When Cesar Maldonado, took over as chancellor of the Houston Community College in May of 2014, he said he quickly realized the system was not functioning as one of the largest singly accredited institutions in the country. "We were functioning as six individual medium-sized colleges," he said. "We were competing against each other for faculty and students, and it wasn’t very effective.”
Continuing education priorities were competing against the workforce programs for resources, which were already scarce. So Maldonado established six centers of excellence around high-demand workforce and technical programs designed to be more collaborative — sharing faculty, facilities and resources between the institutions — but which also gave each campus a unique recruiting advantage and eliminated some program duplication.
The six college presidents had to bid on the centers they wanted. "In some cases, because of facilities, we already knew where [certain programs] had to be, but those presidents still had to make a pitch,” said Maldonado, to tell the central office “what are you going to do differently to be called a center of excellence.”
As with any change, there was a lot of resistance from staff at the individual campuses. “Horizontally across the institution, we had to get all six colleges an understanding of where we were, what the opportunities were and where we were going,” said Maldonado. He added that some had a good initial understanding of the vision but were hesitant to change, and others were very willing to adapt but weren’t sure what to do.
And the need “to create standards but not standardize” presented another challenge — Maldonado recognized the importance of letting each president decide what was best for his or her campus community while still working to promote a seamless experience for students who might experience Houston Community College from multiple campuses.
“My focus is on the things only a chancellor can do,” he said, adding that getting too far in the weeds on the day-to-day minutiae not only frustrates staff, but makes it very difficult for leaders to move the needle in any area.
Putting students first
Maldonado won over the support of faculty by promising a 15% raise across the board over three years, and recently hit the full target. Meanwhile, the system has been able to allocate more resources to each program by consolidating job functions and re-writing job descriptions.
The college system is also working on a partnership with Houston’s public transportation system to provide point-to-point service for students for whom transportation is an issue.
And the long-term horizon goal is “to be institutionally and culturally what the city needs” as an urban education hub, said Kurt Ewen, Houston Community College vice chancellor for planning and institutional effectiveness during a recent conversation. He noted that the realization that Houston was not a viable landing spot for Amazon’s new headquarters was something of a wake-up call for folks in the city who realized education played a big part in the e-retailer's decision.
'You can do it'
For its part, Houston Community College is working on figuring out how to get students to see themselves as college material and making sure they have the right supports in place when those students arrive. “We’re an open-access institution, so getting accepted isn’t really the deal — it’s giving them a piece of paper to say ‘you’re accepted, you can do it, and here’s someone who can help you,” Ewen said.
For Maldonado, the emphasis on student support and success is even more important to his hiring decisions than trying to attract the preeminent subject matter experts. “I want the best person who’s going to accomplish the mission [and] take the content and put it in the context of the mission that will help our students succeed,” he said.
Seven in 10 Houston Community College students are in need of remediation when they arrive, which Ewen said is reflective of the pipeline coming out of the Houston Independent School District. “These kids are in an ecosystem,” he said. “The metric is not graduation rates, the metric is student success, and that looks different depending on where students are.”
Still, graduation rates have to be a big part of the conversation. “In no other industry would you look at a 20% yield on your work” and be satisfied, said Maldonado, who was a systems engineer before heading into higher ed.
The short-term goal is to get trade certificates issued to students in HSID who may have dropped out of high school at some point. Working with a number of local and regional leaders, HCC is partnering with HSID to increase the number of career pipelines for students while reducing the number of contact hours required to get students on the job — in some cases, programs that can be completed in one summer, he said. (One challenge to this, however, is what Ewen calls “perverse funding models” that actually incentivize longer completion times by allocating dollars based on contact hours.)
The system is also helping to establish academies to boost K-12 students’ college readiness, and is committed to working with the district long-term to help reform the pipeline overall.
“If there’s something that’s going to happen in Houston, we’re going to be a part of it,” Maldonado said. “Whether officially, or just showing up and knocking on the door saying we’re here to help.”