Can community colleges grow revenue without sacrificing their missions?

by Jeremy

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated long-running issues in the community college sector. Enrollment has been falling for years at two-year schools, but it was nosedived this fall. State lawmakers, meanwhile, are grappling with strapped budgets by pulling back funding for higher education.

Community colleges face a choice between continuing to rely on state and local governments for wavering support and seeking new revenue sources on their own. Yet when they pick the latter, they’re often accused of selling out to business interests.

That doesn’t have to be the case, author and consultant Carrie Kisker argues in a new book called “Creating Entrepreneurial Community Colleges.” She offers the concept of design thinking as one method these schools can use to find new funding streams without compromising their missions.

Many organizations put their spin on design thinking, but it’s a step-by-step process for creative problem-solving. People implementing a change within an organization empathize with stakeholders by listening to their needs before pitching and testing ways to address them best, Kisker explains.

Higher Ed Dive talked with Kisker, a director of the Center for the Study of Community Colleges, in Los Angeles, about how these schools are using this process to launch new programs and services for students and deal with lower levels of public support.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HIGHER ED DIVE: Community colleges are constantly being asked to do more with less. Why do you think design thinking is the right approach to help them forge a new path? 

Carrie B. Kisker headshot
Optional CaptionPermission granted by Carrie Kisker

CARRIE KISKER: We can’t serve students in the long run if we don’t make sure we are around. To me, it’s become existential. If we want to carry out our mission, we have to change the way we do things. Design thinking is an easy-to-understand approach to doing this.

It can head off one of the major critiques of an increased focus on entrepreneurship: the colleges are just going to start chasing money. Instead, the process can help colleges remain mission-oriented in their pursuit of financial stability and longevity. It does that by creating with stakeholders’ needs and then checking every step of the process to ask, “Are we meeting your needs?”

The list of stakeholders is extensive for a community college, including faculty, staff, governing boards, and the local community. How can all those voices be heard? 

It would be helpful to take an ethnographic approach. That means talking with all of these stakeholders about their needs and what they would like to see happen, and then going back to them with ideas and prototypes of solutions and saying, “Are these doing what you hoped? If not, how can we reformulate?”

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