Repairing the bridge of opportunity for student-veterans

In a windowless room in our Admissions office, Pima Community College employees are doing important work pertaining to national security. These specialists in veterans’ benefit issues are examining the course records of Veterans Benefit Recipients (VBRs) from PCC. After protecting our freedoms by serving in the military, these veterans know that upon returning to civilian life, they will be able to take advantage of the education and training opportunities afforded them through the Post-9/11 GI Bill. PCC is the bridge to those opportunities.

Unfortunately, the College has not performed its duties adequately. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs auditors earlier this year found that in a significant number of cases, PCC failed to accurately and promptly report to the VA information on changes in enrollment, applicability of credits to a student’s program of study, and out-of-state tuition and fees for VBRs. As a result, the Arizona Veterans Approving Agency has taken away our ability to certify the enrollment of new-to-PCC VBRs for 60 days, and has directed us to improve our record-keeping and other services in order to properly support our student-veterans.

We are doing our utmost to make things right, and earlier this week I had the privilege of spending time with PCC specialists who are diligently checking the records. One of the Student Services Specialists/Veterans Certifying Officials succinctly outlined to me the task before her and her colleagues. Working from a checklist derived from a Veterans Administration handbook, the specialists have for the past two weeks begun examining the files of each of the approximately 1,700 VBRs at PCC. They are attempting to verify a wide range of information, including whether courses apply to a student’s program of study, whether withdrawals from classes are accompanied by last dates of attendance, and that proof of previous education exists.

Many of the files are correct and can be verified quickly. But many have inaccuracies, and as each veteran’s file is unique and complex, it may take hours to gather correct information. Many veterans have attended PCC for years, meaning the specialists face the daunting task of verifying the accuracy of more than 11,000 semesters of attendance. In some cases, accurately reporting information to the VA will result in the agency contacting some student-veterans.

“We are doing the best we possibly can,” the specialist said. After seeing the professionalism and dedication of the 20 employees assisting in the effort – including working nights and weekends — I am confident their labors, and that of Assistant Registrar for Veterans and Graduation Gary Parker and Executive Director of Financial Aid Terra Benson, will bring us up to federal and state standards. The College must do more, however. It needs to create an institution-wide system that makes it impossible for us to veer off course again. Effective administration of veterans’ benefits is the least we can do for those who have sacrificed for all of us.

The state of Hispanic education

Increasingly, any discussion of higher education quickly focuses on the state of Hispanic higher ed. Hispanics’ rapid attainment of educational goals is altering the trajectory of the conversation. The high school dropout rate among Hispanics continues to fall, Hispanic enrollment in college has increased for three straight years and, for the first time, a greater share of Hispanic recent high school graduates are enrolled in college than whites, according to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report.

It was against this backdrop that earlier this week I joined Dr. H.T. Sanchez, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District, and Kasey Urquidez, Associate Vice President of The University of Arizona, in an illuminating panel discussion (covered by local media)  about the demographic, technological and institutional trends faced by our three institutions regarding Hispanic education. More than 100 educators, business owners and members of the community attended the event, ably hosted by the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. We all reported improvements successes in enrollment and retention, acknowledged the ongoing substantial challenge of improving graduation rates, and recognized the need to adapt our systems to new cultural realities.

Clearly, one of the keys is better synchronization of our institutions for our students’ benefit. PCC’s Upward Bound and Talent Search programs, designed to plant the seed of college-going in low-income high school students in historically underserved populations, can be expanded. PCC and area school districts are working to conduct earlier assessments in high schools to spot academic areas in which students can improve. We want to leverage dual enrollment opportunities, so that high school students can graduate with college credits that give them a head start on a career or a college degree. Sharing of facilities also is a possibility. And PCC needs to align its curriculum and student-support resources with UA to smooth the pathways to a bachelor’s degree.

For PCC, the challenge is to ingrain the successful strategies of individual programs into our institution as a whole. We need to build upon the lessons learned from such programs as Adelante, which improved retention among Hispanic males, and in our student-centered math emporiums, which combine technology and tutoring to a allow students to rapidly proceed through schoolwork.

Rapid technological change is driving all of our institutions to provide education that readies students for the jobs of the future, two-thirds of which will require postsecondary training. That point was driven home to me on a recent cab ride. The cab driver pointed out the cameras, computers and other high-tech devices in his vehicle, then informed me he had to receive special classroom training in their proper use. When cabbies are going back to school to stay up-to-date in their field, it speaks volumes about the need for workforce training if the U.S. is to remain competitive economically.

H.T., Kasey and I all touched on the importance of government to provide investment that keeps our state competitive. Tucson and Arizona will need an educated workforce if it is to compete in the 21st century. Decision-makers need to recognize that public education is a public good. I should note that the state’s allocation in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget of $600,000 to PCC for STEM funding is a modest but welcome step in the right direction.

Individually, education helps people advance into good-paying jobs and careers. Collectively, it fuels an economic engine that leads to greater prosperity and stability for us all. Everyone wins.

AACC Convention

Inspiration and information were plentiful at the just-concluded 94th annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C. The convention confirmed what many of those in attendance already knew: that community colleges are “the bridge to the American Dream,” as keynote speaker Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” succinctly put it.

As chair of the AACC’s Committee on Program Initiatives and Workforce Training, I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion about how industry-community college partnerships are essential to students’ individual success and the overall economic vitality of a region. For partnerships to succeed, all the links in the chain must be strong. Community colleges must be extremely aware of local workforce needs, and must ensure that faculty members have the resources to produce work-ready graduates. Students must gain both the technical and the soft skills necessary for workplace success. And industry has to help community colleges with resources, and expand partnership opportunities through its customer and supplier networks.

One of the most interesting presentations, by representatives of Economic Modeling Specialists Inc., attempted to quantify the economic value of community colleges. The impact of the 163 million credits that 11.6 million students earned at U.S. community colleges in 2012 is enormous: $809 billion, or 5.4 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product. (I should point out that a November 2011 EMSI study of the socioeconomic impact of PCC calculated that the accumulated credits earned by former PCC students over the past 30 years translated to $887.3 million in added regional income in 2009-10, due to higher earnings by students and increased output of businesses.)

Another high point of the conference was the address by Vice President Joe Biden, who outlined a plan to increase community college graduation rates by giving college credit for apprenticeships. One of the important objectives of the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium initiative is to create a network of academic institutions, employers and associations that ultimately will help prepare students for the workplace. As an Inside Higher Ed story about the plan noted, this initiative is part of a larger effort to support programs involving prior learning assessment as an alternative path to a credential.

Let me conclude with a little more inspiration, courtesy of retired Gen. Colin Powell, who made an extraordinary presentation Tuesday. Gen. Powell reminded us that community colleges need to emphasize completion and must adapt to the United States’ changing demographic and socioeconomic landscape. His concluding message, that it’s not where you start in life, it’s what you do with life, that will determine your success, rang true for me, and it’s behind my commitment to make Pima Community College once again that bridge to a better life.

PCC Adult Education helps Arizona to No. 2 national ranking

I am pleased to report that Pima Community College Adult Education (PCCAE) has helped the state’s already outstanding Adult Education program get even better.

PCCAE is the second-largest Adult Education program in the state and plays a major role in Arizona Adult Education’s consistently high national ranking in educational gains achieved by its adult learners. (An educational gain is defined as an increase of at least 2.4 grade levels.) For Fiscal Year 2012-2013, 64 percent of Arizona’s adult learners made at least one educational gain, far above the national average of 44 percent. That boosted the state from No. 4 in the U.S. rankings to No. 2.

Congratulations to Dean Regina Suitt and her team of dedicated professionals in PCCAE. Each year, PCCAE helps some 6,000 people take important steps toward achieving their goals through Family Literacy, Adult Basic Education, high school equivalency test preparation, Civics and Refugee Education, and English Language Acquisition for Adults.

Approximately 70 percent of our AE students are between ages 16-49 – a crucial part of a competitive workforce. The College serves many constituencies, and it is heartening to see that for those adults taking the first steps on their educational journey, PCCAE is providing a great start.

Strategic planning: Moving forward

The College took a major step forward recently when our Strategic Planning Committee recently concluded two days of intensive meetings at out East Campus. The committee did a great job of hammering out a solid framework of student-centered initiatives for the College to undertake over the next several years.

In opening the group’s meeting, I noted that a key element for success is recognizing the College’s “mental mindsets,” the term that organizational thought leader Peter Senge’s used to describe an organization’s deeply embedded beliefs. We need to identify those mindsets that might be impeding real change at PCC.

I also emphasized understanding the local, regional, national and global context of education, both today and in the future; and most importantly, the need to create a system for learning that puts students first.

The work of the Strategic Planning Committee is the next step in an important, ongoing process that began with the PCC Futures Conference in February. [The common themes emerging from the conference are available here.]

PCC has many excellent programs and services for students. We need to identify the elements in those programs that make them successful, and, moving forward, infuse them into our institutional DNA.

Of course, our initiatives have to be flexible and adaptable; history is replete with examples of plans that went awry because they did not account for rapid change. This is especially true in education. That means constantly listening, especially to students, and taking diverse viewpoints seriously.

Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Our strategic planning process is built around helping students succeed. Helping our students achieve their dreams is why we do the work we do. It is why this institution exists. As chancellor, I am determined to returning Pima to being the kind of student-centered College it once was.

Pathways to success through PCCAE

I appeared in a discussion with Dean of Adult Education Regina Suitt before about 90 educators and community partners at a PCC Adult Education in-service day at our 29th Street Coalition Center yesterday. We discussed a variety of issues, including the need to create strong pathways to move students from Adult Basic Education to a high school equivalency and into careers.

To achieve that goal will involve several initiatives, including contextualized learning that combines Adult Education with training in the career of the students’ choice, a suite of student services, and career navigation/internship opportunities. [You can hear more about the importance of pathways in the accompanying video clip.]

 

One of the highlights for the participants in the training was hearing a panel of former PCCAE students describe their challenges and successes as they have moved through and beyond Adult Education. The students on the panel have succeeded in a wide variety of academic and career pursuits, including small business ownership, attending PCC with a goal of transfer to the UA, and a career in nursing.

Many students emphasized the need to help PCCAE students get a good start at PCC by guiding them through admissions, class registration and financial aid processes. Providing that type of service through PCC is critical to my goal of weaving a student-centered approach into the every strand of the College. We do well in many areas, such as PCCAE, but there’s still plenty of work to do.

Pima and the business of language

Former Pima student Francesca Samuel is vice president of a group you probably never heard of, Arizona Translators and Interpreters, Inc. She also is the president of her own company, A la Carte Translation Services, a Web-based translating company.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 44 percent increase in employment in the fields of interpreting and translation in the next decade. Smart, capable people like Francesca are helping to meet that burgeoning demand.

Pima’s Translation and Interpretation Studies program on Friday held a special all-day event at the Downtown Campus for current and prospective students and community members interested in this exciting and dynamic field.

More than 50 participants attended “Tucson Speaks: The Business of Language.” The event attracted several employers and about a dozen participating exhibitors, and included workshops and a bilingual career fair.

Events like this serve many purposes, one of which is to remind our community of the diverse kind of programs we offer at Pima. Our program, which offers both an Associate of Applied Science degree and a certificate, is helping to fill a critical need in our border state. Given the increasing pace of globalization, it’s easy to see how its importance can only grow.

Taking courses at Pima in Translation and Interpretation Studies “changed my life,” said Francesca said. “There is a great need for professional translators and interpreters in Arizona, and Tucson, being in the southern part of the state, is no exception.”