Reflecting a Lifetime in Education
Dr. Kathleen Hetherington’s career at community colleges has spanned eight U.S. presidents, two pandemics, the Great Recession, and the advent of Facebook, selfies, and the iPhone. The outgoing Howard Community College president has been at the forefront of change within her own institution, both while at HCC and while serving on the staff at Community College of Philadelphia, her alma mater.
Hetherington has helped lead the way in bridging community college’s gaps between student potential and achievement, campus and community, and status quo and growth — all while navigating an ever-changing educational landscape due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. It is why she is one of the thought leaders in postsecondary education.
You cannot allow her to leave her Little Patuxent Parkway office without weighing in on the current state of community colleges, including the one she has led since 2007. Hetherington agreed to offer a candid look at the role of community colleges, discussing their relationships with government, families, and the media.
How would you describe the current state of and future for community colleges in the U.S.?
I always say community colleges are the first choice for some students, but it’s a second chance for many. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard over my career of people who perhaps didn’t think of going to a community college first.
I just met with a couple who said community colleges actually saved their children, because their kids were kind of lost, and they went to community colleges and not only did they get the educational opportunity, but all the wraparound support services that are available, as well as the small class sizes and teachers focused on teaching.
I think the future looks bright, but in particular it looks bright because community colleges are so agile. We respond to the workforce needs of our community and we can pivot much more quickly than other institutions. We have to, because we are the community’s college.
From what you see nationally, is the stigma that community colleges have historically suffered waning?
That stigma you talk about was there when I was a student, and I would say that it’s there for some people — most of those people have no idea about community colleges. They think of it as “less than” because it’s affordable, and they might think of it as “less than” because some people of means don’t usually attend — although sometimes they do.
It’s easy to look down upon something; people have a tendency to do that if they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they don’t realize the transformative impact that community colleges have on the lives on students and their families. The stigma isn’t completely erased, but this is where I see it mostly: There’s a lot of pressure among parents who have kids who are graduating from high school. There’s all that chit-chat about, “Where’s your kid going to school?” I see more pressure from it right there.
The interesting thing is all that chit-chat goes away in June, because you don’t see the families again. And often those students attend a college that they wind up hating or run out of money or miss their families, then they come back home saying, “What am I going to do?” The parents say, “You have to do something. Go to the community college.” And the student says, “Oh no! Not the community college!” And then they enroll and fall in love with the place. It’s the best thing that could have happened to them. That scenario just repeats itself every single year.
What are the biggest concerns for community colleges in Maryland, including HCC?
I think that community colleges have to be mindful of what’s happening demographically and look at opportunities to pull people into programs. There needs to be reshaping and rethinking about how we do delivery of programs and services to address what the needs are, especially post-pandemic, for the new normal. Our competition is not other community colleges or even four-year institutions. It’s the Googles and the tech program courses that are popping up and businesses that will look to Google or some other kind of certification program.
And it’s also how people view higher education. It used to be that you had to go to college. People don’t say that anymore. Now they say that maybe you need to do some training or take a few classes. Our focus can’t be on the traditional view of community colleges, that is getting a certificate or an associate degree. We will still do that. But we also must pull back and say, “What else is the community asking for? What do they need? Where do we need to put programs and be able to pivot to address that?” We need to have an entrepreneurial mindset in planning for the future.
How has COVID changed postsecondary education forever?
We’re already seeing the changes, just in the delivery of services and academic programs. We’ll see more online and hybrid courses, where in the past we were primarily face-to-face. I don’t see us going back to only face-toface. A lot of students like having the option of going online or hybrid, or what is called synchronous remote, which is a scheduled class taken online, for example, every Tuesday from 4 to 6 p.m. At HCC, we are now doing telecounseling; we started that during COVID. And now we are hearing from students that it is a preferred method. Same thing with academic advising; why make all that effort to come in and see an academic advisor when you can just go to a Zoom meeting?
There is a federal government push to make community college free. For an institution that receives such a large portion of its revenue from tuition, how concerned are you about that?
Well, the way it would have to work is that “free tuition” would have to be made up for by the federal government. You’re not just going to say, “Don’t charge anything.” They would have to support it.
Would it take away from a community college’s autonomy if the federal government controls how the largest portion of your funding is generated?
Though we have students paying the highest portion of our revenue source at 40%, we have the county very close at 37% and the state at 20%. So, there is 57% from state and local funding, and I would say that though we have academic guidelines that we have to follow from the state, we still have autonomy in our academic offerings. With our local government, we don’t have issues like that.
With the federal government, they govern what we do to a great degree, when we disburse program funds. We have to follow Pell regulations. We are already under the auspices of the federal government in terms of FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) with releasing information and the Americans with Disabilities Act. We are already governed by them, but I don’t see them getting involved with academic programming. That’s not their bailiwick.
What do you believe should be the relationship between community colleges and high schools?
We are so fortunate that we have a great relationship with the Howard County Public School System. We have been able to have a significant increase in the number of students taking a college class, and research shows that if you take at least one college class while in high school, the likelihood is that you continue on to take college classes and be successful. We feel it’s not only helping us when we have this relationship but we are also helping our community.
What do you think the relationship should be between community colleges and four-year colleges?
That’s critical, because we have such a high number of students who come here to do their first two years and transfer, or we have students who started at a four-year institution and, for some reason were not successful as freshmen, they come back home and typically they’ll get grounded by enrolling at a community college. Many of them find that this is a better experience because of the smaller class sizes and extensive support services. For us to have a seamless transfer, having articulation agreements with four-year schools is critical.
What is the relationship between HCC and its community?
Our community relations are excellent because we view ourselves as the community’s college. Pre-COVID, we would have people on campus from day to night. Senior citizens who come here don’t have to pay tuition. And our college is a cultural hub in Howard County. We have a repertory theatre with high-levelquality Equity actors and actresses.
When we had discussions about the murder of George Floyd, we brought the community together for candid conversations. And we have to do it that way. Years ago, we hosted a Howard County Library event called the Longest Table, where there was a long table in a parking lot, and people broke bread and had conversations. There are so many ways we connect through our cultural activities and partnerships. We see ourselves as very much threaded into the life of people who live in Howard County.
Many community colleges have removed the word, “community” from their names. Howard Community College has not. Why is that?
There was some formal discussion, but then people asked, “Then what would we call ourselves, Howard College?” People may think that we are Howard University. In fact, when I left Philadelphia and told them I was coming to Howard Community College, the board chair said, “I know the president there.” As it turns out, he thought I was going to Howard University.
But initially when we started to see name changes happening, some community colleges started offering bachelor degree programs, so they took the “community” off. Also, in some areas they thought that the perception of community colleges was something that was less than a college.
I’ve never agreed with that. I think they should keep the “community.” Be proud of it. We are a democracy’s college. That’s what we’re about. We’re providing those opportunities for everyone to attend college. Not only the select. Not only the well to do. Not only those who had their mothers and fathers helping them along the way. We are there to make sure people have the chance to do something for themselves and their families that is truly lifechanging. I say be proud of it. ◆