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Sector Jumpers, Revisited


A new correspondent writes:


I ran across an old article you published in Inside Higher Ed that shared some perspectives for community college folks moving into 4 year institutions. What about the other way around? Have you any insight on a college dean at a regional comprehensive university, moving to an administrative role (VP) at a community college? One of my colleagues at the former said to me that if I ever wanted to return to a university, such a move “down” would be career suicide. What other factors or considerations are in play for such a transition?


I can’t speak to the “career suicide” point, other than to guess that it’s probably mostly true.  It would be unusual for someone to move from a community college administrative position to an equivalent or higher role at a four-year college or university.  I’m sure it has happened, but it would be very much the exception.  Given the increasing demographic diversity and economic austerity many four-year colleges are facing, I’d think that people from community colleges would be in high demand; we’ve seen their future, and we’ve already figured out how to thrive in it.  But prestige hierarchies work at a sub-rational level, even with folks who should know better.


Compared to many four-year institutions, community colleges tend to have a clarity of mission that I find appealing.  Most don’t have dorms or frats, so the whole “Animal House” side of college isn’t such an issue here.  Although most have athletics, I’ve never heard of one where athletics dominate the culture the way they do at some four-year schools.  The “amenities race” that many pundits incorrectly insist is the driver of high tuition bills mostly doesn’t exist in this sector; for instance, I’ve literally never heard of a community college with a lazy river.  


Compared to the more elite four-year schools, it’s almost a different universe.  The focus here is strongly on teaching and learning.  We do have some sponsored research, but it’s not a requirement for tenure or promotion, and it’s not a large part of the budget.  We completely ignore the US News rankings, partly because they ignore us anyway and partly because most of our students are local and intend to stay local.  A student who grew up in central Jersey and wants to stay here wouldn’t find much value in reading that a community college in North Dakota is doing a great job.  It just wouldn’t be relevant.  And we’re blessedly free of the Hunger Games style of competitive admissions (and debates around legacy preferences, athlete preferences, and affirmative action) that selective schools face.  We welcome everybody, so we don’t have to pit prospective students against each other.  


On the faculty and administrative sides, community colleges are much more diverse than other sectors of higher education along lines of gender and race.  At all three community colleges at which I’ve worked, both the faculty and the deans were/are majority female.  It’s not unusual for me to be the only man (or one of two) in a meeting of ten or more.  If you’re comfortable with difference and capable of being professional, it can be great; if you need a more homogeneous setting, well, this probably isn’t the place for you.


The challenges here are not about one-upping peer institutions.  They’re about finding ways to work with other institutions when nobody has the resources they need.  That means local employers, often through program advisory boards.  It means high schools, especially as early college and dual/concurrent enrollment programs have become more popular.  It means four-year institutions that take (or could take) students in transfer.  Increasingly, it means local social service agencies and community nonprofits, as unmet student basic needs often get in the way.  And, of course, it means various arms of government, as well as both regional and programmatic accreditors.  


Internally, there are the challenges you’d expect when you have hundreds of educated people accustomed to tremendous autonomy, all working with heavy teaching loads and strikingly modest salaries.  Depending on context, there may be collective bargaining agreements that may put unexpected parameters around what’s possible.  And as with any established organization, you’ll be joining a narrative already in progress; folks who had a bad experience with The Administration ten years ago may still bear scars from it, and act accordingly, even if you had nothing to do with it.  That just comes with the gig.


It’s not easy work, given the daunting combination of austere budgets and overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) sets of rules.  But it’s good work, and work that I’m honored to be able to do.  If the lower salary scale isn’t a deal-breaker, I’d recommend giving it a serious look.


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Advice Newsletter publication dates: 
Monday, January 4, 2021
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Monday, January 4, 2021