Community colleges fill a unique role within the educational landscape today. With more than 940 public community colleges in the U.S., the demand for leaders who understand how to help them succeed is high. If you’re interested in entering community college leadership roles, here’s what you need to know to create a meaningful career in the field.
Community College Leadership Skills
Understanding the purpose, structure, and goals of a community college is essential to becoming a strong leader in the space. Developing the following skills and perspectives can help you shape a community college’s future and that of its students.
Understanding the Purpose of Community College
Community colleges undertake a specific mission to educate their students, says Jermaine Williams, a professor in Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies.
“They’re set up to meet the workforce needs and the transfer needs of the region where they’re located,” Williams explains.
While four-year schools typically work to appeal to students from a wider geographic area, community colleges focus on their immediate location, which informs the types of classes, services, and resources they provide.
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Leaders must understand this purpose and ensure that they are not only aware of the needs of their communities but are also able to address them appropriately. Doing so provides students with the tools and knowledge to best help them meet their educational and career goals.
Establishing Equity in a Community College Setting
Because of their unique purpose, each community college relies on collaboration across not only the institution, but the entire community. One way to promote strong partnership is to prioritize equity at all times.
Equitable leadership recognizes that not every member of a community needs the same resources, accommodations, and information to succeed. Instead, equity focuses on providing customized solutions based on individual needs.
Williams says that community college leaders can create an equitable environment by ensuring they consume a wide range of viewpoints and perspectives. Cultivating the ability to pay attention to and understand the various needs of your community and working to address them can help you establish more productive relationships with all members.
Working Within Structure
In the same way that a community college’s purpose differs from that of a four-year school, so does its structure.
“I think there is a different organizational texture in the sense of how things get done,” Williams says. “It’s useful to figure out that organizational dynamic and know that you’re going to be so close to many different facets of the institution.”
Because collaboration across different departments is so prevalent within community colleges, understanding how each department operates can help leaders develop strong partnerships with their colleagues.
Developing Your Educational Leadership Skills
Future community college leaders can hone their skills in several ways. Williams recommends connecting with your existing network and relevant professional organizations to meet others in your field and gain valuable insights.
Leverage Your Network
Turning to your work colleagues, fellow students, and peers for information and resources can help you find unique opportunities to further your career and research. Consider asking them what resources they’ve found useful in their own jobs, or ask for their input on a problem you may be facing in your research.
Setting up informational interviews with other faculty and experienced professionals in the field can also be beneficial. These interviews offer the chance to ask specific questions about jobs that interest you, skills you should develop, and more.
Professional organizations provide networking, learning opportunities, and access to scholarships and internships, among other benefits. “I would invite people to really lean into their professional affiliations and see what growth opportunities they have,” Williams says.
The National Association of Student Affairs Professionals, for example, offers annual conferences, publishes a journal, and sponsors student leadership institutes for college student affairs professionals.
The Aspen Institute’s Aspen Rising Presidents Fellowship includes residential seminars, mentoring opportunities, and a capstone project through which fellows develop a strategic leadership vision.
These professional organizations are among the many that can help community college leaders develop strong connections with their colleagues and improve their skills to better their institutions.
Preparing for Community College Leadership in an EdD Program
An EdD program is an excellent way to begin building the foundations of community college leadership.
“These programs are focusing on new issues and trending issues,” Williams says. “Financing in higher education is not new, but it’s trending because of increased financial issues now.”
EdD candidates also learn practical skills like critical thinking, crisis management, and collaboration across multiple departments. Given the smaller size of community colleges in comparison to most universities, collaboration is not only essential—it’s often built into the structure of the college itself.
“You want to be able to contribute intelligently when all conversations are occurring, whether it’s about finance, academic affairs, student affairs, or facilities,” Williams says. “In order to do that, you’d join an EdD program. That would be a great start.”
Earning Your EdD at Northeastern
Northeastern’s EdD is a flexible, online program that meets students where they are in their lives and careers while transforming them into scholar-practitioners who can make a difference in their communities.
“When you’re going through your classes, you have the opportunity to look at current, real-life situations and dissect them to create potential solutions,” Williams says.
This experience-based learning is at the core of a Northeastern education, and students constantly discuss and evaluate real-world data and current issues in their classes.
EdD students also establish a “problem of practice” early on in their programs, then complete a capstone project that addresses the issue at hand through research, collaboration with community members, and more.
“The level of reality that the program provides is one that sets people up for success,” Williams says.
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