is to take vocational programming to those schools.  It is very expensive equipment, hard to find faculty at the K-12 level, something we do very well so most of the successful academies, current enrollment courses, a lot of them are vocational based so that we're teaching high school kids and often going into the late middle school, vocational skills that the public system no longer can do.  When I went through Iowa Valley in Marengo I took shop from grade 7.  Now you don't -- they don't have those opportunities unless they are tied to a community college.

Henderson: We've been talking about the bottom line for community colleges but the bottom line for students, as you earlier mentioned, is that community college tuition in Iowa is among the highest in the country.  Mr. Wee, how do you address that?  How do you get that to be reduced?

Wee: That is why I think for us is to look at how we use that money and provide the scholarship and continue to work with our legislators about this particular issue itself.  Right now, for example, the average is about $145 to $150 a credit.  It is still very, very affordable but we understand that the population of students we deal with those are also real money to them.  So for us it is to work with the federal dollars, work with the state dollars, work with the donors and definitely working with business partners.  And that is why you find that with some of our programs when businesses are able to sponsor students it alleviates the challenges for the family.  For us it is to realize minimize the amount of debt for our student.  The success for our students is not just graduation, it is how do we help them transition to a career and continue to work with them for lifelong learning.

Lynch: You have both talked about the challenges you face as your enrollment has grown and become more diversified.  President Obama has called and said that everybody should go to college.  What does that mean for community colleges, especially for those students who may not be what we call college ready, who may need help transitioning from high school into a four-year academic program?

Wee: We have been doing that all along.  We know that we have students who are coming in who are not as prepared and that's why our partnership with K-12 is so strong.  I meet with our superintendents in our area once a month and we talk about issues like this.  We also provide alternative high school partnerships.  We understand that not every student is the same.  But every student deserves the chance to go to college.  Some of them may go to four-year.  Some of them their career technical college is the pathway.  So I think for us it is to present all the options to the students.  But we take individual students, look at their strengths but also look at the gap.  And I always said that when we enroll a student, we enroll the family, we enroll their challenges, we enroll the ups and downs.  That has helped us to work with our students to help them to be more successful.  Definitely preparation is a big chunk of what we do and we're proud of it.

Lynch: It's also been suggested that maybe it's a little snobbish to suggest everybody needs to go to college.  Do you think everyone needs at least a two-year program in this day and age?

Wee: I think what President Denson said was very clear.  In the next five to ten years over 60% of the positions, some of them not even created yet, will require post high school, maybe not beyond the two years.  I don't think it's about snobbiness.  I think what I would like to see our discussion is looking at what the options are, what the industry, what the needs are and for the K-12, for us and for the Regents, for the private to work together to do what is best for Iowans.  We still have a tremendous opportunity to work with families to help them understand that community colleges is an option.

Henderson: Mr. Denson --

Denson: In addition to the 155,000 credit students we served last year, we served 255,000 non-credit.  So it's not all about a degree.  Sometimes it's only a certificate.  We're working with companies all the time to say, okay, maybe we can do this in six weeks so you can fill that particular job.  So we look across the spectrum.  And because of our funding and we always need more money and we could use it very well, but we've been very creative and I think that has been the fun of being in a community college position.  We can start programs very quickly, we can end them if there is no longer a demand from the business or no longer students that are interested.  So we're very fluid and fast-moving. 

Henderson: What has been the demographic change at community colleges in the past decade?  Or is the demographic of the student bodies sort of remaining constant?

Denson: Well, clearly we're all becoming more diverse, particularly in Hispanic communities.  We've got more individuals of all different kinds of diverse backgrounds coming to the community colleges --

Henderson: And ages?

Denson: -- and ages, our average age is 26.  We just had graduation two weeks ago.  Our oldest graduate was 70 years old.  We do GEDs, we do ESL, we do adult basic education, we go out and try to recapture dropouts and get them back in the system.

Borg: ESL, English as a Second Language.

Denson: Correct.  That is big.  We're running as much ESL as we can because Postville, not Postville, Perry, for example, 40% Hispanic.  There is a community and these young people want to work, they've got a great work ethic and they are extremely bright and we need to continue to reach out to them because there are going to be a lot of Perry's around Iowa and there already are.  If we look at the traditional working population it is going to become more diverse.  They say that the Caucasians will be in the minority by 2050.  I think it's probably going to be before that.  So we need to be creative and we're really at the best level to make those connections.

Borg: Is part of being creative, President Wee, going with online courses?

Wee: Yes, we do.  For us we look at, again, it's an option.  Some of the people who want a higher education for whatever reason are not able to come to us so we are actually bringing education to them.  And some people may say, well, how does that work?  We make sure that our teachers are trained.  We make sure that the students are oriented.  It's not for everybody.  When the Aspen Institute came to visit Northeast Iowa Community College because of our top ten ranking one of the things they wanted to find out was how were we able to retain the students?  How were we able to continue the rigor?  So online education is an option.  And I think for us the quality is always non-negotiable.

Henderson: Mr. Denson, on this program the former president of Iowa State University and the current president of Iowa State University said athletic programs are crucial, the success of those programs, to fundraising.  You have some athletic programs at DMACC.  How crucial are those programs to fundraising and retention of students?

Denson: Not very.  I mean, it may be different at other colleges but at least at Des Moines Area Community College all of our athletics are on the Boone campus, it's very, very successful there, very strong programs, we've sent two or three teams to the national championships every year.  Our softball program this year, first year, extremely successful.  But we really haven't turned that into dollars.  If you look at the media, you hear a lot about university sports and private college sports, you don't hear much about community college sports and we've got a great community college sporting system in the state of Iowa, very efficient, coaches aren't paid very much compared to anything else you hear but we really haven't capitalized on that very aggressively.  Now, other community colleges may have had different experiences.

Lynch: President Denson, there's been suggestions that you'd like another title, perhaps Governor Denson.  Would you like to use this program as an opportunity to make an announcement here?

Denson: Absolutely not.  And for the record, I am not running.  It would be -- obviously I would hope any Iowan would be extremely proud to move up into leadership of this state.  I’m' extremely proud to be an Iowan.  I've got a whole speech where I talk about what it's like to be an Iowan and at the end I say, is being an Iowan better than sliced bread that I'm reminded that Otto Rohwedder from Iowa developed the bread slicer.  So, no, I'm not launching any political campaign.  I'm in the job I want.  I'll be 65 years old in November.  So I think that's --

Borg: I have to interrupt.  We're out of time.  Thanks so much for joining us today.

Denson: Thank you very much.

Wee: Thank you.

Borg: Next week on Iowa Press we're talking with Christie Vilsack about her campaign to represent Iowa's fourth congressional district.  You'll see the fourth district's democratic candidate at the usual Iowa Press times, 7:30 Friday night, second chance to see Christie Vilsack next Sunday at noon.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

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