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Time Is the Enemy”

November 2015

By Margo Vanover Porter

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Columbus State Community College President David T. Harrison explains the importance of developing partners to support student success—and the tension between the need for speed and the deliberation it takes to get things right.

After years of assembling a varied band of education-focused partners, David T. Harrison has learned that two mistakes can destroy a budding relationship—forging ahead too quickly with legal contracts, or trying to balance spreadsheets before you really know the specific work you will be doing. Both are strategic errors that can send parties running for safety on the sidelines, acknowledges the president of Columbus State Community College.

“You have to find a partner willing to take some risks, knowing you don’t have all the answers, knowing it’s never going to be perfect, but who has a commitment to staying at the table,” he says. “You can’t take no for an answer. You have to have a willing partner who shares your vision.”

Business Officer recently had the opportunity to talk with Harrison about his strategy for increasing student success and workforce development through partnerships that promote mutually beneficial goals.

How did you get your board of trustees to buy into your vision?

It’s a shared vision, and our board has been instrumental in moving it forward. Soon after I came to the college, selected board members and I participated in a program called the Governance Institute on Student Success. Through this process, we recognized that we were spending most of our board meetings talking about college finances instead of our students, and we all wanted to change that. Since then our trustees have been active partners in our student success work, and strong supporters of our partnership strategy. We have created a culture of student success through partnerships, which is now an accepted way of doing business at this college.

You’ve adopted the nationwide effort by the Lumina Foundation to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality college degrees, certificates, or other credentials to 60 percent by 2025. What kind of progress have you made toward achieving this goal?

We have a partnership structure in place that is as strong as any in the country in terms of scale. We are working with eight universities, and this fall more than 100 high schools are offering Columbus State coursework in a seven-county region.  

How do you reach an agreement with your various partners?

We start with a shared vision. I talk a lot about the coalition of the willing. We’re fortunate to have leaders in the region who recognize that we can do more for students collectively than any of us can do individually.

We don’t follow a formula, and not everybody stays at the table; but we do have what we think is a critical mass of college presidents, superintendents, employers, and other leaders who are inspired by this work and recognize that no one of us has the resources and expertise to do everything that needs to be done, but collectively we can have a bigger impact. 

What’s the cost? With the various grants you are receiving, do the programs and partnerships come close to breaking even?

We don’t look at it that way. This doesn’t boil down to a simple spreadsheet, although we ensure that the big picture makes sense financially. Instead of looking at these partnerships as separate and distinct business units that can be evaluated on their own respective spreadsheets, we look at them as a way of doing business. 

What we pay attention to is: “Are students more successful with these partnerships than without them?” We see indicators that the answer is “yes.” 

What’s your proudest achievement at Columbus State?

I hope we haven’t hit it yet. We’re still on an upward trajectory. My happiest moment, frankly, is at our commencement ceremonies. Twice a year, I get to see the pride on the faces of students and families. The performance measure we’re shooting for is a really long commencement ceremony, because we want more and more students to be able to walk across the stage.

Any disappointments?

Every day. This kind of work never goes fast. It takes time to get all the pieces in place. While we’re moving at a pretty good pace, the sooner we get the system fully locked in, the more students we will be able to serve. From a student’s perspective, time is the enemy. 

How do you respond to complaints that you’ve extended the reach of Columbus State beyond that of a typical community college?

I think this is what community colleges are supposed to do. Community colleges are built to respond to the changing needs of the regions they serve. The best community colleges extend their reach. I don’t want us to be a typical college, and I don’t think the people who work here want to work for a typical college. Our leadership team wants to do more than manage their in-boxes. If we weren’t doing some of these things, people would go somewhere else where they could. 

With all of these new initiatives, in what ways do you keep from overextending your staff?

I’m not sure I do a very good job of that. What I’m asking people to do is hard. It’s not for everybody. I’m not for everybody. I know that. 

Because these partnerships are strategic in nature and many of the details are undefined, they take time to complete. Meanwhile, the daily work doesn’t go away. The ability to manage both strategic and daily tasks simultaneously takes leadership talent and organizational resilience. 

Our most important partners are internal because they make everything happen. We have a shared vision. In my opinion, people don’t really stay at a community college very long unless they have a personal interest in students and their well-being. These partnerships are in our student’s best interest.

What role does your CFO play in these partnerships?

Terri is my shoulder-to-shoulder partner. Some of these partnerships simply wouldn’t have happened without her expertise and ability to bring all the stakeholders to the table at the right time. She has a high tolerance for ambiguity. She can take a big, messy situation and make it understandable.

We have so many partners that it’s incumbent on us to be good at this. In many cases, we are teaching our partners how to be good partners, whether they know it or not. Terri is the lead instructor in that space. 

Is Columbus State an isolated, regional success story, or should other community colleges be exploring a similar partnership strategy?

Other colleges are attempting a similar strategy. We haven’t invented anything new, but we’ve built it into our strategy, not as a side project. What sets us apart is our scale. 

How can other institutions approach that scale? What skills or characteristics are required? 

Their leaders have to be comfortable in building relationships. They have to be willing to pick up the phone when things go well or when they get off track. Our work started with simple conversations about a shared commitment to helping students. 

I got here five years ago and spent the first year interviewing leaders throughout the region. We all recognized that our business model was changing and we had new opportunities to collaborate. For our K–12 partnerships, we started, district by district, looking at the data and seeing where students were successful and where they weren’t. Nobody got defensive. We asked, “How can we address this together?” It was a natural convergence of like-minded people.

Is this an emerging business model for higher education?

One of the most important issues that higher education is facing is affordability. We think these partnerships are the solution. You can talk about making individual institutions more efficient, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into reduced costs for students. If you have more students who are earning college credits in high school and more students who are earning associate degrees that lead to high paying jobs or that transfer to universities, the costs for those students are dramatically reduced. We think we have a structure in place that saves families thousands of dollars.

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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