Consider the world awaiting today’s high school seniors. Continuing their education is hardly an option they can forego, yet the application process for many colleges and universities has become as daunting as that facing adults applying for highly sought-after corporate positions.
Completing what was once termed a “four-year degree” can take five years or longer, while in an ever-changing workplace, that degree will likely carry less weight than it did a generation ago.
As if these factors weren’t challenging enough, today’s college students are often graduating with levels of debt more appropriate for a first home purchase than an undergraduate degree.
College of Western Idaho (CWI) president Dr. Bert Glandon understands this environment only too well. To begin with, he has two sons who have had to weather what he refers to as “the American rite of passage”; and there are the nearly 5,000 members of his extended academic family, some not much younger than he, who have staked their futures on the success of CWI’s mission.
“Community colleges used to be branded as ‘the college of last resort’,” Glandon noted in a recent interview with the Idaho Business Review. “Today, for reasons of geography and cost, they are becoming the college of first choice – particularly in a world where my sons may have to change careers five to seven times during their lives. Our mission is not only to facilitate their rite of passage into adulthood, but to help build our local economy in the process.”
In achieving this mission, Glandon, who became CWI’s second president in July 2009, has set a goal for the college of earning “straight A’s”: affordable, accessible, adaptable, accountable.
CWI was created in May 2007, when a supermajority of Ada and Canyon County voters passed a referendum to establish a community college district. Two months later, Idaho’s State Board of Education appointed a board of trustees for the college.
In January 2009, CWI welcomed its first students. To the surprise of those who had questioned the school’s potential viability, its initial enrollment was an overwhelming validation of its relevance to the needs of the Treasure Valley.
“Most community colleges start with an enrollment of 200 students in their first year, and it generally takes them from three to five years to get to 2,000 students,” Glandon observed. “The governor and state legislature had the foresight to fund us for 2,100 students, which they believed would sustain us for five years. Nobody could have predicted that we’d open with 1,200 students, let alone quadruple that number within a year. There’s no history of any community college doing this.”
With programs operating out of seven different facilities throughout Ada and Canyon counties, CWI’s current course offerings fall into the categories of professional/technical education (32 postsecondary technical certificates), lower division transfer degrees (13 majors are offered), and more than 100 community education classes created to “embrace the needs and interests of the community’s lifelong learners.”
From Glandon’s perspective, the immediate success demonstrated by CWI’s enrollment figures, which are expected to reach 6,000 this fall, are proof that when the going gets tough, the tough get educated.
While taxpayer-based funding for higher education in almost any community has become increasingly problematic, Glandon sees the key to CWI’s continued success as “the people’s college” as its community partnerships – particularly with local businesses that not only face the challenges of recruiting a trained workforce for today’s competitive environment but must also anticipate where they need to position themselves in a global economy.
Glandon recounted a recent meeting with a company that was considering locating in the Treasure Valley. “We told them at breakfast, ‘If you can identify your training needs by 9 a.m. today, we can begin delivering on those by 3 p.m.'”
With the recent transfer of Boise State University’s Professional Technical Education programs (formerly Larry Selland College) to CWI, Glandon and his team are currently carrying out a rigorous eight-point evaluation of the programs with the help of Technical Advisory Teams drawn from local industry partners and charged with “guiding CWI’s programs to reflect the demands of the current marketplace.”
“We are an invention of the local community,” Glandon said. “Our value to our community is in being able to quickly adapt to the needs of our local economy. Businesses who need to re-tool and re-train their workforce don’t have three months to figure out how to accomplish it. You have to figure it out today, make the necessary changes tomorrow, and implement over the next 30 days.”
If that level of responsiveness doesn’t earn CWI an “A” in adaptability, it’s hard to imagine what will.