‘Our finest hour’

The challenges community colleges face are daunting—but Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College, believes this could be their finest hour. If they seize it.

Let’s begin with a movie you have likely seen, Apollo 13.

One scene in the movie takes place in the flight control room. The Apollo 13 mission is in a precarious situation. The crippled spacecraft, complete with possible damage to the heat shield and re-entry parachutes, is preparing for the time period where it will be in total blackout from mission control.

Two NASA leaders are standing near Lead Flight Director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris. He overhears them discussing the low probability of a successful landing. One says the mission will be the worst disaster that NASA has every experienced, to which Kranz replies, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Sound familiar? The last 20 months have been every bit of a precarious situation for our country, and in particular higher education. Yet, as I think about my college, as well as the 1,100 other community and technical colleges across the country, I firmly believe that this is going to be OUR finest hour. Never in my career have community colleges been looked to for the level of recovery needed now.

This attention has translated to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to shore up our colleges, as well as an incredible amount of funding focused on workforce development and talent development in our communities.

What’s more, if federal leaders can come to an agreement on the Build Back Better initiative, the measure should call for billions (with a B!) of dollars focused on community colleges, the affordable education we provide to so many people, and opportunities to enter living-wage jobs and career highways.

The Biden administration has shown it puts great value on and trust in the work that we do. That same level of trust is being seen all across the country in relation to our collaborative partnerships with industry sectors, companies, and other education entities.

At Grand Rapids Community College, we have focused heavily in the past decade on securing local, state, and federal funding for initiatives that provide education and training to move people into living-wage positions. In the past 18 months, we have received over $15 million in federal and philanthropic dollars aimed at getting people to work in manufacturing, healthcare, and information technology.

The ultimate goal is to create career highways. I prefer the term highway, rather than pathway, because it better reflects our students’ reality. Because of their life experiences, many students come to us, then may have to leave for a while to work, take care of family, or meet other responsibilities. Then they come back. This cycle can repeat many times in a lifetime. Their journey is a highway full of on-ramps and off-ramps.

More than ever, our students and our communities need us to build those highways. We cannot let them down. We are indeed living in our finest hour!

My encouragement also comes with a warning. I implore my community college colleagues to stick to initiatives that engage what I affectionately call, “The Quad.” The Quad is made up of collaborations between our K-12 partners, community colleges, four-year institutions, and the industries that hire our graduates.

These partnerships create clarity for our students as they enter and exit the career highway. They give them partners at each entry and exit that help them stay focused and understand what they need to do in order to accomplish their career aspirations.

This broad form of collaboration is powerful and leads to positive outcomes for so many individuals. When all four are walking lockstep in the name of student success, the results will be incredibly positive for our students.

At our college, we enjoy close relationships with our local universities, over 400 industry partners, and many unique collaborations with our K-12 districts. Our constant focus is to be intentional with how we link these collaborative efforts to people in our community, with a laser focus on individuals living in disparate neighborhoods who are seeking a way to take better care of themselves and their families. There’s so much more to this concept—where are you with your local workforce investment board, philanthropic community, community-based organizations—but that belongs in another article.

I firmly believe we are indeed experiencing our finest hour in community colleges, not only from the standpoint of once-in-a-generation funding opportunities, but also the fact that so many across our country are acknowledging the incredible value community colleges bring to our communities.

If we are not able to capitalize on this moment, for the sake of our communities and the people we serve, shame on us.

Let’s not squander our finest hour.

Bill Pink is president of Grand Rapids Community College.

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