Community Colleges

Higher Ed at the Highest Level

July 1, 2020  • Institute Staff

Give NowIn the United States, more than six million students attend community college. One million of them attend schools with presidents who are Institute fellows.

The College Excellence Program began the Aspen Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence in 2015 to prepare aspiring community college presidents to lead with a focus on student success and equity. Each year, 40 education leaders participate in 10 months of seminars and mentoring—and with great success: 45 fellows have been appointed presidents. This has led to new investments, enabling the College Excellence Program to launch the New Presidents Fellowship, which supports presidents in their first years of leadership.

The program also collaborates with state education systems, including partnering with North Carolina State University on a doctoral program in community college leadership, working with the Partnership for College Completion to train Illinois college leaders to achieve equitable student outcomes, and partnering with California’s community colleges on a series of workshops for trustees.

The Presidential Fellowship is also diversifying the field. Of the Institute fellows leading community colleges, 52 percent are people of color, compared with 29 percent nationwide. And 53 percent are women, compared with 36 percent nationwide. Even the US deputy assistant undersecretary for community colleges, Casey Sacks, is a fellowship alum.

“The fellowship affirmed my vision for Amarillo College and has been transformational in my ability to lead,” says Russell Lowery-Hart. His school’s graduation rate increased from 27 percent in 2014, the year he became president, to 45 percent in 2018. The graduation rate for Black, Hispanic, and Native American students increased even more, from 23 to 43 percent. Amarillo College in Texas is now one of 10 finalists for the 2021 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a $1 million honor.

The fellowship also ignites success through deep relationships. “The fellows in my class communicate practically every day,” says Tonjua Williams, the president of Florida’s St. Petersburg College. “I’m forever connected to a group of leaders determined to change the world.” In weekly videoconferences this spring, dozens of fellows united to share ideas as they navigated a pandemic, a recession, and difficult conversations about race. “Effective, thoughtful, and responsive leadership is critical in these unprecedented times,” says Luis Pedraja, the president of Massachusetts’s Quinsigamond Community College. “The fellowship is an invaluable resource.”