Mark Heinrich, who has been the chancellor of the Alabama Community College System since 2012, this year began one of his toughest tasks. He is overseeing consolidation of the administration of the system — a network of 26 two-year colleges with deep political ties and community connections.
In April 2015, the Legislature moved oversight of the Community College System from the state’s elected Board of Education to a new, appointed board — the Alabama Community College System Board of Trustees. In December 2015, the new board voted to begin consolidating the system, starting with seven colleges — Faulkner State Community College, Jefferson Davis Community College, Alabama Southern Community College and Reid State Technical College, in south Alabama; and Central Alabama Community College, Southern Union State Community College and Chattahoochee Valley Community College, in eastern Alabama.
The board gave its approval to move ahead with the initial process of consolidating a total of seven colleges. The timeline calls for the board to be considering final approval in July. A lot will continue to be going on between now and then. The whole merger and consolidation process is a monumental task, because of all the masters we serve. The U.S. Department of Education plays an especially important role, because of the financial aid that goes through them. It’s is a very narrow path that we must pass through to hold on to that financial aid. We’re in touch with them weekly.
The board is also in discussion of statewide consolidations. We have 26 institutions in the state system. These initial seven are the first ones, and the reason we started with them is that they have interim administrations at most of those institutions. We have learned a lot. Although we have talked with neighboring states that have gone through consolidations, it’s not the same as going through it yourself.
There have been questions that have come up in these communities where the consolidations are taking place. They are concerned about the naming of the institution, and they wonder if they will continue to have athletics. It’s that kind of thing. And, because of that, there are public input steps in the merger and consolidation process required by our accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. We are conducting open campus meetings, and we certainly like to hear those voices in those listening sessions, and that information is being collected. We have an independent individual working with us who helps orchestrate those meetings. They are structured in a way that we hear voices across the spectrum. We make sure the sessions provide maximum input.
And there is some misinformation out there. We are hearing people ask when are we going to close campuses. That is a very important concern. But that is not something that is going to happen. What we want to do through this consolidation process is to expand the offerings and unify those offerings a bit more. If anything, the availability of education to students and citizens will be enhanced.
The administrative changes we are looking at in south Alabama will mean, rather than an entire administration at each institution, there will be four institutions under one president and a campus director at each institution.
The beauty is ultimately in the dollars you save, but, to be clear, it will cost money at first. You don’t see immediate returns.
In Alabama, we are fortunate in that we do have our colleges pretty evenly distributed across the state, which was kind of the genius of his (George Wallace’s) plan. It has provided opportunities to our citizens that would not have been there otherwise. I don’t see Alabama’s system as a worst-case scenario.
At the end of the day, what we intend to do is align what we offer so that it better benefits the students and business and industry in our state.
The discussions about the community college system having their own board extend back, by some accounts, to the ’70s. There were a number of reasons. One was that both the K-12 and two-year system had grown significantly, and it made sense that each had its own board. Some of the earliest legislation included five or six pages about consolidation that were later removed for a variety of reasons, but the Legislature made clear that they believed some efficiencies could be realized through consolidation. Those are discussions we’ve been having with the Legislature for some time.
I believe that if you can take a regional approach, you are in a better position to serve the needs of business and industry more efficiently than you can if you have 26 separate colleges. I also believe there are some dollars to be saved, although merger is an expensive process, and it will be a while until we realize those dollar savings.
When you consider other states that have gone through such a consolidation, two that stand out are Georgia and Kentucky. Georgia is still in the middle of the process, and we have had conversations with them just from a geographic standpoint. But I’ve spent more time talking with Mike McCall, who has been my counterpart in Kentucky for 16 years, where they have gone through a fairly major consolidation and brought the number of separate college administrations down substantially.
Certainly funding is a portion of the forces driving consolidation. Education dollars have been scarce across the state and the country since 2007. If the community college system is going to sustain itself, consolidation is one of the steps needed. But even if you had all the dollars in the world, consolidation is financially needed.
Workforce training is one of the pillars of our mission, along with adult education and academic transfer to four-year colleges. There is a symbiotic relationship between those three. We cannot have a good workforce without adult education and the academic programs. The technical part of the workforce in this day and age depends so much on math and communications skills and the ability to write and work in teams, with the whole set of soft skills.
There has been a lot of concern about workers with middle-level skills — producing enough of those workers at this moment in our history. There are a lot of exciting things happening in the state economy, but there is a middle skills gap in the state, and that is one of our responsibilities.
This past fall we had 10, 000 high school students enrolled in career tech dual enrollment. Two years ago we were funded at $5 million for career tech dual enrollment, and it went so well the Legislature doubled that last year, to a little over $10 million. We’re still not at capacity, though pretty close.
There are a number of qualified students that we have to turn away. We believe if we receive $2 million to $2.5 million more we will be able to serve that group we had to turn away. We spend those dollars on courses that are in the greatest demand in terms of business and industry. That information comes from the regional workforce councils, and that’s an incredible help to us.
Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.
Interview by Chris McFadyen