Entrepreneurial thinking for transformative change

Community colleges embrace a new role
By: | Issue: August/September, 2019
August 12, 2019
Rebecca Corbin is president and CEO of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship.

Community colleges have traditionally focused on helping students earn credentials for employment. But are they now also preparing students for the looming dynamic, disruptive and entrepreneurial environments ahead? Rebecca Corbin says—increasingly—they are. Corbin is president and CEO of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE). She and former community college president Ron Thomas have edited Community Colleges as Incubators of Innovation (Stylus Publishing, 2019), a collection of essays that provides a guide to entrepreneurial thinking for leaders, students and faculty. “To win, you’ve got to have a good pitch,” Corbin says. “You’ve got to show that you’ve ideated and tested your product—whether it’s business or social entrepreneurship or whatever. The entrepreneurial mindset needs to be embraced by everyone, from the student to the college president.”

It seems community colleges have undergone a tremendous evolution in recent years. Do you see that, too?

I do, and I am a fortunate person to have worked in the community college system for the past 12 years. Even in the early stages of working in community colleges, I have seen them just transform into innovative leaders in the community. Some of them have a tradition of doing that. But in my role, I’ve visited more than 100 community colleges—tiny ones, large ones, entire systems—and I see the changing dynamic. This is a Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the way things are moving so quickly has helped community colleges really come into their stride.

They have changed their reputational problem. Community colleges had been seen as 13th grade, and high school students always felt that if they went to a community college, it wasn’t a good option.

What led to this change in reputation for community colleges?

There are a number of things. For example, stats from the American Association of Community Colleges indicate that the average age of a community college student is 28.
We’re not dealing so much with the traditional college-age students. Many of them, about 41%, are taking noncredit courses.

You have a community college system that is not only teaching trades, for example, or preparing students to transfer, but you’ve also got a significant number of students who either have college degrees already and are underemployed or are going through a transition. That was the impetus for writing the book. It’s really to get people to leverage the opportunity.

In your book, you talk about the entrepreneurial mindset. What does that mean to you?

The entrepreneurial mindset is more of a success mindset. To be successful you need to have more of a creative, open problem-solving approach. To me, entrepreneurial action and thinking are all about problem-solving and creativity and collaboration. When we at NACCE work with college presidents and deans, we try to get them to understand that entrepreneurship should not just reside in the business school; it should cross disciplines.

And you do have to work at it. I tell people that it’s a lifestyle. If you embrace a healthy lifestyle, it doesn’t mean that you are always hitting the mark 100% of the time, but you’re really committing to what’s important to you and to really stretching and taking risks.

Administrators need that kind of thinking to maintain operations and thrive as funding declines.

That’s true. We work with about 2,000 faculty members and administrators across the country, and we try to
get them to think about the vast opportunity for open educational resources. If you want your institution to be entrepreneurial and innovative, you have to empower people to come up with new solutions and take risks.

That doesn’t come naturally to people in higher ed. So we try to collect as much data as we can find, including success stories. The way to get people out of their comfort zones is to show them what can be.

Entrepreneurship should not just reside in the business school; it should cross disciplines.

In the book, we talk about the rural Appalachian example in West Virginia that is riddled with problems: an opioid epidemic, scarce resources and a main industry of coal mining that is disappearing. Despite that, they’re one of the fastest-growing schools in terms of impact. They leverage every single opportunity that comes their way.

Opportunity is everywhere. You have to be looking for it, and you have to be prepared for it. It requires a different way of leading and teaching and thinking.

Some years ago, the gaming and hospitality industry exploded in New Jersey, and Atlantic Cape Community College took advantage of it, adding courses to meet new workforce demands. That likely wouldn’t happen as easily at a four-year institution.

I’m about an hour from Atlantic Cape, and I think that’s a wonderful example of how community colleges can pivot and be nimble and really have the opportunity to partner with industry.

I’ve seen a lot of innovative community colleges that allow people to enroll at any time. And because it’s open enrollment, you can have people apply who don’t even have a GED diploma.

They’ve got to be tested, of course, and may need some developmental ed courses, but the open-access of community colleges is very different from the access to universities, which, by nature, are much more selective.

There are hundreds of thousands of unfilled jobs. If community colleges can pivot and adapt quickly, they can play a significant role in filling the skills gap. And they can fill it with a more diverse population, including students of color and women and others, which just drives a whole equity opportunity.

What is NACCE’s Presidents for Entrepreneurship Pledge that you mentioned in the book?

That is the heart of where we believe entrepreneurship in the community college starts. We’ve had close to 200 presidents sign it. They commit to five action steps that we believe are crucial for community colleges to advance entrepreneurship in their communities.

They commit to forming teams to focus on entrepreneurship, connecting with entrepreneurs in their community, collaborating with industry, focusing on business and job creation, and sharing stories.

Presidents who sign the pledge commit their colleges to undertake entrepreneurial practices that boost economic vitality in their communities.

Now, we have this resource where they can be plugged into a community through our website to help them develop their own leading canvas of change that they can enact.

Tim Goral is senior editor