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Appalachia's Best-Kept Secret

by Fred D. Baldwin

If Hollywood gave Oscars to institutions, community colleges would dominate the "Best Supporting Actor" category—at least in rural Appalachia. Less glamorous than their four-year counterparts, these schools seldom get top billing when dramatic-sounding projects are announced by state or federal agencies. Yet it's their presence on the scene at critical points in the action that often spells success for economic and community development. Collectively, they may be the Region's best-kept secret.

"In Appalachia, every rural and distressed county is covered by a community college," says Eldon Miller, campus president of West Virginia University at Parkersburg and chairman of a loose-knit consortium called Community Colleges of Appalachia. "That's not true for universities and four-year colleges. The community college is the one higher-education element that is common throughout Appalachia. It's a vehicle that can be used for a lot of things, not just delivering education. We shouldn't have the lead, but we can assist those who do."

Seasoned performers, community colleges know how to get the most mileage out of whatever parts they accept and take pride in giving even small audiences their best efforts.

"Give them a dime," says Miller, "and they'll give you back a dollar. I think that's a characteristic of community colleges in Appalachia. I admire those college presidents and their faculties and staff that can take those limited resources, that dime, and turn it into a dollar for the community."

"The very nature of community and technical colleges is to serve a local base of people," says Daniel M. Hull, president and CEO of the Center for Occupational Research and Development, a Waco, Texas, nonprofit group heavily involved in curriculum development. "We've got to have that. Universities are good research centers, most of them, but you're not going to get the same kind of assistance and hands-on applications from them."

Says Governor Gaston Caperton, "The community and technical college system is central to West Virginia's growing economic strength and stability. Because of their flexibility and partnerships with business, labor, public schools, and colleges, community and technical colleges give youths an opportunity to gain the applied academic and technical skills needed to compete for good jobs, help businesses remain competitive, and help displaced workers transition with new careers. They are the focal point for our growing culture of lifelong learning."

Finally, community colleges refuse to be typecast. They repeatedly learn to play new roles.

"They're unique institutions," says Stuart A. Rosenfeld, president of Regional Technology Strategies (RTS), a Chapel Hill, North Carolina, nonprofit organization that develops and pilots economic development strategies. "They're not just there to get kids into four-year colleges. And they're not just vocational schools. They're developing a whole set of services that are related to education and training but are not strictly education and training. They're trying to look at the needs of their local businesses as multidimensional."

What makes Appalachia's public community colleges unique is that, to a greater extent than any other institution, they function in two roles. Usually nonresidential, they depend on customers who live within commuting distance. In order to survive, they must respect and reflect the values of their communities and be as nimble as entrepreneurs in responding to market changes. At the same time, they provide windows to the world outside their own areas and—at least those under strong leadership—consider it a moral imperative to serve as agents of change.

"I serve seven counties," says Miller. "Some of our students may not live but 25 miles away, but we have students who are 'economically place-bound.' I have an outreach center where about 65 percent of the students are women, and they'll go there because it's right in their backyard, but they couldn't drive 25 or 30 miles to a campus because they're married, raising kids, got families, husbands working.

"There's another place-boundness," he continues, "and it's a cultural place-boundness. They aren't going to leave where they grew up and where their family is. Through the Internet, we can now start to deliver courses and programs right where they can drive down to the local high school or a room that the bank makes available."

There are other ways to connect to the larger world. Charles R. King, as founding president of Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands, may well be the dean of Appalachian community college presidents. (As he puts it, "I came here and ran the cows off the hill in 1967.") King notes that in the four counties served by his school, more than 80 percent of the people participating in any form of higher education are doing so at his college. He's proud to be "reaching down into the community." In the next breath he mentions that Southwest has a sister college "over in England, at Leeds University."

A Work in Progress

Individually and as a group, community colleges are always a work in progress. Perhaps the most important development of recent years is the extent to which they're learning to work together, both with each other and with other institutions.

Rosenfeld comments that policy frameworks for community colleges differ from state to state—more widely, he says, than is the case either for public school systems or for four-year institutions. Subject to that caveat, he sketches out a broad-brush historical summary.

Decades ago, most two-year schools focused almost exclusively on their associate degree programs, considering them either as feeder programs for four-year colleges and universities (the "junior college" idea) or as "terminal" programs. (Community college presidents today point out that many excellent jobs do not require baccalaureate degrees but also emphasize that learning need never be "terminal.") That pattern began to change in the late 1950s and early 1960s when more and more community colleges began emphasizing their role in economic development. The Appalachian Regional Commission contributed significantly to this change, making possible the creation or expansion of many of the Region's two-year schools, largely through substantial outlays for vocational education.

Appalachian colleges first defined their economic development role as "industrial recruitment . . . creating organizations that would make it more attractive for industry to locate in their areas." They provided specialized training for new firms, often without charge. That strategy did attract firms to less-developed areas, but it had its limits.

"The most interesting change in the last ten years," Rosenfeld continues, "has been the shift towards recognizing the needs of the smaller and medium-sized firms. One of the problems with customized training was that it was mostly for businesses that were expanding with a large branch plant. A lot of current initiatives are focused on small and medium-sized firms—and a broader set of services, not just customized training."

One example of this trend is the Bevill Center for Advanced Manufacturing Technology, located on the campus of Gadsden State Community College (GSCC), in Gadsden (Etowah County), Alabama. It has three sponsors: the community college, the city of Gadsden, and the University of Alabama. It's a member of the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers, which this year selected Gadsden as the site of its fall conference.

Northern Alabama enjoys a significant manufacturing base, and 32 of the 141 manufacturing firms in Etowah County do metalworking of some kind or another. As a result, the Bevill Center specializes in advanced metalworking technology. The center has five focus areas, including process-oriented consulting and specific applications of computers to product design and manufacture.

High-Tech Manufacturing

The center has a 20-person staff, including nine engineers. Its 30,000-square-foot facility is equipped with high-tech manufacturing equipment. Area firms learn how to use advanced technology, then invest in what they need. Wes Ellis, the center's project coordinator for industrial relations, points to a "wire EDM" (an electric discharge machine, a tool for precision cutting). "We demonstrated the technology," he says. "When we started out . . . there were only two wire EDMs around here. Now there are over 40." The center subscribes to 12 services that provide video instruction, downloaded by satellite on a pay-per-view basis, in industrial or technological topics.

From its inception in August 1987 through June 1996, just under 40,000 individuals have participated in Bevill Center programs, more than 10,000 of them in technology training. The center now does about 80 consultation and training projects per year with industry. It charges its clients a fee that covers operating costs; that's consistent with a trend noted by Rosenfeld. Fees not only generate income but also, like any price system, give managers fast and incontrovertible information on whether customers really value offered services.

"All our deliverables are tied to specific outcomes," Ellis says. "Our proposals end, 'Employees will be able to . . .' Until we get to that point, we don't stop."

The Bevill Center serves as a model for a good handful of other advanced technology centers in Appalachia. One of the newest (in operation since January 1995) is the Manufacturing Technology Center (MTC) located on the campus of Wytheville Community College (WCC) in Wytheville, Virginia.

Advanced technology centers like the Bevill Center and the MTC are only one aspect of the work of community colleges like GSCC and WCC. Most of their traditional programs remain: academic degree programs, specialized vocational training (e.g., nursing or court reporting), a substantial amount of remedial work, adult education (the average student age is 28 or 29), and classes in English as a second language.

"We constantly reinvent ourselves," says Victor B. Ficker, president of GSCC. "We should be as different as our communities are different, but a community college's role is not only to reflect a community but to create a vision. We must reflect, but we can lead as well. We need to be a part of every sector in a community."

In fact, there are few sectors of their respective communities where GSCC and WCC (and usually their presidents themselves) aren't key players. Both colleges operate off-campus centers. Both operate a Tech Prep program, a "seamless" curriculum that begins in secondary school and continues through two years of college, if a student so chooses. The GSCC Tech Prep program was the first in Alabama—a response to a jolting public announcement by the president of a local steel mill that he would no longer hire graduates of the local high schools. The GSCC—public school partnership has changed that.

But "reinventing yourself" is more than taking on new roles. It's dropping some programs altogether while pruning and redesigning others. It's playing the part you're assigned—creatively.

For example, when WCC was asked to open centers in nearby communities, it ran up against Virginia statutory restrictions against "branch campuses" of community colleges. Its president, William F. Snyder, worked out an arrangement whereby Smyth County and the city of Galax would contract with WCC to operate centers in facilities that the local governments own.

Multiple Agendas

Because so many community colleges have multiple agendas, it's sometimes said that they are "trying to be all things to all people." Rosenfeld, for one, thinks that criticism misses the mark.

"I think it's only accurate in the aggregate," he says. "If you look at the community college system in the U.S. or in Appalachia, it's probably trying to do it all. I'm not sure it's true on a school-by-school basis. Individual colleges are trying to be responsive to their regions and their localities. A lot depends on the structure of the local economy and what other institutions are available to provide things. If you're in a rural area where there's nothing else, then you've got to provide more, I guess."

"Sometimes it stretches you pretty thin," acknowledges G. Edward Hughes, president of Hazard Community College in Hazard, Kentucky. "We've at least been able to get some things started that someone else may pick up and run with."

One of the programs Hughes started at Hazard helps unemployed people, especially laid-off mineworkers, become entrepreneurs. Participants learn to function as independent contractors, using skills (such as in plumbing, electrical work, or equipment maintenance) they acquired as employees. Hughes says that during its approximately ten-year history, the program has helped 250 small businesses get started, "and well over 90 percent of them are still going strong." In 1990 the program won an award from the American Association of Community Colleges and has expanded to two other Kentucky community colleges, Elizabethtown and Madisonville. Hughes hopes that it can be extended to all 14 of the state's Appalachian community colleges.

"Being all things to all people isn't a real danger," GSCC's Victor Ficker says. "The real challenge is to be what people need. I flunked out of college, to start with. Went into the Marine Corps. Later I went to St. Petersburg Junior College. I wonder where I'd be today if there hadn't been a community college to give me a second chance in life."

Warming to that subject, he sounds indignant at the notion that he, or anyone, could try to do too much for the people GSCC serves.

"I think we're the most important component in education today," he says. "No other segment of education can do so many things. It's the middle class—the working stiffs who have skills—that makes America what it is. But it has to reinvent itself, too. We can help with that."

Ficker is particularly unhappy with the legal requirements for admission to community college degree programs—a high school diploma or a GED: "It hurts me that we can't reach out more to the people in this community. My father, who worked all his life and was a successful businessman, couldn't have come to this college because he didn't have a GED. That policy closes the door to approximately half of the adults in Alabama. [Some college administrators] are out there planting ivy. Our job is to tear down the ivy. And open the doors!"

Opening the Door

In fact, community and technical colleges are doing an impressive job of opening doors. Eldon Miller's college in Parkersburg is opening a training center in a building jointly owned with a public school system, staffed by faculty of both systems, and governed by a board that includes representatives of business, industry, and labor.

"We'll have faculty from the college teaching high school classes," Miller says, "and some from the high school teaching college classes. When we get our faculties together, there isn't this gap that's been there for years: 'Well, we're a college and they're only a high school.' All that seems to disappear, and they start talking about how to put this stuff together."

Hughes, speaking of Hazard's award-winning program for training entrepreneurs, says that the first thing he asks staff is "the number of businesses created and the number of jobs created—not how many workshops they held." Then he adds, "The second thing I ask them is how many partnerships we have."

Whatever that number was yesterday, it's almost certainly larger today—and will be larger still tomorrow. Take, for example, the consortium called Community Colleges of Appalachia, which is chaired by Miller. It began in 1989 when a few presidents of Appalachian community colleges attending a meeting said, in effect, "We ought to get together more often." They felt, Miller explains, that they'd benefit from shared experience and perhaps together they could improve their leverage with foundations, government agencies, and other sources of funds. Grants from ARC have provided the modest amount of financial support required by the consortium. The group's semiannual meetings seldom attract fewer than half of the presidents of the Region's approximately 80 public community colleges.

"We're now speaking with one voice about one region with common economic problems and common cultural characteristics," Miller says. "And we began to find success stories."

G. Edward Hughes serves as vice-chairman of Community Colleges of Appalachia. He says that participation helped his own institution in Hazard, acting in concert with Southeast Community College (in Cumberland, Kentucky), to become one of nine colleges in the nation to receive a Ford Foundation grant called "Rural Community College Initiatives." The two schools will develop models of collaboration leading to rural economic development; they already plan to involve two other community colleges in a "cluster approach."

Most Important Trend

Rosenfeld, as a student of economic development, thinks that these "emerging sets of unique and unusual kinds of alliances" may be the most important institutional trend on the educational scene today. Hughes agrees: "I really think that's where all higher education needs to be in the future. We can't be independent colleges doing our thing without some knowledge of what our sister institutions are doing and how we can do it together better than any of us can do it independently."

Where will it all end? It's hard to say.

Consider two partnerships already mentioned—Gadsden's Bevill Center, involving cooperation among a community college, a university, and a city, and Wytheville's MTC, a consortium of five Appalachian community colleges, not to mention other participants. Both of these centers, along with Chattanooga (Tennessee) State Technical Community College, are among six participants in a project to test the potential of something called Asynchronous Learning Networks (ALNs). (The non-Appalachian schools are in Georgia, South Carolina, and New Hampshire.) The program is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and managed by Rosenfeld's Chapel Hill organization, RTS.

Like so-called "distance learning," an ALN relies on telecommunications to eliminate space barriers, but it doesn't involve real-time lectures or seminars. Instead, it relies on e-mail, newsgroups, and other communication tools familiar to Internet users to create "virtual classrooms." Students who work irregular hours can interact with instructors and with each other regularly, but on their own schedules. The goal of ALN is nothing less than "anywhere, anytime" education.

It shouldn't be surprising that community colleges are on center stage where this particular innovation is concerned. It's not, after all, about research in the abstract but about bringing training and education to people who otherwise couldn't arrange to get it. As Rosenfeld puts it, "Universities try to be world-class, worldwide institutions, while community colleges want to be world-class local institutions."

Considering how passionately presidents like Ficker, Hughes, King, Miller, and Snyder talk about their missions, that's not likely to change. They'll invest in new technology, connect to the Internet, and find new ways to eliminate or ignore geographical and institutional boundaries. But they'll continue to serve on local boards, meet with local businesses, and send staff out to knock on doors of potential students in the most remote corners of their counties. Rural Appalachia's windows to the world are opening wider and wider, thanks in large part to precisely that segment of higher education that has the strongest local base.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.