Achieving the American dream, with less debt

Former president says two-year colleges deserve more respect for driving upward mobility

Tom Snyder retired in June after nine years at the helm of Ivy Tech, the nation’s largest singly accredited community college system.

Snyder’s coming from a corporate background gave him a different perspective about higher ed in general and community colleges in particular. For one, he realized the role community colleges play in serving millions of people for whom a degree from a four-year school is impossible because of access and expense.

He also knew that the agile community college system was better at providing skilled workers to industries with ever-changing demands.

Snyder’s book, The Community College Solution (2016, Significance Press), portrays community colleges as the true pathway to the American dream. But more important, it is a pathway not burdened by overwhelming debt. “I believe passionately that in these economic times, students shouldn’t be amassing insurmountable debt to get an education,” he says.

You wrote: “I believe that community colleges need to be held to a different standard than other institutions of higher education.” What did you mean by that?

Community colleges are being graded on the presumption that they are getting college-prepared 17- and 18-year-olds—like the four-year schools—with the resources adequate to send them to school. Some of the metrics by which colleges are judged, like on-time graduation, just don’t apply in the community college setting. It distorts the view not just of policymakers, but of families as to whether college is worth it or not.

What we know is that work is not the path to the middle class, but education is. And the community college is a great way to get millions more people on a path to the middle class.

So not everyone needs a four-year degree?

I believe a post-secondary credential is for everyone but it doesn’t have to be a four-year degree from a four-year school.

Many community colleges have partnerships with local businesses to train their employees. Others offer certificate programs that fast-track a student into a job like court reporting, for example, with starting salaries at around $60,000. Or you can pursue a technical degree in many fields, including medical, where you can out-earn that four-year bachelor’s degree.

But let me say a word about that. This is a year of reflection on welfare reform. For people to get off welfare, a four-year degree is not realistic to a single mom working two jobs, raising three kids. Community colleges are there, and are inexpensive. We just don’t talk about it enough.

You also advocate starting some community college work in high school.

Concurrent enrollment or dual credit is available almost everywhere in the country. Where it’s not, policymakers, local presidents and local school board chairs should be pushing for it. We’ve been able to boost our enrollment of Ivy Tech students—although to our detriment in some ways, because we give this dual credit for free. It’s part of our College Promise program, which was formed to explore the concept of free community college.

I’d say that taking a college-level course is probably more important than taking an advanced placement course. It has a link back to a certain campus. And the high school teacher must follow the syllabus of the college course.

If you get a C or better, you are automatically given that credit, whereas, with advanced placement, some schools take 4s and some don’t. It’s a bit of a risk.

Free community college is a hot topic in this presidential campaign. Is it a realistic goal?

Let me say this: In addition to our College Promise, I think the most important thing that’s happened in that arena is the Tennessee Promise. And it’s not a new flash in the pan—it is a realistic approach. [Note: Tennessee Promise is a scholarship and mentoring program focused on boosting enrollment numbers in that state. It provides students a last-dollar scholarship, covering tuition and fees not met by other aid programs.]

We formed an advocacy group called Rebuilding America’s Middle Class, and met with the presidential candidates to emphasize that a last-dollar program like Tennessee’s is affordable and doable.

How do you see education shaping up in this election?

When I was doing commencement talks around the state for Ivy Tech’s multiple campuses, I said that, on the right and the left, Americans were actually speaking about the same thing.

On the left or progressive side, millennials or those a bit older were either already carrying debt that they couldn’t afford or were worried about how to raise a family without accruing some of the same debt. On the Republican side, in towns like Anderson, Indiana, displaced autoworkers and steelworkers are wondering how this recovery left them out. It’s basically the same thing from different perspectives.

It’s something that I think a lot of pundits missed. There are a lot of good jobs opening back up. The question is how do you get people skilled to that level? I believe we’ll look back at this as an important tipping point.

Many people are of the impression that community colleges are something less than a four-year school. How can we change that?

That comes from not just years but centuries of promoting the view that colleges are elite.

When I started in 2007, community college did have a stigma. But I think we’re making some headway.

We worked with an ad agency that did a lot of focus group activity. What they found is that people don’t really know everything that you can do in the community college—that you can get a technical skill; you can get a culinary skill. Culinary programs around the country at community colleges are equally populated with second-career accountants, and lawyers, and business majors, and psychology majors who returned to school to follow their passion.

What can a four-year institution learn from community colleges?

Number one, we’ve done a lot with affordability. Number two is make sure the pathways are better understood so that a person can pick one is that is meaningful. Number three is to recognize that low-income students in particular need a support structure that exceeds that which is offered to high-performing students.

Your book includes a list of questions to ask when choosing a college. How did that come about?

It’s directed at parents. Before they take out a student loan that may be impossible to pay back after graduation, I suggest that they first learn what the ROI is for the college of their choice.

For example, what percentage of recent graduates got a job in the chosen field? How many faculty members actually work in the fields they teach? Does the school have an internship or work study program for students to gain experience while still in school?

The fact that colleges have been raising prices far in excess of inflation is a good indication that we need to make sure that we understand where the students are coming from.

Four-year schools essentially operate 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., four days a week, sometimes five. The traditional four-year residential school is basically designed for 17 and 18-year-olds. By contrast, community colleges offer access to adult education that people often can’t get from a four-year school.

The country is missing out on this bootstrap for the middle class by not taking up some of the lessons. Community colleges often operate two shifts, sometimes five days a week. Community colleges also have arrangements with local businesses to provide the workforce for the region.

Virtually every program in every community college on every campus has an industry or subject matter expert advisory board. That’s just not the case in a four-year school.

What’s next for you?

I have an affiliation with a certified tech park, an incubator, called Flagship Enterprise Center. I’m doing some volunteer work for them and looking at business and academic interests. My volunteer work is helping them set up two things—a microfactory so businesses can start in a very small scale, and the other is a center for international manufacturing.

And I’m continuing to do extensive outreach on the College Promise program. I believe passionately that in these economic times, students shouldn’t be amassing insurmountable debt to get an education.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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