Community Colleges

New Report Finds Major Gaps in the Way Community College Presidents are Recruited, Prepared for the Job, and Evaluated

June 21, 2013


New Report Finds Major Gaps in the Way Community College Presidents are Recruited, Prepared for the Job, and Evaluated 

Achieving the Dream and Aspen Institute call for urgent action to tackle looming leadership void; unprecedented 40 percent turnover in presidencies anticipated over the next five years; “crisis” is opportunity to improve student success with new generation of presidents

Washington, DC, June 21, 2013 – Concerned with the looming leadership void in the community college sector, two of the nation’s  leaders in higher education reform – Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program – today urged vast changes in the way community college presidents are recruited, prepared, hired and evaluated.

In less than five years, over 40 percent of the nation’s 1,200 community college presidents are projected to retire, leaving critical openings at a time when demands have drastically increased.  Community colleges serve over seven million students, approximately 40 percent of all students in higher education.  And, these students are more likely than four-year college students to be minorities, to come from low-income backgrounds, and to be the first in their families to pursue higher education.

As national momentum to improve college student success builds, reform efforts increasingly center on community colleges.  But while these institutions are being called on to improve graduation rates and better align their programs with labor market needs, the context within which they operate is becoming more and more challenging: states and families have less money to spend on education, online competition is growing, and most entering students remain underprepared.  The report released today, Crisis and Opportunity: Aligning the Community College Presidency with Student Success, addresses how the next generation of community college leaders can improve success for nearly half of America’s college students in an era of rapid change.  For the complete report, please visit: and follow the conversation on Twitter: #CommCollege. 

One year in the making and funded by the Kresge Foundation, the report was released today at a national forum in Washington, D.C. that was co-hosted by Achieving the Dream and the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.  It cites major gaps in the way community college presidents are prepared and the criteria used by trustees to hire them — premised on new expectations and greater responsibility than in the past:

“Community colleges will for the foreseeable future be expected to produce more degrees of a higher quality at a lower per-student cost to an increasingly diverse population.  Gone are the days when expanding access alone will be equated with success.  Meeting new expectations will require a new vision for leadership.  The skills and qualities that made community college presidents effective when the dominant benchmark of success was access alone are no longer the same now that expectations extend to higher levels of completion, quality and productivity.”

“We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s higher education development,” said William Trueheart, President and Chief Executive Officer of Achieving the Dream.  “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 the 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 nearly adequate to meet the coming demand.”

The report highlights the need for leaders who can address emerging 21st century challenges such as reforming developmental education, using technology effectively, and building multi-cultural communities that foster inquiry and action throughout institutions.

“We’re facing an urgent leadership challenge that also offers unprecedented opportunity,” said Josh Wyner, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.  “We have learned a lot about what makes an effective community college president – who they are and what they do.  It is time to not just name those qualities but translate what we know into action, to put much more effort into finding and grooming the next generation of leaders, to raise the bar for all those involved in the process of hiring and professional development, and to ensure that we have the kind of leadership needed to ensure that every community college can dramatically improve student success.  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 goes on to note that:

  • Educational and professional development programs under-emphasize the development of several critical skills common among presidents who have led community colleges to high and improving levels of student success.
  • When recruiting and hiring new presidents, boards of trustees often overlook many of the critical qualities that presidents have brought to institutions achieving high and improving levels of student success.

Boards of trustees are urged to raise the bar of expectations for incoming community college presidents – looking for proof of a deep commitment to student success, assessing candidates’ ability to lead changes in culture and practice institution-wide, ensuring the new leaders are willing to take significant risks in order to achieve organizational success, and considering non-traditional candidates from outside academia.

The report also identifies steps that need to be taken to recruit and prepare leaders who can dramatically improve student success.  Among the key recommendations: community college presidential training and development programs need new courses and programs that prepare future presidents to lead organizational change; build strong partnerships with external organizations designed to improve student success; develop new pathways and strategies that address developmental needs and barriers to students completing programs; and teach core skills such as budgeting, fundraising and advocacy that enable leaders to improve student success — not just keep the institution afloat.

The Aspen Institute and Achieving the Dream have worked with many of the community colleges around the nation that are making significant improvements in their completion rates and ensuring high levels of success for their students. Several of these colleges have been spotlighted as winners of and finalists for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence and Achieving the Dream Leader Colleges.  They range from large, urban institutions that serve over 50,000 students in a wide variety of vocational and academic programs to small, rural colleges that offer a limited number of high-value technical credentials.

Based on that work, the report presents the qualities of highly effective presidents, defined as those whose institutions have achieved high and/or significantly improving levels of student success.  Based on literature review, focus groups, and extensive interviews with presidents and search consultants, five qualities emerged as common among highly effective presidents, regardless of the size and location of the institution and the student body it serves:

  • 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 to raise revenue and allocate resources in ways aligned to student success


Achieving the Dream, Inc. is a national nonprofit leading the nation’s most comprehensive non-governmental reform network for student success in higher education history. The Achieving the Dream National Reform Network, including over 200 institutions, more than 100 coaches and advisors, and 15 state policy teams – working throughout 34 states and the District of Columbia – helps 3.8 million community college students have a better chance of realizing greater economic opportunity and achieving their dreams. For more information, visit

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. The Institute is based in Washington, DC; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also has offices in New York City and an international network of partners. For more information, visit The Aspen College Excellence Program aims to identify and replicate practices, policies and leadership that significantly improve college student outcomes. For more information, visit

Contact: Rachel Roth
The Aspen Institute
College Excellence Program
1 Dupont Circle, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20036

Contact: Lauren Lewis
Achieving the Dream
8403 Colesville Road, Suite 450
Silver Spring, MD 20910